Motifs of Belonging
Motifs of Belonging

In Self and Motif, Wajiha Batool, Talia Noor, and Syed Khurram Abbas’ works are brought together by comparing and contrasting their approaches to the traditional miniature. The works exist in a world that often divides cultures into watertight labels, denying any interconnectedness, intimacy and exchange. This language of group identity burst into view towards the end of the nineteenth century as the culmination of decades of competition between European and American powers for territories in Asia and Africa1. More recently, in Pakistan, Ziaul Haq’s exclusionist policies in the 1980s led to cultural erasures2 and a rise in sectarianism.

In the case of artists Wajiha Batool and Khurram Abbas, their art becomes arena and medium for a quiet protest. The latter’s aqueous and disturbing works take us to Parachinar. As a Pashtun Shia, Khurram remembers his peaceful town mutating into a place where it was “ok to kill Shias” similar to when the Taliban proclaimed Hazaras could be killed as they “are not Muslim”3. Such dehumanising language— where ‘they‘ are the deviant outsiders, as opposed to ‘us’, the pure, indigenous, has its roots in imperialism. Academic Mahmood Mamdani called colonial powers the first fundamentalists of the modern period, putting into practice two propositions: one, that every colonised group has an original and pure tradition, whether religious or ethnic, and two, that every colonised group must be made to return to that original condition, a return enforced by law. Put together, these two propositions constitute the primary platform of all religious or ethnic fundamentalism in the postcolonial world4. A new bill passed earlier this year under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, is ambiguously worded, making it ripe for weaponisation 5. Originally drafted by a banned religious organisation, Section 298-A’s proposed amendments are destined to criminalise religious differences. It is this very space that Abbas takes us to, the one where you are helpless at the hands of brutality and apathy, where you are suddenly a stranger. He recalls the isolation when roads to Parachinar were blocked, leaving him trapped in Islamabad. One of his paintings has Salman Haider’s verses, describing the experience of being unable to enter your home.

Syed Khurram Abbas, Untitled 7, gouache and ink on wasli 13h x 13w inches, 2023

The works are hazy imprints, like a memory that will not rest. In a limited palette of primary colours, Abbas creates planes of lined paper like schoolbooks and letters, but all are either torn, faded or scorched; nothing is left intact and pure. His poignant piece, Untitled I, gestures to the vast openness of a child’s mind—like a blank paper, ready to receive any mark; but the neat lines are smudged and disturbed. He employs print-making techniques and photo transfers. Much is altered and removed, like his own experience in the years between 2007 and 2012. The work evokes Naomi Shihab Nye’s lines in Before I was a Gazan where a schoolboy looks for his book “before everything got subtracted/in a minute/even my uncle/even my teacher6.” The artist recalls villages burning. There are traces of a newspaper article on sectarianism, but the text is illegible. In a corner, a bicycle is scribbled.

He uses verses from Faiz and Habib Jalib, “when I read their poetry,” Abbas says, “I feel like they are talking about me; I see my reflection.” His planes of colour are watery and tenuous, like glass or tissue. All are ruptured, echoing the newspaper reports of post-traumatic stress disorder that plagues thousands in Parachinar7 or the terrible accolade of the second-largest number of terrorist attacks in the country. However, in one of the works, a crow sitting smugly in a corner wearing a plumed hat, is indifferent to it all, similar to the authorities. Abbas uses cynical titles and motifs like Red Dot, an allusion to the treachery of politicians who can be purchased like paintings in a gallery, and a vulture to convey the avarice of rulers.

Syed Khurram Abbas, Red Dot, ink and mixed media on paper 17h x 10w inches, 2023

Deeply embedded in Wajiha Batool’s speckled works is a longing. A Hazara originally from Afghanistan, she renders the effects of violence in abstract terms. The pieces are imbued with the flight and displacement of those she loves. At once cartographic and abstract, viewers can see continents or scattered marbles. Creating arrangements of small dots, she uses miniature painting’s pardakht technique, where the painting’s colour is built through layers of quick, short brushstrokes, as a point of departure. Her unique process has a brutal, extractive quality. “Like when you take out pieces from a big house,” she says, drawing a parallel between displacement and laser cutting sheets of wasli, “the rest of it just dies.” The wasli is burnt by the machine, puncturing tiny dials. Wajiha scatters these irregularly shaded dots over Google satellite maps, creating a tender (but agonizing) net over her uprooted loved ones’ new homes—places as far and diverse as Korea and Belgium, Australia and Switzerland.

The dots also mark areas where “an incident in my life occurred”, she says. Batool recalls being fired at, on the way to school in Quetta, or being ejected by fellow bus passengers for endangering others (‘it’s not safe to travel with people like you’). She was left in an open field. These particles become silent witnesses, shimmering like the lights in a city from an aeroplane window. The artist is fascinated by pattern and muscle memory—the idea that all things work in a sequence or arrangement.

