Collaging Interesting Times
Collaging Interesting Times

Adapting to a global lockdown in 2019 heralded a shift in the way people lived their lives. People changed their lifestyle, environment and routines. Attempting to return to normalcy after lockdowns and isolation was a challenge. Things could no longer return to the “old normal” but they had to shift to “the new normal”. The magnitude of the pandemic, its tragedies and loss also highlighted economic inequities, class and gender disparities. As people settled into this new reality, one had to ask oneself, did this unprecedented disruption of life as we had known it change the way   both artists and viewers framed and interpreted images in a post pandemic world? Did our recollection of memory also undergo a shift?

At first glance, Jennifer Rae Forsyth’s works exhibited at Full Circle Gallery in the Group Show Made in { }  seem vaguely familiar. Sensual and tactile juxtapositions of vintage cars, food and fragments of radiant flowers in ridiculously full bloom are saturated with the synthetic colours of commercial advertising: the mixed media works appeared to be flavoured with a consciousness of the heady desires and fetishisms of American post war culture that was in vogue in the 1950s. The aesthetic and vintage cars recall Pop Surrealism with its sexual connotations of James Rosenquist’s I Love you with My Ford, an iconic painting that features spliced images in grisaille of the front of a Ford, a woman’s profile, succulent lips and the moist texture of spaghetti all served front and center for an audience drunk on the promise of a sensual, consumerist paradise. But there is a difference here. In the wake of a global pandemic whose aftereffects continue to permeate our lives, any recollection of an era characterized by the optimism of the 1950s, the cultural hegemony and supremacy of American exceptionalism feels hazy at best. In isolation, even the week before appeared to be a vague, half distant dream. Long forgotten and irrelevant.  While Rosenquist’s panoramic dream world had smacked of the easy confidence and imagistic orgy of capitalism-the credo of its time-Forsyth’s collages are small, intimate and almost lovingly pieced together. As if to recollect and reflect almost cautiously on the fragility of lost dreams that have been recovered from the pages of a forgotten personal diary. The glint of a spoon, untidy rips and tears, the fizzy intoxication of a cutout of a drink, naive desires (Fig. 1) all interspersed between splotches of pigment that explode, splatter and submerge in worlds that are falling apart. Forsythe describes them as “imagined worlds hidden between pleasure and mourning.” 1 The medium and its history play an integral role in helping us frame how we view these works.

Fig. 1 For the Road by Jennifer Rae Forsythe Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper 28cm x 28cm 2022
Fig. 2 Blackberry Jubilee by Jennifer Rae Forsythe Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper 28cm x 28cm 2022
Fig. 3 Mercury Rising by Jennifer Rae Forsythe Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper 28cm x 28cm 2022

The embryonic beginnings  of collage as a medium can be attributed to the advent of Cubism in the early 1900s in Paris and its experiments in reproducing ” what the mind has experienced, even if it seems chaotic and pointless.”2 Meanwhile Berlin Dadaists brought these new  notions of interpreting reality to fruition with the introduction of photomontage, a method of culling, gluing and recontextualizing images and text for political critique.”…collage and photomontage reconfigure our vision of the historical course of time…”3 writes Nachtergael as he quotes Didi-Huberman. The invention of collage, photomontage and the journey from Dadaism to Surrealism overlapped with the trauma of two World Wars. A deliberate exploration of the unconscious, the absurd and the uncanny all emerged as a reaction to these cataclysmic events, a sort of reckoning in response to the magnitude of destruction that was wrought by two World Wars in modern times. How has the production of art reckoned with events of such magnitude in our recent present though? Lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic imprisoned our lives, possible futures, hopes and dreams. Artists began to reflect on creating images, conceiving metaphors that could define this pervasive helplessness.

