Discussing the art of Aisha Khalid is no simple task; it requires a navigation of dualities and multiplicities, and a reigning in of ideas spread across a conceptual, disciplinary and methodological expanse. Her layered socio-political commentary responds to her experiences and exposures later in life, yet is articulated through a visual vocabulary formulated from personal and cultural histories drawn from a childhood spent in Shikarpur, Sindh, lending it a contextual anchor. However, the strong undercurrent pulling the narrative forward is deeply spiritual and philosophical.
The recent retrospective, curated by Masuma Halai Khwaja and spread across three venues in Karachi, is a monumental exhibit for the artist and the Pakistani art world; and a rarity for the local art scene, both in terms of volume and scale. It brings together selected works from Khalid’s prolific practice spanning almost two decades, not only allowing us to view and understand the various concepts, themes and nuances through the highpoints of her career, but also providing an insight into her beginnings, inspirations, processes and evolution as an artist.
Part of a group of trailblazers from the National College of Arts (NCA), Khalid and her contemporaries are credited with pioneering the Neo-miniature movement which brought global contemporary relevance to an age-old tradition and the regional culture at large. Khalid’s career has since blossomed to encompass a wide range of mediums and disciplines, including painting, new media, textiles, video and installations, while still carrying within it her miniature sensibilities. To then reflect this multiplicity through the selection of works that highlight the many seminal works and pivotal moments of her practice and also bring it to crux with a unifying curatorial premise, while at the same time creating a dialogue with, within and between the spaces, is no mean feat, and is executed competently by the curator.
The first venue, Chawkandi Art Gallery, presents an almost museum-like display that combines earlier works with personal paraphernalia – such as the jungle knife heirloom of her late father, books on Rumi, a pressed rose and old family photos – to paint a picture of the artist and the influences that drive her practice. A display of the miniature table designed by her while still a student, which is now widely used in all leading art schools, combined with newspaper clippings marking her early successes, stand as a testament to the legacy she has created as an iconic figure in the Pakistani art landscape. It is a fitting role for the gallery to play as the platform through which neo-miniature and its young practitioners first found an audience at a time when it was only a radical new approach and not yet an established trend.
Frere Hall is the star venue where the major chunk of the display resides, leading the viewer through the major beats in the work. The interior of the space itself holds the capacity to accommodate some of the artists large-scale paintings and installations, while also allowing for access to a wider audience as a public venue. However, its main strength lies in its ability to converse with and enhance both the socio-political commentary – as a remnant of a colonial past – and the spiritual nuances of the works – mirrored in the magnificent mural painted by Sadequain on its ceiling. The most explicit instance of this is the polyptych I Am and I Am Not (2021), which takes inspiration from the story narrated in Surah-e-Feel in the Quran, and speaks of divine natural might clashing against worldly forces. The series of four panels above depict a flock of the weakest bird, Ababeel, annihilating a cavalry of elephants on the panel below. The serene blues and earthy sepia tones can be seen reflected in the ceiling above, which bears the phrase Arz-o-Samawat, translated to Earth and the Heavens, resonating the spiritual and poetic notes of the work.
This entire series comprises works created between 2018 and 2021, which read as a culmination of sorts of many of the artist’s signature visual and conceptual elements. Presence becomes more palpable through the act of erasure of corporeal form, the body only hinted through weapons of war placed in formations in which they were once held. This concept is driven by Khalid’s personal loss, the death of her father in 2018, weeks prior to which he bequeathed to her a jungle knife— fashioned together by her father, herself and her siblings. Now a treasured memento of fond childhood memories, it compelled the artist to contemplate the temporality of life and its endurance through the material possessions that survive us.
In that way these braced weapons become symbolic of a legacy, of the grand fables of bravery, presented through the vernacular of historical Mughal miniature paintings. The depiction of various animals, such as horses, lions, elephants, and birds, becomes symbolic of the brave and innocent who become collateral casualties of someone else’s war, dispensable bodies lead to slaughter with promises of honor and martyrdom. It becomes emblematic of the true nature of modern warfare as impersonal, where faceless foes launch attacks on un-named threats.
The narrative unfolds upon endless geometric patterns in greens, blues and golds, serving the dual purpose of denoting physical space in the form of an abstract landscape of color fields, and a spiritual plain which adds a mystical dimension, giving way to complex readings. With multiple opposing vanishing points, there is movement and rhythm, as well as a sense of clashing antagonistic viewpoints. These patterns are a central aspect of her practice, underscoring the various shifting narratives, providing an overwhelming sense of her laborious technical process throughout the exhibit. Intricately hand-painted in layers without the aid of a preliminary drawing, they have a meditative repetition that transforms each work into a spiritually transcendent experience, both for the artist and the audience. It is reminiscent of religious rituals and recitations, bringing peace to the mind and creating a state of deep contemplation.
