Mediating on Paper: Unravelling Tazeen Qayyum’s Artistic Tapestry
Mediating on Paper: Unravelling Tazeen Qayyum’s Artistic Tapestry

Tazeen Qayyum is a contemporary neo-miniaturist trained from National College of Arts (NCA) primarily in the South Asian and Persian techniques of painting. She is a Canadian Pakistani artist who has received many critical reviews in prestigious issues, such as The Canadian Art (2018), and The New York Times (2009) and has been nominated for the K.M. Hunter Award (2014) and the recipient of CCAI Excellence in Arts Award (2015) 1

Through her artistic practice, Qayyum aims to unleash her complex beliefs about specific ‘imposed’ labels while being displaced or navigating her existence/identity in a foreign state through different languages. Her earlier works included responding to personal stories around her, which resonated with themes of feminism, societal patriarchy, and social justice. Immediate ‘tags’ such as a ‘Muslim diasporic female artist’ are hefty and tricky terms that frequently describe her practice. These terms have been rigorously a part of conversations recently. In her more subsequent creations, she continues to explore the intriguing combination of entomology exhibits, and aggressive global politics. By depicting the process of extracting insects from their natural habitats, she categorizes them based on various criteria like color, type, size, breed, and then presenting them in artificial settings2. Simultaneously, there is a whimsical play with Urdu words coiling in an annular arrangement towards the center— like a poetic vortex on paper. Qayyum, irrespective of experimenting with various mediums, employs similar techniques of repetition, rhythm, balance, and geometry in her practice.

I like to come back to one of her earlier works in particular, an internal dialogue regarding the freedom of women in the West and elsewhere which prompted a significant installation-based project titled Our Bodies Our Gardens in 2011.3 The project commenced by collecting personal stories from women and the hot-water bottles they once clung to for comfort. These bottles carried diverse functional, poetic, and metaphorical connotations, representing experiences such as pain, healing, and other memories. Drawing inspiration from their narratives, Qayyum meticulously hand-painted each bottle and suspended them, resembling a hanging garden. One could walk through the sufferings of many—this collection of personal narratives from women worldwide aimed to explore women’s shared struggles across borders. Despite differences in scale and location, the struggles seemed familiar.

“Our Bodies our Gardens”, Tazeen Qayyum, Mixed media installation, size variable, 2011 – 2018, Image from the 2018 presentation of the project, Image credit: Imran Jugni.

Moving forward, to a more consistent use of a recurring motif, one witnesses the profound symbolism evolving within Tazeen Qayyum’s art— the juxtaposition of circular clusters or diverging insects, representing the dichotomy between resilience and mortality, elegance and repulsion. The complete insect, including its delicate legs, is cautiously coated with opaque paint encompassing an array of red hues. They have been a prominent feature in Qayyum’s works. The installation Infiltration (2015), at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, features an intricate arrangement of overlapping cutouts, resembling a spider-web-like structure, with a greater concentration towards the rim of the circle. The laser-cut insects, in a bright red color either crawling or densely populating the surface, evoke a feeling of unease and discomfort within me. Another site-responsive installation at the Jamshed Memorial Hall, Karachi where the cockroaches ascend upwards on a façade approximately 45ft by 85 ft in an organized/ structured manner is a surreal sight. The recurring cockroaches present in all her paintings and installations are imbuing the insect with unconventional symbolism. She extends the attributes linked to cockroaches to elucidate diverse scenarios, such as the explicit and concealed aspects of discrimination, and racism.

“Façade”, Tazeen Qayyum, Site-responsive Installation at Karachi Biennale 2017, Site: 45ft x 85ft (1371 x 2591cm) Image credit: Mahmood Ali Ahmed.

