Of Spiritual Awakenings and the Visceral
Of Spiritual Awakenings and the Visceral

Mussarat Mirza’s academic pursuit in Fine Arts has transitioned into a series of lived experiences within her art practice. Over the decades she has translated these moments of poignant observation of her environment into painterly visualizations using structured drawing, weighted application of paint, and a signature color mixing that slowly builds texture through dry brush strokes on her canvas.

From her initial years as a formidable modern painter in Lahore (during the 60s) and under the tutelage of Anna Molka Ahmed, who helped pioneer contemporary art in Pakistan, she garnered the confidence and intellectual fortitude which laid the foundation for her artistic career. She completed a six-year-long academic journey, graduating in 1968 from Punjab University’s Department of Fine Arts with a postgraduate degree in Fine Arts, and returned to Sukkar in 1967 where she continues to practice her compositional tenure. There is a painterly evolution seen throughout the decades of her career with pivotal breakthroughs in compositional motifs; the artist has been fully immersed in a unique development and subterfuge of perspective, scale and composition, infusing her picture planes with an emotive language coming forth through the careful use of light and shadow. Mirza’s mastery of painting is visible in the prominent earthy pigments that quietly emerge throughout the length of her work. The retrospective show at Koel Gallery, along with a published monograph, travels back to the origins of the artist’s practice sharing glimpses into her earliest memories as a child, and her familial relationships. The exhibition documents her career that has spanned almost fifty years, curator Maha Malik states in the monograph that “Mirza’s work is nourished by riverine reflection– she is a poet, an enquiring historian, a philosopher, she is a student of tasawwuf, ever drawing toward simplification.” showcasing her panoramic undertaking of living through her art practice. These paintings mirror a reality of Sukkar referencing the metaphysical nature of the ancient history, legacy, poetry and time internalized by the artist’s personal experiences of living in the region. During her time living in Sukkar, she contributed by teaching Fine Arts for three decades at the Department of Fine Arts of the University of Sindh at Jamshoro, mentoring a generation of young artists.

Pigeon Holes, 27.5 x 66.5 in, Oil on Canvas, 1986

The immediacy with which the artist casts first observations of her environment are etched into the heart of the composition as a loose sketch that is anchored by the muted hues of color layered onto the surface of the canvas. The medium of oils holds together the blending, brushstrokes, and texture of the paint, together revealing the grain of the canvas. This relationship between the paint, the surface of the canvas, and the artist is intimate and balanced. In the painting Pigeon Holes(1968), a fearless Mirza captures the waltz of light and shadow, tearing through the stillness of sunshine with a swarm of birds taking flight, depicting the exact moment their clapping wings spread across a silent township. Over time, Mirza masters naturalism showcasing situational scenes from Sukkar as seen in Dust Storm (1988), a mix of urbanism shown through electrical poles powering weathered mud houses and a singular tree engulfed by a gust of wind. Her representational forms remain motifs of humble architecture basked in the sunlight coming in from the east. The staging of this view has a narrow street dividing the center of the composition suggesting life contained within the houses. Naiza Khan imagines the role of residing in Sukkar in Mirza’s life in the monograph, “The harsh reality of the city is countered by the sensuality of her artmaking. The painting process that she crafts is through its surface a counter-force, making things more bearable, love-able, and ultimately, more livable.”

1988 proves to be a prolific year for painting to her, Mirza deals in the handling of light as a dynamic protagonist piercing through the gradations of color-mixing as seen in Dimensions of Solitude. The depth has an ascending movement as the shadows are woven together through the stillness of lines. For the viewer, a recognisable formation of a home comes through, but for the artist a spectrum of tones is carefully lifted throughout the picture plane. The pronounced windows and passageway in Quest for Enlightenment are adorned with twilight to one side of the canvas while simultaneously dissolving into a cloudy color-field, the eye of the viewer swings like a pendulum between the architecture and the slow drifting color, reenacting the experience of walking through the streets at dusk. There is a relentless revisiting of the study of light and form in her art practice showcasing the depth of observation in these everyday scenes. Aspects of figuration are deliberately removed leaving behind a sublime atmosphere drawing in the viewer into a psychological environment reflecting the artist’s inner state of being.

Title Unknown, 30 x 40 in, Oil On Canvas, 2010
Rah-e-ishq Dost Har Sa’at, 41 x 41 in, Oil on Canvas, 2013

The resilience with which Mirza explores the tactility of the paint is a recurring instance throughout the exhibition. The gestural strokes are paired with a meditative contemplation cohabitating within the same realm creating a formal investigation into color and its relationship with the canvas. Structural elements and depth of field come together within the warmth of a tranquil and distinctly emotive palette. The photographic tracing of elements in her later works dive into an aged perspective, where her memory creates distortion and foreshortening as seen in Rah-e-ishq Dost Har Sa’at. These endless corridors, passageways, and walls begin to overlap with gentler washes of color evidencing her experimentation with watercolor in her earlier practice. The singular guiding source of light in the distance is used as a metaphor of seeking truth, a practice that has inspired painting masters for centuries such as Diego Velázquez, Hokusai, William Turner and Edward Hopper, who identified the symbol of enlightenment as light unifying ephemeral scapes of their environment.

Muntazir A&B, 10 x 10 in, Oil on Canvas Diptych, 2011 PC: Koel Art Gallery

Muntazir A&B, painted in 2011, is a moment of realization for the viewer who begins to understand that the thick layering of paint paired with dry brush strokes and scratching carries decades of formal investigations as a distillation of naturalism highly personal to the artist’s history and sense of self. The artist draws her first impressions of the landscape through a quick sketch but now she allows the line to dissolve into a painterly shadow and silhouettes of light as seen in Muntazir and Hain Muntazir, here the sculptural and gestural rendering of color creates fossilization of hues resembling painterly ancient ruins. Over the years, the artist oscillates between these solid blocks of colors layered and blended into a collage of muted tones divided by crisp highlights but with Can Spring Be Far Behind (i), 2021 we observe a return to familiar passageways, holding the attention of the viewer while remaining stationary in the distance of the background.

Title Unknown, 29 x 29 in, Oil on Canvas, 2006

Mirza has spent a lifetime understanding the metaphysical realm where light is the guiding force in seeking a higher meaning. As an artist, she has developed a treasure trove of paintings that chronicle a series of intimate experiences reflected through color compositions that are earthy and naturalistic yet incorporate notes of abstract expressionism iconic to her formative years as an artist. Her gentle and meditative lens has evolved the landscape carrying a mystic sense of time and the weight of her personal history woven together with a pictorial language of reflective naturalism. Her work remains an invaluable contribution to defining the history of Pakistani modern art.

‘Har Ja Tu, In the Realm of Light’, A Retrospective of Mussarat Mirza displayed at the Koel Art Gallery from August 27 – September 17, 2022. The show culminated with an Artist Talk with Salima Hashmi in conversation with Mussarat Mirza at the Koel Gallery on August 29, 2022.

All images courtesy of Koel Art Gallery

Nayha Jehangir Khan completed her Bachelor in Fine Arts from York University, Toronto, Canada in 2010 and is currently based in Lahore. Her work experience includes fine arts, e-commerce & content, and art writing. She has written reviews covering art exhibitions, theatre, music, gastronomy, travel, dance & film for print and digital media publications, her writing expertise is focused on highlighting entrepreneurs & creatives. Passionate about art therapy, Nayha is an Art Therapy Practitioner and has experience in volunteer teaching in remote valleys of Northern Areas of Pakistan.

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