Perhaps as we search for that timeless image which can encapsulate this horror, we can search for ways to frame our sorrow in the potential of such mediums and metaphors. Or as we view Forsythe’s collages/mix media works in the wake of this pandemic, the “unrealistic narrative elements”4 which “draw that spark”5 from the juxtaposition of two “mutually different realities”6 becomes more than artspeak that describes the potential of collage. Forsythe recalls rather than celebrates our interaction with mass media. Time and space in her narratives is steeped in a sad tragi-comical absurdity that has left even dreams befuddled and unfulfilled. The “spark” as described above is now tinged with wistfulness.

The result is a dissipation of emotion as we view the images: we can scoff at the banal absurdity and crudeness of images culled from magazines but we can never have the satisfaction of  “owning” the complete phenomenological experience. Instead, we taste a fragmentary but humorless absence here and there visible in the cut-outs of exploding fireworks (Fig. 2), gigantic flowers that threaten to swallow cars, half submerged sundaes and the beguiling saccharine sweetness of titles such as “Blackberry Jubilee” that carry the weight of a sardonic wit. There are no happy endings here. This is more than just a comment on the transience of memory or surreal dreams. Instead there is a sort of inherent fatalism in watching a cherry red Chevy that is suspended midair go down in a riot of colour before it meets its demise (Fig. 3) or reading grim titles like “Sunk” (Fig. 4). Is this Forsythe’s final swan song to the promise of an era that wasn’t coloured by fear, an upending of time and space as we have never known before?

Fig. 4 Sunk by Jennifer Rae Forsythe Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper 28cm x 28cm 2022

The body of work produced by Paul- Mehdi Rizvi, the second artist in the Show, grounds itself in design, photography and sculpture yet the theoretical underpinning of his artistic production derives from the Russian Avant-garde, writings of M.M Bakhtin and semiotics. Rizvi uses mass produced ephemera such as Styrofoam shapes, plastics and mixed media; he comments on the symbiotic relationship between art-as-object and art historical hierarchies of canon. The works explore form, colour and visuality. Yet our encounter with some of these works is deeply entwined with Mehdi’s memories. The inclusion of personal objects and banal kitsch lend an emotional connection to the works; they are laced with humour and perhaps even nostalgia.

Shireen Ikramullah, the next artist in the show, creates abstract “self-portraits…in homage to the uncertainty of life.”7 The images are small, printed on canvas and are certainly not conventional human portraits but contain scrawling text in Urdu language composed in relation to half toned prints of spaces, patterns, abstract compositions and collages. They debunk our “traditional” understanding of art which relies on the supremacy of high art, portraiture as mimesis. Moreover, the text is informally juxtaposed with or on top of the image encouraging us to engage with the artwork conceptually rather than reflect on its painterly skill. The works resemble random pages of discarded copies filled with scrawls and notes, their images giving the appearance of shoddy printing that is fading even as we speak.

In the 1960s art in America in particular was characterized by a shift from medium specific art to language-based art that emphasized the presence of text as object which often involved typography, commercial signage and printed matter. However, this shift had begun to emerge much earlier in the 19th century. Experimental writings, poetry and arrangements of text with image produced at this time were meant to “disrupt what has been described as a “readerly” immersion in the text.8 The aesthetic and conceptual understanding of Ikramullah’s “portraits” ascribe to the latter but acknowledge the turn to language in the 1960s through its conceptual leaning. In this case then text as part of conceptual discourse merges with image to present an ambiguous documentation of the artist’s experience. Or perhaps it unlocks a telling account of the unconscious as it battles with the absurdity of isolation and everyday existence revealing the inner workings of a wandering mind reflecting on its odd circumstances? While unpacking Ikramullah’s mysterious images one is reminded of Andre Breton’s surrealist novel “Nadja” published in 1928. The book features 44 photographs of Paris that record Breton’s wandering routes and observations of the city. There is no correlation between the photographs and text. Some images have no accompanying text. Despite the title of the book, there is no physical presence of Nadja. Instead, her mysterious presence is meant to permeate through the entirety of the book as a mélange of feelings.9

