The art of comedy and the whimsical has long been used by artists to address serious issues with a hint of satire in a way that is digestible for the general audience. This perhaps, can be seen as a more effective mode to relay information as the lighthearted appearance of the artform distracts from the gore, and allows the public to deliberate about the issue at hand consciously, and subconsciously at times. In similar form, artist Noormah Jamal creates a world of nonsensicality that brings forth grave and often traumatizing issues through her practice.
Noormah Jamal, a graduate from the National College of Arts, has been gradually building an artillery of distinctive visuals that today can undeniably be seen as her style. Though trained in Miniature painting, Jamal moved away from the aesthetic, giving her figures a realistic perspective and form. But what really makes her stand out among the sea of her contemporaries is her colour palette. With an almost childlike appearance, the artworks are flooded with vivid and heavily contrasted tones that leave the audience intrigued.
In her first solo exhibition titled ‘Drun’, Jamal showcases an oeuvre that was two years in the making. ‘Drun’ is a Pashto word that means ‘heavy’, and can be used in regard to a human or a conversation, to speak of depth and importance. Jamal’s paintings lure the audience with what first appears as joyous imagery, and it is on closer inspection that one becomes familiar with the deeper story. Her figures sit within a blackened frame, almost expressionless, though their eyes stare back with a profound and pained gaze, and one wonders what trauma they could possibly be carrying. The artist then surrounds them with illustrative imagery, almost cartoonish, that again add a sort of quirkiness to the work. These icons allow the viewer to further draw on possible narratives, slowly piecing together a story.
Jamal explains that an image may mean different things to different people and that further enhances the ambivalence of her work. In ‘Sanga Azaadi Da’, which translates to ‘What Sort of Freedom is this’, a girl stands, with a male figure above her, and tears falling from her eyes. The painting exudes a childlike sensibility but one can’t help but feel a sense of imprisonment, constant surveillance, judgement, and a longing for freedom.
In ‘1-2-3 Jump’ three figures, covered in burqas jump as rain falls around. Rain is happy for those who never see it, and a great trouble for those who must constantly experience it. What then does this painting suggest? In truth, it can be either and that is what makes her artwork more powerful.
Jamal’s initial concerns centered on the lives and struggles of individuals, and the baggage of everyday life. Eventually, this slowly built up to the undeniable dilemmas of the Pashtun community of Pakistan, to which Jamal connects her lineage too. The Pashtun community is the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan and also one that is the most marginalized. They surround themselves with a strong sense of kinship and connect closely with their tribal heritage. However, the community has continued to face severe persecution, often unnoticed by the rest of the country. Jamal documents theses struggles through her work in a way that the audience can no longer deny the occurrences.
The works displayed are of two kinds, gouache on wasli and painted terracotta sculptures. Both centre around concerns of the Pashtun’s plight, but are not necessarily limited to that interpretation. The terracotta pieces focus on the burqa, a regular feature for Jamal while growing up in Peshawar. The idea of the black abaya was something alien to Peshawar until twenty years ago, and Jamal grew up seeing colorful burkas that empowered the women that wore them. In her work, she removes any sense of identification of the person under the cloth. This cleverly confuses the visual associations we link to gender and instead produces androgynous figures.
Besides her unusual colours, there is another aspect that sets Jamal apart from other Miniature painters, and that is her complete disregard for the perfection of the technique. She purposefully paints with uneven strokes, jagged lines, an intriguing blend of realism and exaggeration, and makes sure her paintings have devoid of any sense of perfect symmetry. Her work brings into question the need for separating the idea of ‘Miniature Painting’ from the classification of ‘Painting’ as a whole, and whether in this day, when technology can create multiples of ‘perfect’ and ’realistic’ imagery, artists should still be striving for visual perfection.
Sometimes, with the influx of news, we become immune to the pain around us. It is only when an artist like Noormah Jamal comes along with the truth packaged neatly in seemingly pretty and fun paintings that we are forced to revisit this pain in a way that is deep, personal and everlasting.
“Drun’, the first solo exhibition of Noormah Jamal was displayed at Sanat Initiative, Karachi, from 25th May 3rd June 2021