Not a Child’s Play
Not a Child’s Play

I remember a conversation between Rabeya Jalil and I, about one of the earlier reviews I had written on her show. It happened several years ago when I just began art writing. I also remember how she took note of my use of the phrase ‘unlearning’ to associate with her work, claiming that it is not a term she frames her practice in. She suggested that the terminology presents a paradox, as unlearning itself requires an intensive process of ‘relearning.’ That conversation struck me as a revelation which, since then, changed my entire outlook on her practice and shaped my understanding of ‘unlearning’ as a discourse.

In my opinion, the exercise of learning and relearning, albeit constant, becomes increasingly difficult as one gains years of experience. Scientific research also backs this assumption after concluding that our brain’s cognitive power slows down as we mature into adulthood and begins to resist any impetus to reprogram itself. I find it remarkable that Jalil, for years deeply immersed in academia — an incubator for constant learning and relearning — not only mastered this practice but also made it a focal display in her art practice.

Jalil recently exhibited her latest work at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi. The title, Between Meaning and Making, succinctly explains how the artist posits her artistic concerns at the cusp of both the physical process, and the imagery. The method employed to arrive at those visuals is as much her conceptual premise as the allegory represented through those visuals.

Globe on the Dog (Triptych). Medium: Acrylics on Board. Size: 18 x 20 Inches (each). Year: 2023. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery

The exhibition encompasses a series of paintings on canvas and boards. They seem to evoke an ambivalence within me regarding the techniques Jalil employs. It is difficult to discern to what extent the artist took a calculated approach in her paint application and how much she relied on chance and accidents to achieve those visuals. Maybe the artist fully embraced the resistance and mishaps she encountered at different stages of image-making. She continued working towards an outcome she did not envisage by changing the course of her action as she went along. Or maybe the seemingly hurried strokes and marks applied in the spur of the moment are a deceptive façade, and Jalil’s mode of working was slow, consciously sensitive, and pedantic to create this illusion. Truthfully, it is not a concern I seek answers to. It is precisely this inquiry brim-full with wonder and curiosity that draws viewers closer to her work. Perhaps in the broader scheme, Jalil intended to attract this response. The paintings demonstrate the sublimity in how someone so polished in formal training in art and extensively accomplished as an artist, maker, and academic could create works that shadow naivety and the carefreeness of an untrained eye and hand.

Like a film reel that documents and replays any signs of physical distress on itself, the paintings also record and retell their origins through each action that Rabeya performs towards their making— the aggressive scratches of the palette knife, the broad sweeps and wipes of the clothing rags before the artist starts over, or the brush’s last leg of the marathon chalked with barely any paint left upon it. She leaves each technique exposed, and lets it mound atop each other to create a tactile, textured visual. Coagulated paint chips off from some sections, and there are even signs the artist used the canvas as the palette to mix the paint directly, captured in the brush’s coiled and meandering motion. The scraped portions reveal different assortments of textures, images, and colour arrangement underneath. It leaves me with a lingering thought. Did the artist repurpose her old canvases?

Cow Cart I and II. Medium: Acrylics on Board. Size: 24 x 18 Inches each. Year: 2023. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery

Few works exemplify the exercise of learning and relearning through modular repetition. Just as most of us learned to handwrite by repeating letters, words, and phrases page upon page in those workbooks, Jalil creates permutations with the same imagery on a single surface. At first glance, the repetitions may seem very similar. However, no two images are alike. Each reproduction notices a slight shift. Through this work, the artist also showcases how her background in printmaking informs her current practice. The idea of text is more conspicuous in some artworks. Cursive scratching and strokes allude to an illegible note scurried across a page. They, in parts, overlap or follow in tandem with every new line below the other. In some visuals, coloured bubbles or vigorously etched rectangles encircle and confine the ostensible text. They remind of a student impetuously taking notes and highlighting or underlining necessary information to revisit and remember. In other works, the tiled shapes resemble a montage – a sequential, playful comic strip or diagrams and illustrations from children’s books.

Jalil’s works remind me of an incident which occurred in 2021 when a group of gardeners had installed Allama Iqbal’s bust they sculpted as tribute in Lahore’s Gulshan e Iqbal Park. The statue became a trending discussion on social media, with many users ridiculing the artwork, deeming it shameful for its inaccuracy and unlikeness. Park authorities removed the sculpture shortly after the surging backlash. Unfortunately, the incident overshadowed the beauty in the well-meaning gardeners’ earnest and unrefined attempt to express their admiration, for which they used entirely their resources. That supportive realization came soon after, and many online voices began demanding to leave the sculpture remain. It also drew to surface conversations on ‘naïve art’. People questioned whether the disdain and mockery were partially because the artists lacked formal knowledge of aesthetics, realism, and proportions. The piece lacked evidence of the artists’ command of their skills. Some individuals also opined that perhaps those who dismissed the artwork as an eyesore also considered the artists’ social class and lack of literacy.

Dragon. Medium: Acrylics on Canvas. Size: 30 x 30 Inches. Year: 2023. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery
Zoo. Medium: Acrylics on Canvas. Size: 30 x 26 Inches. Year: 2023. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery

Naïve art struggles to find a place in what one classifies as ‘high art’. Very rarely would a gallery or an art exhibition include such art unless a formally trained artist emulates the style in what we would classify as primitivism or faux naïve art. In contrast, sociological and archaeological studies attach significant importance to vernacular art. Researchers believe it is a true reflection of the shared cultural and social sentiments and can provide insight into how an untrained eye handles visual aesthetics. Some studies consider naïve art a remnant of historic indigenous art practices, becoming valuable for researchers who want to trace a region’s visual culture and historic origins. Many observant participants on social media also identified an uncanny resemblance between this modern-day sculpture of Allama Iqbal and the historically famous King-Priest statue from Mohenjodaro. The potential traces of history embedded in such art comment on how academia sets and practises globalized standards that infiltrate our otherwise indigenous and perhaps innate understanding of aesthetics.

Considering her academic background, it is unsurprising how Jalil’s work manifests a broader critique of our learned aesthetics, particularly within an art school framework. What is an aesthetically pleasing visual? Who can claim the position to adjudicate on that and treat it as knowledge worthy of passing to others? Our understanding of the term ‘skill’ has also become increasingly abstruse. An ever-evolving art world keeps heightening the challenge of continually professing our skills through the presented work, especially in painting and drawing. Some critics may even consider this question obsolete and skeptically view the importance of demonstrating labour and skills through the artworks. We must constantly negotiate how we comprehend the word ‘skill’ before we even consider a work highly skilled to those that are not. Rabeya Jalil’s art aptly provokes us to invest thought in this discussion.

Rabeya Jalil’s solo exhibition, ‘Between Meaning and Making’ was displayed at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi from August 29, 2023, to September 07, 2023.

Shah Numair Ahmed Abbasi is a multidisciplinary artist and a freelance writer who lives and works in Karachi. He completed his BFA with a distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2014 where he specialised in sculpture and photography. Abbasi has since exhibited both locally and internationally. He was the recipient of the Gasworks Pakistan Residency 2018 in London, and Antropical Artists Residency 2019 in Steinfort. He was a Visiting Artist Fellow of the Laxmi Mittal South Asian Institute at Harvard University, Cambridge in 2020. Abbasi currently teaches Art and Design at a private O level institution.

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