In the same way the ambient sentiment in Ikramullah’s “portraits” is that of yearning and self-reflection even though the images are ambiguous at best. There is no physical wandering or indexical value of the images as with Nadja. Instead, there is an air of intimacy about the works that is discomfiting, one   begins to question if these are the aphorisms and poetic ruminations of people trapped in their memories. The works swill around half forgotten moments and attempt to purge the mind of unpleasant realities but carry the melancholy of passing time. For instance, Ikramullah’s aptly titled work “Context II” (Fig. 5) features a half-toned image of a glass window which is overlapped by a piece of torn white paper containing text in Urdu. The window is elaborate.  It is filled with an intricate tracery of pattern. The view from inside the architectural space is tempting. Almost magical. Light and colour is illuminated in the dark space, as if our vision had been bereft of colour before. The mystery of the scene is offset by textual metaphors that yearn for colour, nature and the tactical, sensory experience of life. The text translates to “If the sky was enveloped by the blinding light of the sun our faces too would begin to fade away in comparison. Cherish that feeling of cool drops of rain on your face once more to remember.” 10  The bittersweet aftertaste is palpable.

Fig. 5 Context II by Shireen Ikramullah Khan 30 cm x 30 cm Mixed media on Canvas 2022
Fig. 6 Headset by Shireen Ikramullah Khan 30 cm x 30 cm Mixed media on Canvas 2022

Headset (Fig. 6) features a psychedelic arrangement of shapes suspended in the air, with its inverted colour palette it transforms into a dream-like backdrop that attempts to dismantle our everyday experience of colour. The hastily scrawled script on the composition tries to capture mysterious contradictions that explore a gamut of emotions which exist between desire and its futility. The text translates as ” The brightest brown sky seems to be enveloped in darkness.”11 Ikramullah visually “designs” paradoxical meaning so that these images speak to us in “affective and effective ways”.12 The American artist John Baldessari also acknowledged this potency and power of language when he realized that texts could “often express artistic solutions better than representational paintings.” 13

Shireen Ikramullah and Jennifer Rae Forsyth’s two-person Show in Lahore titled “Part and Parcel” fully immerses itself in this admission by Baldessari by delving into Mail art; a medium that they co-opt to directly address the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and the therapeutic function of art in a pandemic.  Mail art emerged in the late 1950s as a subversive and reactionary mode of art production that would challenge the hierarchical elitism of the gallery system. It was small in scale, could be posted by mail and consisted of drawings, small collages, poetry and postcards.14 In this Digital Age perhaps the use of Mail art marks a return to the era of analogue communication. However, it is interesting that both artists consciously decided to push the boundaries of both and explore their potential by using both mail art and social media simultaneously. In 2020 Shireen Ikramullah who was based in Amsterdam, Netherlands and then Berlin at the time and Jennifer in Edmonton, Canada met virtually, they decided to correspond using a series of postcard sized pieces starting from the first day of Spring during the year 2020. Each artist would add to the story that was sent via postal mail. Each work was mailed with correspondence on the reverse and returned, completed by the other with a corresponding letter.   At the time both artists were unaware that is project would be shaped by a worldwide pandemic. Over the course of one year, 52 postcards—one artwork for each week— were created and 104 posts were uploaded on social media.

The curated display of the completed project which was exhibited at Tagheer, a creative space in Lahore adds a new dimension to the unique project. The postcards appear to be suspended in the air using binder clips and fish wire that is stretched diagonally across the entirety of the gallery space with its pristine partitions. At a distance these colourful cards create a playful spatial illusion of lines and shadows. They could, arguably, easily resemble nifty routes of transit and flight, zipping speedily across the length and width of the gallery, “travelling” with their contents on display. The experience of the project is reconstituted through a distinct curatorial strategy: as viewers we actively engage in the transnational encounter between Forsythe and Ikramullah, viewing, reading, interpreting and assessing.

The encounter gradually begins to spiral into a disquieting account of the psychological and mental toll that the pandemic gradually begins to take on both artists.

