Home is the Sailor, Home from Sea
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Home is the Sailor, Home from Sea

I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson a few nights ago. His poem Requiem, reads:

“This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he long’d to be
Home is the sailor, home from sea
And the hunter home from the hill”.1

Ruby Chishti’s works are a remarkable artistic embodiment of Stevenson’s words, despite both— Stevenson, a Scottish novelist of the nineteenth century and Chishti, a Pakistani born American artist from the twenty-first century — being spatially and temporally apart. Stevenson’s verses that were composed in 1880, while he was sickly, are however close in spirit to Chishti’s contemporary sculptures. Chishti makes hollow forms and overtly stuffed figures of women and animals that are evocative of dented architectural spaces and intimate personal relationships. Raw and rough, these artworks are reminders of personal tragedies in the artist’s past, foreign relocations and survivals, and of lost homes, and beloveds.

I feel lucky. I now recall being immensely content with my determination to view Ruby Chishti’s creative endeavors in person. The works displayed in her solo exhibition, What Fragments of You Survive in Me at Canvas art gallery, are more impacting with their textures, marks, scale, and materiality when observed face to face. Photographs of the artworks are simply not sufficient to do justice to her practice and manipulation of materials.

The works displayed at the exhibition culminate after two decades of artistic engagement— first with twigs as the primary medium and later with unused fragments of textile. Seemingly heavy but incredibly lightweight, each of her sculptures are conscientiously constructed with leftover pieces of vastly popular (and deeply connected with the country’s local economy) ceremonial fabrics of the region viz., jamawar and banarsi, crochets, laces, and discarded lingerie like bra straps and corsets that are held together with threads, wires, stitches, polyesters, and glue.

With their perception of memory, yearning, and destiny, Chishti’s sculptures exude poetic pathos. In the early 1990s, the artist’s mother suffered paralysis because of a harrowing accident. A young Ruby had spent these bourgeoning years taking care of her ailing parent, amidst countless tears and hardship. A decade later, she suffered the loss of her parent. The tragedies gave way to twig sculptures from the 2000s that materialize in the forms of a forlorn female figure and a child, and birds such as crows at times. , A few years later, Chishti discovered her passion for collecting tossed piece of cloths. This is when she began to relive her childhood pastime of making dolls, and memories of her mother through the process of constructing voluptuous female figures with long braided hair and very little discernable facial features.

Anonymous Biographies II, recycled ceremonial clothing, doll’s clothing, thread, archival glue, 30 x 28 x 8 inches, 2022.

Presently as a studio artist, it is typical for Chishti to stitch and glue through innumerable pieces of left-over fabrics. Chishti selects her materials from a vast collection that she stores in boxes stacked all over her now New York based studio, where she moved in the mid-2000s. Over the years, many of Chishti’s friends and strangers alike have left their discarded pieces of fabrics with the artist too.

The forms come about intuitively through her fingers, sometimes taking months to construct a piece. Veneers of cloth ensemble in the work Anonymous Biographies II, complete with five windows in the center of the constructed form. Chishti uses blue and grey denim fabrics to create the roof of the installation, while soft pink and orange plaits form the base of the work. Reminiscent of marks and textures of Meher Afroz’s paintings on wood, and like sedimentary geological layers of the earth, the work archives the passage of lost and spent time of its inhabitants, as its central dark and empty windows reveal desertion.

This sense of doom and forsakenness in the sculptures is often personal to the artist. As she grappled with repositioning herself afresh in a different and foreign land, she received news of her empty house in Pakistan being demolished unbeknownst to her. The loss of her original space that had been shared with her mother for her entire life was nothing less than a shocking jolt for the artist, who was still struggling to come to terms with her ailment and death. Through different bouts of emotional distress, slowly, piece by piece just like the layers of her sculptures, Chishti began to construct a unique artistic identity for herself as she frequented artist residencies and exhibitions in the United States. Her fascination with artifacts that are deeply seeped in history are made evident with the stuffed and architectural nature of her work. Often taking inspiration from wide ranging Islamic architecture, where communal spaces such as the haram and zenana were traditionally reserved for women, Chishti’s sculptures celebrate women’s rights to personal spaces and to ownership of property.