Inspired from the traditional flooring in her childhood home in Shikarpur, these patterns entered her small-scale miniature works early on as flat visual devices, seen in works such as Silence with Pattern (2000) and Form X Pattern (2000). The flat patterns acquired a sense of perspective in her later works, the earliest example of which can be seen in an Untitled work created through observation of a dome during a residency in Mumbai, on view at Chawkandi Gallery. It became a precursor to the vortex, which appeared in her works in 2006, as seen in Love Triangle (2006), which acts almost as a portal between realms, between man and the divine, bringing them together as one through its cyclical kinetic energy that creates dizzying illusions in certain cases. It echoes the whirling of the dervish in its static, rhythmic motion, or the circumambulating of the Ka’aba while performing the Tawaf, an important ritual part of the Umra or the Hajj in Islam. This is explored throughout many of her works, such as the series At the Circle’s Center.
In a series of works titled Two Worlds As One(2016), these vortexes create abstract compositions yet the narrative becomes political, with two opposing sides co-existing yet at odds with each other, originating from opposite ends but never quite able to meet; a visual representation of the conflicts raging in the Middle East at the time. We see the camouflage hues that first emerged in Khalid’s work post 911 to speak of global discord make an appearance here, along with bright reds mimicking wounds.
This sort of discourse has been an integral aspect of her work, especially after she travelled to the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam for her post-graduate studies. For the first time she was viewing herself through the eyes of the other, and in 2001, as the world erupted with the fall of the Twin Towers, these attitudes were intensified. As a result, we see a shift from personal and cultural dialogue to sociopolitical commentary. The displacement, new experiences, and the Western response to her Eastern vernacular – which placed the culture of beautification under a patronizing gaze – compelled her to create the video work Conversations (2002). Her frustration can be felt in the way a Caucasian hand ruthlessly pulls apart a rose being simultaneously embroidered by a set of brown hands in the next frame. Here she dismantles the Orientalism, cultural hierarchies, and the suppressive, overbearing expectation to fit a certain Eastern mold.
These ‘conversations’ have henceforth continued in her work for years to come in various different forms. In Name, Class, Subject (2009), one of three art books where the artist reclaims the traditional artform of Mughal manuscript painting (as opposed to the Western idiom of vertical, isolated viewing), she addresses how post-coloniality and Western hegemony manifests itself through language, and the social disparities this gives rise to, perpetuated by the systematic othering of local languages in favor of English. This is represented visually through the opposing sides of English and Urdu in a notebook, the latter rendered with minute ‘printing errors’. The burqa-clad body, navigating these lines, becomes a displaced figure attempting to find her place; echoing the artist’s own disorientation, coming from an Urdu medium background, when travelling to Europe as a young student.
This is a good example of how the veil has evolved over the years as a symbol in Khalid’s work that goes beyond its most obvious readings. It appeared early on as seen in many of the small-scale miniature paintings on display at Chawkandi Gallery, including Birth of Venus (1994), Captive (1999), Pattern to Follow (2000), and Form x Pattern (2000). It acts as an early precursor to the concepts of presence and absence observed in the most recent series of works, where the body is completely invisible behind the burqa, which itself is only seen as a silhouette, almost one with its surroundings. Here the iconic unbound spaces of her large-scale works have not yet opened up, still enclosed to create a sense of claustrophobia. The shrouded forms entrapped in a ‘chaardewari’ appear alongside the rose and lotus flower motifs, which point towards concepts of honor, beauty and purity rooted in cultural value systems and become mechanisms of gender-based suppression and control.
This early feminist narrative is perhaps slightly insular in its approach to a complex subject, presented through imagery still largely adherent to the stylistic archetype of the genre. This is remedied as her worldview widens, urging her critique to take on a duality. She begins to question the true source of the oppression that is routinely attributed to the veil and the hypocrisy and arrogance of the white savior attempting to free the voiceless brown woman. Walking through the red-light district of Amsterdam, Khalid saw the same objectification, exploitation and oppression, manifested in a reversal of the Eastern notions of modesty. In I Was You (2013), the flower retains its hues above the curtain rather than below, the veil perhaps revealing an inner beauty that goes otherwise unnoticed. In I Am and I Am Not (diptych), (2021), weapons of war wielded by invisible forces threaten a rose in attempts to protect it from its own thorns. This moves beyond the veil itself and alludes to wider political implications of exploitation in the guise of protection and aid, and exercising power and control in the name of freedom.
By this time, the visual of the burqa itself had taken on a more subtle appearance until only the hemline can be seen as its representation, transformed into soft folds that encircle the vortex, the ambiguity opening it up to interpretation, until it re-appears in 2012 in a series called Larger Than Life. Here the artist takes it in a completely new direction, however, transcending its physical and socio-political connotations to portray the spiritual and the poetic. As the name suggests, it takes on a large, overwhelming form, rendered in black, with a green vortex at its center, placed next to a green patterned curtain covering most of the canvas. The colors are inspired from the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina and have been used by the artist in many works to tap into her spiritual side following her tor tip to Media to perform Umrah. It is the veil between man and God, the lover and the beloved, between this world and the next, representing a search for divine truth and enlightenment. Yet one must wonder if the connotational baggage of the image can so easily be shed in a world where it has been burdened with such a controversial influence, and whether those readings can be completely avoided or are even invalid. Then again, we must question whether these meanings are warranted, and perhaps these representations can become our bid to reclaim its true essence.