Some of the initial works carry the exuberance of discovery, travel and expectancy: Gestural strokes, slapdash application of pigment, floating cerulean blues all mingle with diagrams and layouts of airline travel, aerial views, maps and images of people dining. Hastily scrawled, peppy aphorisms such as “Be happy, be content” (Fig. 7), “, “learn from travel” affirm life lessons but also the zest for a life of discovery. The impending grimness of the pandemic and its mysterious ailments begins to appear on later postcards in the midst of landscapes of colour that are overrun by biomorphic images of cells, organisms, descriptions of symptoms, medical diagrams describing bodily fluids, excretions and functions (Fig. 8). One finds affinity with the terse, occasional scrawl in English/Urdu that reveals the anxieties that left us emotionally vulnerable in simple declarations such as “I am sitting here waiting to explode”.(Fig. 9)

Fig. 7 Diptych by Jennifer Rae Forsyth and Shireen Ikramullah Khan, Mix media on watercolour paper 12.5 x 18cm 2020
Fig. 8 Untitled by Jennifer Rae Forsyth and Shireen Ikramullah Khan, Mix media on watercolour paper 12.5 x 18cm 2020
Fig. 9 Untitled by Jennifer Rae Forsyth and Shireen Ikramullah Khan, Mix media on watercolour paper 12.5 x 18cm 2020

The interplay between text and image in these postcards is as much about semantics as it is about semiotics. One is reminded of Bakhtin’s analysis of the novel where he discusses how meaning is dialogically constructed and does not exist on its own. It incorporates the spirit of its societal and social milieu but also allows multiple voices to exist as a polyphonic (made up of multiple voices) composition so that no one meaning is imposed. In the case of these postcards, it is the social action of participating in this exercise, invoking and overturning its history and finally embedding it in the midst of an event that is of epic proportions that gives it validity in what Bakhtin describes as a “dialogism”.15 The use of handwritten English and Urdu text, printed text in English vis-à-vis the collage of images that allows for various narratives, voices and inflections to unfold carries elements of a polyphonic conversation. Each postcard emerges as a palimpsest, rich in discomfiting narratives and an unusual documentation of what will be remembered as a defining moment in history. As viewers we can choose to sift through these intersubjectivities and umerged texts to formulate meaning or choose to reflect on their meaninglessness and absurdity in the wake of an ongoing crisis.

In a book devoted to the sketchbooks of the famous Renaissance artist, architect and sculptor, Michelangelo, Leonard Barkan goes at great lengths to describe an unusual sheet containing unfinished sketches, poetic fragments of words and even words/text scribbled in by his family members. He wonders what all this content is doing on the same piece of paper and then goes on to discuss how all the members involved in this exercize practiced a kind of communication without having to concern themselves with “the consequences of such communication reaching its intended goal. or to put it another way, the page became a place for them “where people can talk to themselves without being overheard.”16

For Ikramuulah and Forsythe perhaps these postcards transformed into a similar space for conversation: portals through which an interplay of transcribed words and images helped them compensate for the “ lack of cues to aid memories”17 a phenomenon that occurred during the pandemic where the monotony of  life in lockdown began to affect people’s memories. Deprived of conduits which would allow people spaces in which to anchor their memories, they began to forget things.

The hasty scrawls, slips, gaps, cutouts and impulsive pasting that characterizes both bodies of works is a bittersweet reminder of how art has the capacity to help us understand our lived experiences even in challenging times.

“Part and Parcel” opened on 4th November, 2022 at Tagheer Creative Space, Lahore, while “Made in { }”  opened on 8th November  at Full Circle Gallery, Karachi and remained on view till 18th November 2022.


Barkin, Leonard. Essay. In Michelangelo A Life on Paper, 70. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Blacksell, Ruth. “From Looking to Reading: Text-Based Conceptual Art and Typographic Discourse.” Design Issues 29, no. 2 (2013).
Hammond, Claudia. “Lockdown Has Affected Your Memory – Here’s Why.” BBC Future. BBC, November 16, 2020.
“John Baldessari What Is Painting 1966-68.” MOMA. Accessed January 5, 2023.
Nachtergael, Magali. “André Breton’s Autobiographical Cut-Ups: Collages, Photographs, and Cinema,” n.d.
Tate. 2023. “Mail Art.” Tate. Tate Collective. Accessed January 5.
“Writing with Images Menu Skip to Content Andre Breton, Nadja.” Http:// (blog). wordpress, n.d.