I remember trying, with immense patience, to replicate my name, as soon as I saw her live performance at the Karachi Biennale. My name was the easiest word to repeat. The corner of my dupatta consisted of my name written twice only at a curve which wasn’t illegible. Coming to her most recent exhibition, Khayal (2023) at the Canvas Gallery, I still wonder how each word is written with such precision. The calligraphic drawings consist of letters and words, arranged on monochromatic grey-scale planes. It is a culmination of around fifteen frames and a video installation. All exhibit a common trait of creating repetitive designs that start from the center of a circle and extend outward. On each wall, a combination of words negates each other, creating a paradoxical relationship where they cannot exist independently but rely on one another for meaning and context. Through the deliberate arrangement of works such as Gherat, Rehmat, and Izzat, or Wehshat, Ulfat, and Sehwat Tazeen Qayyum masterfully constructs a narrative that resonates with the shared female experience. In doing so, she takes a thought-provoking stance against toxic societal norms4.

Harf حرف _III (letter), Tazeen Qayyum, “Dil-nasheen harf koi qahar bhara harf koi”, 2023, Archival ink, gouache and tea stain on hot-press archival board, 8 x 10 in.

Synchronized letters consistently spiraling and forming concentric circles is the imagery Qayyum usually plays with. Crafting each word by hand, while listening to Qawwali is an experience she describes as ‘cathartic’ to say the least.5 Through the act of writing a word repeatedly, with utmost patience and concentration, over an extended period of time, the artist can transcend into another realm or space. With its mystical quality, this rhythmic sequence allows one to forget truly. The repetitive instrumental beat and the poetic phrases by Faiz Ahmed Faiz serve as a source of inspiration, guiding the drawings. Each word following the other with equidistant breaks seems like a mechanical process. When observed from a distance, the artwork appears like a print. However, upon closer examination, the human element becomes evident, with traces of the pen and hand pressure visible at specific points. Usually, with her bigger works, a paper on the floor with her body bent over the paper is a common practice. The body marks the center and forms her periphery6. There is a complete surrender of the mind, body, and soul. The paper is then typically positioned on a drafting table for the smaller renderings.

Gherat غیرت (honour), Tazeen Qayyum, 2023, Archival ink on acid-free paper,20 x 26 in.
Ulfat الفت (affection), Tazeen Qayyum, 2023 Archival ink on acid-free paper, 22 x 30 in.
Izzat عزت (respect/esteem) detail, Tazeen Qayyum, 2023, Archival ink on acid-free paper, 20 x 26 in.

Qayyum’s meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail are evident in her monochromatic works, where elements of repetition, complex patterns and circularity are prevalent. Her mastery of the technique leaves one mesmerized and in admiration. The laborious artistic process is captivating itself as it serves as a means of healing and liberation. The repetitive act of writing a word over and over again can induce a state of meditation. Qayyum’s art invites contemplation, and offers a unique perspective on identity, gender, and shared human experiences.

‘Khayal’, solo exhibition of Tazeen Qayyum was showcased at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from 23rd May to the 1st of June.

Title Image: “Infiltration”, Tazeen Qayyum, 2015, 56-inch dia. x 5 inches, Laser-cut Acrylic on wooden platform, Installation view at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.


  1. Tazeen Qayyum. Vasl Artists Association. (n.d.).
  2. Talib Qizilbash, (2010). Interview: Tazeen Qayyum. Newsline.
  3. Tazeen Qayyum. (January 14, 2022). “Distance, Difference, Destiny”.
  4. Desk, N. (2023, May 29). Tazeen Qayyum resolves inner conflicts on paper. thenews.
  5. In-person interview, she claimed her process is ‘Cathartic and form of self-reflection’ (Tazeen Qayyum, personal communication, May 31, 2023).
  6. Abdullah M. I. Syed. (2018). Ascending Circles of Time and Space. 1-2.

Alizeh Baqai is an emerging visual artist and art writer from Karachi. She recently graduated from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where she majored in printmaking, painting, and miniature. Alizeh's research interests encompass a broad range of topics, including feminism, post colonialism, consumerist behaviors, and the influence of technological advancements on material and visual cultures. While simultaneously maintaining a corporate job, she hopes to continue her artistic journey.

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