KARACHI, Pakistan — Painting in the manner of Mughal miniatures proliferated in the late 20th-century Pakistani art school curricula. Like a few other young artists emerging in Lahore, Aisha Khalid specialized in painting these traditional miniatures. The style called for an imitation of historical works from manuscripts or independent folios by integrating handmade materials and techniques that had been passed down generationally in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Khalid’s inventive early compositions in the 1990s fueled the contemporary “neo-miniature” art movement in Pakistan that revitalized traditional Mughal painting, but with edgier contemporary aesthetics. Now, the artist’s first-ever retrospective, the multi-venue I AM AND I AM NOT, traverses her three-decade-long career and connects her early paintings of traditional clothing and floral motifs with recent works combining textiles, sculptural elements, videos, and geometric abstraction.
The curatorial approach has been to divide and display over 70 works in the chosen venues that suit their larger contexts. The earliest works are at Chawkandi, one of the city’s oldest art galleries. Here, viewers can see the beginning of an oeuvre that scrutinizes personal, social, and cultural issues such as prescribed societal norms associated with the female gender (for instance, women not actively participating in the public sphere in some parts of the country). Displayed under soft, warm lighting, small- to moderate-sized preliminary paintings, and some drawings, depict walls and curtains signifying privacy as well as coerced indoor confinement. The delicately painted boundaries contain female figures donning flowing garments, such as the burqa and chadar, that often embody cultural and religious values, while subtly painted lotuses symbolize simplicity and regrowth. Many drawings imitate subjects from Mughal miniatures, too. In the center of the gallery, a glass table displays clippings of early positive critical reception to Khalid’s works.
Often, the artist merged these shadowy figures, especially the lower edges of their outfits, with repetitive shapes recalling patterns in Mughal artworks inspired by Islamic mysticism. The designs are especially prominent in “Birth of Venus” (1994) and multiple works titled “Captive” (1999 and 2000). The pieces serve as testament to the lives of many South Asian women living within the stifling confines of their homes, as her titles sometimes allude to mythical goddesses of love and beauty from Western art historical discourse. Khalid’s sensitive visual lexicon requires cultural insight that is often lacking in many viewers who are unfamiliar with her cultural context.
The artist’s most recent paintings, sculptural installations, and videos, accompanied by some smaller early works, breathe life into Frere Hall’s Sadequain art gallery. (Ironically, the building was a town hall under the colonial British in the first half of the 20th century and was selected as a fitting venue for Khalid’s works that weave in postcolonial themes.) The nuanced handling of delicate motifs in the artist’s early works has almost disappeared at this point; here, the paint strokes are bolder and the works seem more personal than ever. Over the last decade, the semi-geometric warped backdrops have progressed into dense, impenetrable abstract compositions open to interpretations, as seen in “You Appear in Me and I in You” (2015) and multiple paintings titled “At the Circle’s Center” (2017). Diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs titled “I Am and I Am Not” (2019, 2020, 2021) borrow their title from Jalal ud Din Rumi’s mystic poetry, and birds, flowers, and animals from Mughal miniatures appear. This time, the imagery is reimagined with swords and arrows painted over tessellated backgrounds. The objects may indicate the spiritual transformation Khalid has observed in herself over the course of her practice, but it’s not visually evident; viewers will have to take the artist’s word for it.
Changes in Khalid’s visual and conceptual vocabulary may be traced to her residency at Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2003, where the artist’s work with traditional Eastern miniature painting received resistance from her peers and supervisors. Khalid continued to work in the Netherlands, where she reworked her burqa-clad figures to represent the illusion of independence that engulfed her, regardless of her locale.
In the diptych “Larger than Life” (2012), geometric patterns resembling Khalid’s earlier work “The Birth of Venus” spatially morph into a very large burqa-clad body. More abstract patterns in the same colors take over most of the left panel. The lower part of the work draws from her signature imagery of the hemlines of flowing garments worn by many women in South Asia. However, despite a resplendent body of work that may represent collective resistance or personal choice and alludes to her interest in Sufi and spiritual traditions, religious attire is redundant at this point in the artist’s career. “Larger than Life” continues in the manner of her previous works containing the female figure and traditional clothing. The imagery can be interpreted as challenging norms associated with women in South Asia but also the unceasing exoticizing of the hijab in Euro-American politics and social media (as the artist learned over the course of her international residencies and exhibitions). However, the mysterious burqa-wearing figure in the diptych offers minimal additional value to her body of work.
Tactile engagement with materials that are historically associated with women enriches Khalid’s works more than images of swords. Her sculptural diptychs dismiss the divide between art and craft and engage with materials and their significations. Commissioned by Statens Museum for Kunst Copenhagen (SMK), two enormous carpets titled “Two Worlds as One” (2016), displayed at Frere Hall, were created by inserting thousands of gold-plated steel pins in red velvet by hand that protrude sharply at the back of the work. Mimicking East Asian scrolls, the resulting imagery on the front is delicate and resembles icons from traditional Indian miniatures, such as mythological motifs, birds, trees, and dragon-like creatures. On the back, the densely packed, sharp metallic needles present an ominous view, indicating painstaking labor and devaluation of craft in the East.
Other smaller paintings, meticulously embroidered textile-based works, and a video are displayed at AAN Gandhara Art Space. Since a retrospective of this scale by any female artist in the country is unprecedented, curator Masuma Halai Khwaja has envisioned the displays to attract a large-scale audience, via heavy marketing. The curation is diligent, and the artist and her team camouflaged Sadequain Gallery’s damaged walls to avoid further harm to the heritage building. Aisha Khalid’s retrospective effectively fulfills a mammoth need to showcase accomplished Pakistani female artists who are devoted to their art.
Aisha Khalid: I AM AND I AM NOT continues at Chawkandi Art Gallery (105 Marine Point, Block 9 Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan), Frere Hall (Fatima Jinnah Rd, Saddar Civil Lines, Karachi, Pakistan), and AAN Gandhara Art Space (F-65/2 Kehkashan, Clifton Block-4, Karachi, Pakistan) through January 8. The exhibition was curated by Masuma Halai Khwaja.
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