Image References

Fig. 1 Forsythe, Rae, Jennifer. For the Road, Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper.  2022. 28cm x 28cm. Images Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 2 Forsythe, Rae, Jennifer. Blackberry Jubilee, Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper.  2022. 28cm x 28cm. Images Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 3 Forsythe, Rae, Jennifer. Mercury Rising, Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper.  2022. 28cm x 28cm. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 4 Forsythe, Rae, Jennifer. Sunk , Acrylic and Mixed Media on Paper.  2022. 28cm x 28cm. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 5 Khan, Ikramullah, Shireen. Context II. Mixed media on Canvas. 2022. 30 cm x 30 cm, Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 6 Khan, Ikramullah, Shireen. Headset. Mixed media on Canvas. 2022. 30 cm x 30 cm, Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Fig. 7 Khan, Ikramullah, Shireen and Forsythe Rae Jennifer. Diptych. Mix media on watercolour paper. 12.5 x 18cm . 2020. Image Courtesy of the Artists.
Fig. 8  Ikramullah, Shireen and Forsythe Rae Jennifer. Untitled. Mix media on watercolour paper. 12.5 x 18cm . 2020. Untitled.
Image Courtesy of the Artists.
Fig. 9 Ikramullah, Shireen and Forsythe Rae Jennifer. Untitled. Mix media on watercolour paper. 12.5 x 18cm . 2020. Untitled.
Image Courtesy of the Artists.


  1. Ikramullah, Shireen, and Jennifer Rae Forsythe. “Made in { }”, n.d.
  2. Magali Nachtergael, “André Breton’s Autobiographical Cut-Ups: Collages, Photographs, and Cinema” (dissertation, n.d.), p. 6.
  3. Ibid, p. 9.
  4. Ikramullah, Shireen, and Jennifer Rae Forsythe. “Made in { }”,  n.d.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ruth Blacksell, “ From Looking to Reading: Text-Based Conceptual Art and Typographic Discourse,” Design Issues 29, no. 2 (2013),, 115.
  9. Http:// (blog) (wordpress, n.d.)
  10. “Agar tumaam aasman dhoop ho humaray chehray dhundlay ho jaayain gae. in pur aik baar phir mehsoos kurna baarish ki thunduuk.”
  11. “Roshan tareen bhooray rung ka aasman andhera lagta hai”
  12. Gemmel, Mallory. “There’s Something About Text-Based Art.” ArtsHelp, n.d.
  13. “John Baldessari What Is Painting 1966-68,” (MOMA), accessed January 5, 2023,
  14. Tate. 2023. “Mail Art.” Tate. Tate Collective. Accessed January 5.
  15. Michael Holquist, in The Dialogic Imagination Four Essays, ed. M M Bakhtin (United States of America, Texas: Universoty of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 262,275-276
  16. Leonard Barkin, in Michelangelo A Life on Paper (Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 70.
  17. Claudia Hammond, “Lockdown Has Affected Your Memory – Here’s Why,” BBC Future (BBC, November 16, 2020),

Zohreen Murtaza is currently a Lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department at The National College of Arts, Lahore. She completed both her BFA and MA (Hons.) Visual Art from NCA, where she majored in miniature painting and visual art. Since then, she has branched into teaching and writing extensively on contemporary Pakistani art, her writings have been featured in various publications and daily newspapers. Zohreen has diverse research interests that revolve around feminism, post colonialism, globalisation and its impact on material and visual cultures. She has taught Art History courses both at NCA and Kinnaird College for Women as well as History of South Asian Design courses at the Undergraduate level in NCA. In addition, she has also taught South Asian Visual Culture at the M Phil level in the Cultural Studies Department at NCA.

Share this post

There are no comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
Filter by Categories
Shopping Cart