Mother, Wake Me Up at Seven, recycled clothing, wire mesh, thread, dollhouse windows, archival glue, 40 x 39 x 7 inches, 2022

Chishti often employs discarded women’s lingerie and under garments to build her works. As seen in Mother Wake Me Up at Seven and Sea Shirs the Land Where My Foot Rests, Chishti attaches discarded bra straps as formal devices to her assemblies, raising the looming sense of ruin and material remains of vacant buildings in the viewer. Chishti’s concern is not about “making visible” the histories of women’s crafts and the lack of their inclusion in the art and craft cannon like the Euro-American feminist discourse that began in the 70s; rather, she is deeply invested in creating oxymoronic artistic forms through traditionally women’s ritual and embellished materials, that may look abandoned yet commemorate women, and their inclusion within these constructed spaces.

Sea Shirs The Land Where My Foot Rests, recycled clothing, wire mesh, thread, glue, 56 x 40 x 8.5 inches, 2022

Fabrics like shiny banarsi and jamawar, (ubiquitously utilized in the making of celebrative ceremonies like weddings and similar events in Pakistan), and crochet laces are often intuitively (and sometimes strategically) placed in the works; through their quality of ornamentation, they celebrate femininity, and sacrifices made via the act of uprootedness. Making these works has been an act of “humbling herself”, says Chishti,2 through a medium like junk cloth which was rarely seen as a potential carrier of aesthetics or deep semantic interpretation (especially if made by women in non -Western regions) in the Western male-oriented art historical discourse.3 Here, the status of the modest “cloth” is elevated into an artistic medium of intellect and aesthetic appeal combined, that is made possible due to an essence of making and creating.

The human figures and the architectural spaces in her installations capture her memories and hardships of the past, while also acting as an archive of other people’s memories. We cannot trace provenance of the different types of fabrics used in Chishti’s works, as seen in Some Trees Are Born in Fire and Anonymous Biographies III, for they have been so effaced, cut up, and layered over one another, like palimpsests of human history.

Some Trees Are Born in Fire, ceremonial clothing, thread, polyester, archival glue, 60 x 47 x 10.5 inches, 2022

We do, however, consider them as receptive of memories and spaces that people leave behind or bequeath one another. For two decades, the artist has narrated her biography and of many others via her works. Now, Ruby Chishti finds herself again through remembrance of all she has lost.

Image Courtesy: Canvas art gallery

Ruby Chishti’s solo show titled What Fragments of You Survive in Me showed at Canvas art gallery from March 15, 2022 till March 24, 2022.

Title image: All Her Calves Were Slaughtered, Cast Plastered, Recycled Cloth, Polyester, Thread, Gold Leaf, Paint, 16 x 12 x 6 inches, 2022

References:

Chishti, Ruby. Interviewed by Nageen Shaikh. April 06, 2022, (video/audio, personal archives of the interviewer).

Markowitz, Sally J. “The Distinction between Art and Craft.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28, no. 1 (1994): 55. https://doi.org/10.2307/3333159

“Requiem – Robert Louis Stevenson.” My Word in Your Ear (blog), January 14, 2022. https://mywordinyourear.com/2022/01/15/requiem-robert-louis-stevenson/

Endnotes

  1. “Requiem – Robert Louis Stevenson,” My Word in Your Ear, last modified January 15, 2022.
  2. Ruby Chishti, interviewed by Nageen Shaikh, April 06, 2022, video/audio.
  3. Markowitz, “The Distinction between Art and Craft.”

Nageen Shaikh is an art historian and critic, an industrial designer and an academic of social sciences and liberal arts at The Institute of Business Administration (IBA). Her research interests are in the transnational and global perspectives within the evolution, production, and dissemination of art and design in South Asia, and the history of collaborations between materials, art and science. She was previously a Fulbright Scholar at SUNY Stony Brook University and tweets @nageenjs.

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