Wajiha Batool بازگشت همه بسوی اوست (Baz Gasht Hama Ba Suee Osth), 2mm wasli punches, archival glue 16h x 21.60w inches, 2023

The show is not without glimmers of hope. Talia Noor creates whimsical images which marry humanity and nature—as if forming a communion. Fans of palm leaves sprout from the necks of Mughal figures; the characters, both man and woman, are resplendent in traditional outfits. Talia’s focus is the shamsa (from the Arabic ‘little sun’), the medallion or rosette which adorned early Persian manuscripts, and other decorative forms in Islamic art. She is fascinated by the meanings attributed to the form, such as the central unity of God or the vault of heaven. The motif was regularly used to frame portraits of Mughal rulers to foreground their power visually. The mixed media works use repetition to create starbursts and shamsas that seem to be travelling before our eyes; it is a celebration of life.

Talia Noor BOUNDRY II, mix medium 16h x 16w x 1.97d inches, 2023

The figures proliferate in works like BOUNDRY II and BOUNDRY I, overlapping in a wreath. The characters with their leaf-fan heads charge on, leaving shadows of themselves in a sunflower, a shamsa of their own. In SHADOW, the artist alternates the figures in a grid. The work has a shadow box effect; they are heirlooms or perfume bottles in a cabinet. By removing faces, the artist creates a collective identity. Here there is no emperor or dependent, all is in perfect balance. The work points to harmony and notions of charity done in secret, with Talia citing the belief “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”.

These works offer a prescription for a world we should hope for: one that acknowledges what Edward Said calls the great and silent exchange between cultures and peoples8. In one example, the observance of Muharram’s Ashura ceremonies has spread from the Arab world to the Caribbean; South Asian Muslims of all convictions, even Hindus and Christians have participated in these events9, paying homage to the Prophet (PBUH) ‘s family for their great sacrifice. Some of the most beautiful poetry in Urdu literature was born from these synergies. This dedication to reconcile and benefit from ‘the other’, has been a lifelong commitment for all scholars, visionaries and prophets in modern and ancient societies10, and it is the answer for soothing our nation’s tormented heart.

Self and Motif was held at VM Art Gallery from 19th August to 5th September 2023.

Title Image: Wajiha Batool گم گشته ای در خویشم (Gum Gashtae dar Khaishum), 2mm wasli punches, archival glue 16h x 21w inches, 2023

All Images: Courtesy of VM Art Gallery


Academy of American Poets. (2016). Before I was a Gazan.
DAWN.COM. (2017, July 30). 60pc people of Parachinar suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. DAWN.COM.
Farrukh, N. (Ed.). (2020). A Beautiful Despair The Art and Life of Meher Afroz. Le’Topical Pvt. Ltd.
Instagram. (n.d.).
Making sense of political violence in postcolonial Africa. (n.d.).
Mohammadi, S., & Askary, S. (2021, October 27). Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan. Human Rights | Al Jazeera.
Palestine Diary. (2011, May 13). The myth of the “Clash of civilizations”. Edward said [Video]. YouTube.
The Diplomat. (2023, February 9). An alarming new bill takes aim at Pakistan’s Shias.


  1. Palestine Diary. (2011, May 13). The myth of the “Clash of civilisations”. Edward said [Video]. YouTube.
  2. Farrukh, N. (Ed.). (2020). A Beautiful Despair The Art and Life of Meher Afroz. Le’Topical Pvt. Ltd.
  3. Mohammadi, S., & Askary, S. (2021, October 27). Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan. Human Rights | Al Jazeera.
  4. Making sense of political violence in postcolonial Africa. (n.d.).
  5. The Diplomat. (2023, February 9). An alarming new bill takes aim at Pakistan’s Shias.
  6. Academy of American Poets. (2016). Before I was a Gazan
  7. DAWN.COM. (2017, July 30). 60pc people of Parachinar suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. DAWN.COM.
  8. Palestine Diary. (2011, May 13). The myth of the “Clash of civilisations”. Edward Said [Video]. YouTube.
  9. Instagram. (n.d.).
  10. Palestine Diary. (2011, May 13). The myth of the “Clash of civilisations”. Edward said [Video]. YouTube.

Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi-based artist and writer. Her career has spanned across art, journalism, strategic communications and television. She holds a B.A in English and Economics from Ohio Wesleyan University, OH and completed her Foundation Year in Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, NY, where she was on the Dean’s List. She served as Chair of the first Karachi Biennale (KB17) Marketing and Design committee and was the Editor of the Second Karachi Biennale (KB19) Catalogue. Her writings have appeared in the books Pakistan’s ‘Radioactive Decade—An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s’, published by Oxford University Press, and ‘A Beautiful Despair: The Art and Life of Meher Afroz’, published by Le’Topical Pvt Ltd. She is the recipient of the 2021 AICA International Incentive prize for young art critics, Honorable Mention, for her essay on Meher Afroz.

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