Acquainted with the Night
Acquainted with the Night

Companion of insomnia and isolation, site of sleep and dreams, communion with the divine and the unknown—the night is both a conclusion and adventure. Curated by Mallika Rangoonwala, Let There be Night had seven artists’ responses to our experience of the dark. VM cocooned their main gallery in black curtains and walls, filling the air with the sound of crickets, making the spot-lit paintings acquire a mystic quality. Gesturing to celestial bodies, the supernatural, loneliness and tension, often the works foregrounded our obsession with time.

Most time-keeping traditions track the movement of the sun, moon and stars. 1 The Gregorian calendar can’t be tracked in the sky, but the traditional Hijri calendar gives the moon great authority. It is not a silent observer but a marker for rituals and observances, a visual for Eid ul Fitr celebrations and a lyrical motif for Muharram lamentations. Anushka Rustomji ruminates over the ‘divine dark’, a period of gestation that culminates in the earthly creations: fashioning surfaces of empty expanses of dark sapphire. The series invokes various belief systems and ancient texts, combining Eastern genesis-era stories with Zoroastrian Bundahishn narrations.

Anushka Rustomji Sea, Sermon, Story 1, 2022 Acrylic, ink and gouache on Arches paper (650 gsm) 30h x 22w in.

In Rustomji’s ‘Sea, Sermon, Story 1’, a sense of chronology sweeps through the sky with a string of lunar stages forming an infinity symbol. Her painting ‘Sea, Sermon, Story 2’, in acrylic, ink and gouache, reimagines a myth from the Bundahishn, ribbons of light and fire fall from the sky; fish and tree branches morph into one. The beautiful works are meticulous and crafted in layers, visually echoing the patience of the Genesis quote she invokes when Prophet Noah “waited another seven days” and the dove’s return “in the evening”.

In the Islamic calendar and traditions, the nighttime is the moment for heavenly transfers: the Quran is revealed on the “Night of Power”, and “The Angels and the Spirit” descend, and the Holy Prophet (PBUH) rode the winged Buraq to visit the heavens and meet the angels on the “Night of Ascension2.” Artist Bibi Hajra explores this notion of the night as the site of metamorphosis. Her ‘Parday Main Mun Chupaye Kyoun (Why hide behind a veil)’ alludes to the nocturnal scene as a place of experiences that evade articulation. Exploring the mood that descends on Bibi Ruqayyah’s (Bibi Pak Daman) shrine in Lahore as the sun sets, the work seems to rise; it is filled like a goblet, the bottom saturated with feeling, crowds, yearning and melancholy, while the top, has a lighter clear liquid. It levitates into the cosmos, sea green, shimmering and ethereal. “A sense of enclosure is manifested by the elongated shadows, the darkening corners, and the huddled bodies of the devotees in the cold of the night,” according to the artist. Fascinated by the rare sight of sprawled bodies preparing for storytelling and sleep in other public spaces, she captures the transformation of the area as darkness comes— the architectural grandiosity of the shrine is concealed, revealing, conversely, the “burning spectacle of various collective rituals”. This grand painting, with a frame suggesting a cathedral’s arch, adds to the feeling of entering a sacred space.

Bibi Hajra, ‘Parday Main Mun Chupaye Kyoun (Why hide behind a veil)’, 2022. Acrylic on canvas 36h x 24w in.

Khadija S. Akhtar’s paintings emit bioluminescence. In two of her luscious works, every creature and flower can be seen exuding the richness of a Faberge egg: from feathers to foliage, all are jewel-encrusted, frolicking in unruly, raucous gardens in the colours of a Russian palace. In one, there is a giant rooster, the harbinger of day; the artist titles the painting ‘Firestarter’ as though he will disrupt the celebrations with his call. But there are no takers in this gilded expanse; in Akhtar’s words, “No human presence appears to consume the glowing pomegranates or prune the riotous daisies”. Despite the ebullient palette, the works are tinged with a yearning.

Khadija Saeed Akhtar, ‘Firestarter’, 2022. Acrylic on canvas 50h x 39w in.

Inspired by a solo trip to Hunza in the Karakorum Range, Amber Arifeen’s work stems from freedom and its experience. Creating ‘unpeopled glimpses’ of the mountains, she turns colour from vehicle to a protagonist. Titled in singular colours: Indigo, Plum, the landscapes seem imaginary and otherworldly. If the night is fleeting, so is the vision of these mountains: as though Ali paints them out of a search for permanence. In ‘Indigo’, the scene is drenched in a rising glow, in ‘Plum’, everything is dwarfed by an intense blue that seems to converse with the sky. The sheer emptiness of the scene reminds you of Robert Frost’s analogy of outwalking “the furthest city light”3.

Amber Arifeen, ‘Indigo’, 2022. Mixed Media on Wood Panel 31.50h x 23.50w in.