Even though the overtly feminist commentary was short-lived in Khalid’s work, and while she denies her work having any kind of gender identity, there is a sense of the South Asian female perspective that is inevitably inescapable in her practice, as this specific context is uniquely her own. It manifests through her modes of expression, especially in her use of textiles in one form or another, whether through the act of embroidery, the portrayal of curtains and the veil, the use of patterns and flower motifs, of direct use of textiles to create tapestries, comforters and garments. It emerges from a childhood fascination with local crafts, such as sewing and embroidery, growing up in a society personally involved in the entire process of making clothes, from buying fabric to dyeing, embroidering and stitching. She believes that we are all amateur textile designers in our homes and have that creative sensibility.
The technique she developed for her iconic textile works— comprising thousands of gold and silver-plated dressmaking pins painstakingly pierced into layers of thick fabric by hand— carries a similar spiritual essence to her geometric patterns, illustrated through a performance piece at PNCA in 2017, where she sits engrossed in her work while the kalaam of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai is performed by musicians from the mausoleum, creating a spiritual connection between the two acts. The resulting artwork featuring the word Ishq in Urdu script with sharp ends of gold pins, alongside video projections of the performance are on display in this show, encouraging the viewer to contemplate the pain, trials and tribulations one must endure in the quest for divine love, inner peace, and self-actualization.
However, this feminine voice is used to talk about global political issues and further explore the complex East-West relationship in the majority of these later works. Her work displayed at AAN Gandhara Art-Space, Time and Patience (2013), gives audience to the silenced Eastern voice within the global historical and socio-political narrative; providing an alternate take on the Industrial Revolution. Two long pieces of fabric run across the length of the hallway, almost as if in an industrial setting. The white muslin with half-finished embroidered roses speaks of the affects the western Industrial Revolution had on the weavers of Bengal, and the camouflage print running alongside it, pierced with large embroidery needles – much like in Comforters (2008) where it creates violence from a source of comfort through the reversal of a benign process— proposes an alternate form of warfare and domination, beyond mere military force. The half-done roses echo Conversations, both in terms of visual and narrative.
Beyond this work, however, this venue comes off as slightly redundant and underutilized in comparison to the others. While the works on display here are a significant addition to the overall narrative, the use of the venue itself does not add dimension or perspective independent from the other two spaces. One feels these works could perhaps have added a layer of dialogue to the ongoing conversations taking place at the main venue with spatial reworking.
Another important textile work on display, Two World’s As One (2016), is easily the focal point of the show, commanding attention as it rises up towards the high ceiling of Frere Hall. One of her many large-scale commissioned works featuring magnificent tapestries, it is composed of (a kind of) pseudo-embroidery with gold and silver-plated dressmaker pins on thick layered fabric, a method conceived by the artist. The dichotomy that lingers under the surface, and as seen throughout majority of her practice, becomes more blatant with these works as the process of stitching becomes the medium instead; causing a displacement that splits it into a binary of pain and pleasure, violence and beauty. This particular commission was for SMK Staten Museum for Kunsten, Copenhagen in 2016; consequently, a lot of the symbolic imagery is a response to the socio-political climate of that time and space, where a regime change had created Islamophobia and intolerance which was bleeding into the art and culture landscape. Khalid articulates this bigotry through traditional Persian-style imagery of the marginalized communities carrying burdens as the monsters looms close, while the camouflage pattern on the flip side is symbolic of the antagonistic forces brewing unrest. Both sides outwardly present their own gleaming glory as they face each other with sharp threatening ends of the pins drawn in inner conflict.
Throughout the show, one gets a sense of a circular intertwining of countless conversational threads that the artist endlessly develops, both independently and in relation with each other, as her practice continues to grow. However, in more recent works, produced 2018 onwards, one more often sees greater spiritual leanings, with a self-reflection and deep philosophical examination of life, death and beyond. This is evident in the titular series, and in a very recent video installation created after the onset of the ongoing pandemic, where birds-eye drone footage of Khalid in a ripened wheat field, moving in towards her and then zooming out, provides a sense of our insignificant existence in the larger scheme of things. Yet, her peaceful expression and the shot of the serene blue sky above gives a sense of hope and contentment that arises from letting go and placing trust in the divine, rather than helplessness. It expresses the need to succumb to the will of God and his natural order, encapsulated in the haunting vocalization of the word ‘Hu’. It seems that her therapeutic process has propelled her practice into a phase of healing from the restlessness and resentment in her earlier cultural and socio-political critique, which captures the essence of her journey and charts a tentative course for the future through this retrospective.
“I Am And I Am Not” was showcased at Chawkandi Art Gallery, Frere Hall, and Gandhara Art-Space, from 28 November 2021, till 21 January 2022. Curated by Masuma Halai Khawaja, the retrospective was organized and hosted by Chawkandi Art Gallery and sponsored by HBL.