Fabric and Frolic: A case of Identity and Belonging
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Fabric and Frolic: A case of Identity and Belonging

Fabric, flowers and identity are the threads that plait together the work of artists Adeela Suleman, Bushra Waqas Khan, David Alesworth, Liaqat Rasul and Ruby Chishti in the exhibition Patterns of the Past, Weaving Heritage in ‘Pakistani’ Art. Held at Grosvenor Gallery in London in collaboration with Karachi’s Canvas Gallery, the show is based on the premise that the exhibiting Pakistani artists’ art-making is not traditionally Pakistani because their practices don’t fit the typecast notion of Pakistani art. The curator Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy elucidates her trajectory succinctly with the phrase “Together, these artists unpick the assumption that contemporary Pakistani artists are exclusively preoccupied with enshrining the countries Islamic past and its gilt-edged offshoot: Neo-miniature painting.”

Perhaps this idea is valid for expatriate collectors and international audiences, but a quick look at the development of Pakistani art within the country would suggest otherwise. Despite enjoying international repute, the participating artists oeuvres are deeply entrenched in identity and personal histories associated with Pakistan (as is the case with many Pakistani artists).

As the title suggests, the works in the show are textile based. The curation ties together the artworks seamlessly based on either colour, material or concept. Thematically, the exhibit explores the historical intertwining of textile production and political upheaval in the sub-continent. Contextually, this history is mirrored even today in Pakistan; textile is one of the largest industries in Pakistan and unfortunately the country still occasionally finds itself at the helm of instability.

Adeela Suleman has two pieces included in this exhibition. In the tapestry Memory may be a Paradise 1, she takes a page out of the Mahabharata depicting the battle of Kurukshetra while bringing popular embroidery techniques into the gallery. Originally made by the painter Manaku in the Pahari style of miniature painting, Suleman’s interpretation is vibrant and attractive. Contrary to its bright colour palette and use of extravagant material such as jamawar and banarsi, it depicts a scene of blood and gore, similar to the artists previous works in shiny metal that belied their context.

Memory May Be a Paradise 1, Adeela Suleman, 162.6 x 241.3cm, jamawar, banarsi fabric, velvet, 2021

In contrast to Suleman, Bushra Waqas Khan’s work is achromatic and it essentially brings attire to the gallery with her five miniature dresses. Each dress is sewn together using fabric printed with motifs and ornamental details from official stamp papers. Her concept is rooted in identity and belonging, hence the use of Pakistani legal paper, while simultaneously commenting upon colonialism and its lingering effects. This is reflected in the piece titled Black Tulip that is essentially a hybrid of eastern and western attire. The skirt is made in a manner similar to the lehnga while the puff sleeves are markedly western. Instead of the bodice in front, the outfit boasts a traditional jama front. The title of the piece is borrowed from the historical novel Black Tulip and references Imperial greed.

Black Tulip, Bushra Waqas Khan, silk, net and bonding, ht: 49 cm x variable, 2021

Visually distinct yet conceptually connected to Khan’s dresses are David Alesworth dark blooms. Alesworth’s embroidered flowers are borrowed from Redoute’s engravings and are ominous in their simple yet powerful rendition. His work emerges from the idea of ‘the garden being fundamental to all the Abrahamic Faiths, given in trust for our stewardship – we live in the garden’. Through these works, Alesworth comments on the ‘corruption of the garden’. Alesworth’s grandfather F.W Alesworth was a prominent horticulturist, and unsurprisingly flora, fauna and gardens play an extensive role in Alesworth’s oeuvre.

Dark Rosa Indica (Fragrans), David Alesworth, archival textile print on satin cotton with cotton embroidery, 53.3 x 40.6 cm, 2021

Liaquat Rasul, a collage artist has three pieces included in the show. Rasool’s pieces are bright, bold and kitsch. In the piece titled Present he uses ephemera; things that are disposable and discarded without thought. The collage is layered with napkins, dishcloths, old ticket stubs, cardboard and so on. Despite having a background in fashion and textiles, his work makes some use of fabric, keeping it minimal with a basic kantha stitch. Albeit, his textile training is visible in his hands-on tactile approach to making. Through his indiscriminate use of found material his work alludes to multiculturalism and positivity. Though not very evident, hidden in the found material pieces is an anti-digital comment about finding joy in simple things and marking mundane lived experiences.

Present, Liaqat Rasul, wool thread, polyester thread, corrugated cardboard, punched circles from a hole punch, used Dish cloth, tissue paper, canvas, plastic packaging bag, leather, graph paper, tickets, swing tickets, sellotape, packing tape, indus-trial plastic sheeting, fluorescent card, 99 x 84 cm, 2021

Much like Rasul, Ruby Chishti’s work is embedded in the process of making. Using a variety of materials and thrifted fabric her practice derives from personal experience and is a reflection on gender disparity. Her large wall-mounted pieces with their course edges and layered surfaces resemble archaic architectural monuments in disrepair.

A Thousand Flowers: Lost and Preserved 1 Ruby Chishti, recycled ceremonial clothing, foam board, thread, archival glue, wool and polyester, 165 x 97.8 x 13.9 cm, 2021

popular image of women in society. Dolls are tacit of polish and perfection i.e., Barbie or female youth.  However, Chishti’s dolls composed of supple material are soft and round with barely visible contours that embody time through their fragility. The piece titled A thousand Flowers: Lost and Preserved 1, depicts a tree with each branch ending in a flower composed of a doll; her face turned away from the viewer or in fetal position suggesting the discomforts and difficulties of womanhood. The tree and the dolls are both symbolic and thought-provoking. Dr. Nilanjan Sarkar of LSE summed up this piece in the profound statement ‘there is no glory in this glamour’.

The group exhibition ‘’Patterns of the Past, Weaving Heritage in ‘Pakistani’ Art’’ continues from 11th September to 1st October 2021 at Grosvenor Gallery in London.

Image Courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery, London

References

  1. Patterns of the Past, Weaving heritage in Pakistani Art, London. Grosvenor Gallery, 2021. Catalogue
  2. Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, Interview, Samar F. Zia , Friday September 2021
  3. David Alesworth, Interview, Samar F. Zia, Friday September 2021
  4. Dr. Nilanjan Sarkar, Deputy Director, South Asia Studies, LSE, Interview Samar F. Zia, Friday September 2021,
  5. Artists and Panel discussion, Zoom, Saturday 18th September 2021


Samar F. Zia is an artist and art writer based in London. She regularly exhibits in Pakistan and UK; her work is currently part of the Affordable Art Fair, London. She is a volunteer at Alumni of Colour Association of UAL. Alongside making art she writes for various publications in Pakistan. Zia graduated with distinction in BFA from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. She holds an MA in Fine Arts from Central Saint Martins, London.

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