Art-historical traditions relate to the celestial bodies, the idea of the starlit sky as a map to navigate both our exterior and interior worlds4. Khadijah Rehman and Mohsin Shafi unpack these mysteries. Lahore-based Rehman’s paintings occupy a space between the living room and dreamscape, playfully exchanging elegance and excess, beauty and ageing, and family hierarchies. In both The Dream and The Dream II, we meet a pair of women, one more bejewelled than the other. In The Dream, a pair of parrots carry candles on their heads; in the other, a couple of crescents illuminate the scene. Richly patterned with perplexing details—why are they dressing a bird like a bride? —the artist creates “instances of glitches in the fabric of the narrative.”

Khadijah Rehman, ‘The Dream II’, 2022. Gouache and goldleaf on paper 20h x 15w in.

Mohsin Shafi juxtaposes tense and playful imagery in ‘The Adventures of Insomnia in Cosy Winter Nights’. Using hand-cut photo transfers in an acrylic shadowbox, the artist creates a “world of fiction,” where a bride, sleeping tiger, donkey and giant candlestick jostle for attention. The title linguistically echoes the wandering ambiguity of the work. Under a moonlit sky, all the figures have their eyes concealed in various ways—from the flamboyant model dressed like a Rio Carnival performer, the bride seated like a flower, to the laughing shirtless man. Faces hooded, shrouded, covered in flowers or opaque glasses, the only eyes we see form a checkerboard pattern on the floor. In a world occupied with the non-binary, this piece’s “murky nooks” speak to “ghouls and monsters.” There is a deliberate blurring of lines, a feeling that everything is forbidden, but nothing is impossible.

Mohsin Shafi, ‘The Adventures of Insomnia in Cozy Winter Nights’ 2022. Hand-cut photo-transfers and watercolours in wood frame and acrylic shadow box. 38.58h x 27.95w x 4.72d in.

If you survey the show anti-clockwise, it ends with Noreen Ali’s paintings. Works like ‘Moon Milk’ gesture to elders’ remedies for sleep using the seeds and ingredients of the soil. The artist is fascinated by the power of ‘superfoods’—recipes of ancient aromatic spices that aid in inducing sleep and recovery from ailments of the night—which have survived the ages and empowered local farmers and economies.

Noreen Ali, ‘Moon Milk’, 2022. Oil Pastels on Board. 27h x 19w in.

The works point to a world far from pharmaceutical giants and colonial ambition. Instead, they are stamen, root, and bulb, flavour, sight and sound, wisdom and love; “the aroma of the flavours takes you back to when your grandmother rolled the Khaskhas covered ‘choormay ke ladoo’ or cardamom and nutmeg-infused ‘Monthar’ (Gram flour fudge)”. Okwui Enwezor said the informal is seen to lack power and is “invisible, simply by it not being inscribed in official circuits ” 5. Ali’s inclusion of handwritten, stained recipes on paper, as opposed to printed cookbooks and medical prescriptions, creates a tension between the two. Like many local forms downgraded as ‘artisanal’ or outside the vocabulary of contemporary design, these recipes and ingredients are often considered outmoded or irrelevant. Ali fashions a world of vibrant, gestural strokes where cherub-like forms pour magic into glasses of milk. The works are a reminder that even though time moves forward, it pays to go back.

The group show ‘Let there be Night’ was displayed at VM Art Gallery Karachi from 15th December 2022 to 31st December 2022

Title of Essay is borrowed from “Acquainted with the Night” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1964, 1970 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. 

Title Image: Mohsin Shafi, ‘The Adventures of Insomnia in Cozy Winter Nights’ (detail) 2022. 

All Images are courtesy of VM Art Gallery


  1. Yin, S. (2020, January 23). What Lunar New Year Reveals About the World’s Calendars. The New York Times.
  2. Ahadith, the Traditions. (2019, August 31).
  3. Academy of American Poets. (1916). Acquainted with the Night.
  4. Night, Light. | 1 February – 25 March 2023. (n.d.). Cob Gallery.
  5. Vitra Design Museum. (2015, March 11). Interview with Okwui Enwezor [Video]. YouTube.

Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi-based artist and writer. Her career has spanned across art, journalism, strategic communications and television. She holds a B.A in English and Economics from Ohio Wesleyan University, OH and completed her Foundation Year in Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, NY, where she was on the Dean’s List. She served as Chair of the first Karachi Biennale (KB17) Marketing and Design committee and was the Editor of the Second Karachi Biennale (KB19) Catalogue. Her writings have appeared in the books Pakistan’s ‘Radioactive Decade—An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s’, published by Oxford University Press, and ‘A Beautiful Despair: The Art and Life of Meher Afroz’, published by Le’Topical Pvt Ltd. She is the recipient of the 2021 AICA International Incentive prize for young art critics, Honorable Mention, for her essay on Meher Afroz.

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