When we think of allegories or stories, we often envision epic heroes embarking on mythical quests to distant lands. Rarely do we consider the mundane aspects of domestic life— especially those related to social values— as the central narrative. Allegories typically convey stories symbolically, aiming to convey moral or metaphorical meanings. This leads us to wonder: where do the everyday stories of our parents, grandparents, and extended family members fit into the realm of visual allegories? Are there compelling narratives hidden within the ordinary routines of domestic life? Artists Khadijah Rehman and Sarah Mir explore these questions in their two-person exhibition, Visual Allegories: Unveiling Stories. Using family photographs as their inspiration, both artists create visual representations of how individuals interact and behave in social and personal contexts, with a particular focus on South Asian domestic environments.
Rehman’s body of work depicts primarily female characters in domestic settings embellished with curious motifs that add to her dreamlike imagery. Women are painted planting turnips and burning chilies over a gas cylinder, meanwhile domestic animals such as birds and a cat are casually placed in the foreground. Her characters feel quintessentially South Asian based on the floral motifs in their clothing, further accentuated by her use of flat, bright colors. Every piece has the backdrop of nighttime, either through her use of dark blue patches of color, or repetition of crescent moons and stars hovering above the scenes. Three of her pieces use the medium of embroidery on tea-stained linen, incorporating golden thread to represent the moon and stars. Persian and Mughal miniature is directly referenced through her style of composition, framing her scenes within arched borders, gardens, and balconies.
Her compositions carry a familial, household atmosphere, hinting at conversations taking place between the women of the house during the silence of the night, once the activities of the day have settled down. Rehman uses family photographs as a reference to create her compositions, also utilizing symbols from her personal memories. We can sense the artist’s familiarity with her subjects through the use of nostalgic symbols, such as a recycled 7Up bottle or shattered pieces of glass over a boundary wall. Women of different ages, usually in pairs of two in each piece, are depicted in the middle of an activity, or even mid-sentence while conversing with each other. An average Pakistani viewer may very easily be able to relate to such scenes thinking of their own mothers, aunts, or grandmothers within their extended families engaging in similar interactions, possibly in the background of a family gathering, which is why Rehman so adeptly captures feelings of domesticity and nostalgic memory.
Sarah Mir also uses family photographs as her main reference point. Her black-and-white pen and ink drawings draw upon images which can seemingly be found in every average Pakistani’s family photo album from the pre-2000s. According to the artist, she juxtaposes family portraits with imagery rich in cultural festivities, as in this show, scenes from weddings or group photos of extended families. Much like Rehman, Mir also draws upon compositions of domestic and familial settings. However, Mir engages with her characters in her signature style— distorting her subjects in a caricature-like manner. Certain motifs are characteristic of Pakistani nostalgia. Khush Amdeed indulges in a richly decorated backdrop in a family group photo at a wedding. It showcases characters dressed in dated styles of fashion that many of us would be all-too familiar with, from faded photographs in our parents’ and grandparents’ collection of images.
Unlike Rehman, Mir’s compositions do not look towards nostalgia with pure fondness, in fact they challenge the fabricated sense of wistfulness that is captured in old photographs. Although not visually apparent, Mir’s narrative creates a line of inquiry around ‘societal norms’ and ‘family dynamics’ through her work—perhaps making us, as viewers, wonder what kinds of hidden family secrets may lie in our own family photos. Images are enriched with what appears to be closeness and attachment, a strong sense of family bonding over occasions. People are seen dancing at a wedding in her work Untitled, and instantly recognizable are the style of patterned tent in the background which was trendy in weddings of the ‘80’s and 90’s. We also see pairs of what seem to be husbands and wives with their toddlers gathered for a posed group photo. Mir, although using her own personal photographs, somehow creates a body of work that is instantly relatable to her viewers through the familiar motifs and domestic settings visible in her drawings. Although cartoonish and comical, her characters are representative of the average Pakistani ‘uncle’ with a mustache, or the average Pakistani ‘aunty’ wearing a patterned dupatta, and the average Pakistani cousin who is sucking their thumb in a childhood photo. Such imagery of familial domestication is precisely hinting at the ‘culturally accepted’, and encouraged, scenes that Mir is referencing, where marital relations, emphasis on the extended family, and social events such as weddings are seen as a fundamental part of Pakistani society and its customary norms; a glossy projection of an idyllic family.
Using their personal photographs, these artists illuminate hidden narratives within the ordinary aspects of domestic life, offering deep insights into visual stories that integrate subtle symbols of cultural heritage and interpersonal dynamics within the South Asian family sphere. Rehman highlights the often-overlooked presence of female family members, while Mir questions the set standards which meet social acceptability and the complexities of nostalgia in family dynamics. Both artists aim to reveal stories that may not be immediately apparent but can be understood and related to through a metaphorical lens. Through their figurative perspective, these artists encourage us to explore the multifaceted dimensions of our own family histories and the cultural symbols that shape them. In doing so, they remind us that the stories within our own homes hold depth and significance, that merit further introspection towards narratives that might have been overlooked, forgotten, or distorted with time.
“Visual Allegories: Unveiling Stories” was a two-person show by Khadijah Rehman and Sarah Mir, exhibited at The Gallery T2F in Karachi from September 6 – 16, 2023. The show was curated by Vasl Artists’ Association in collaboration with The Gallery T2F.
Cover Image: Sarah Mir, Untitled, pen and ink on paper, 2023