Walking past a bustling Koel Café, you traverse through a small quaint alley adorned with lush foliage which opens into a courtyard where you are greeted by the wooden doors of the Koel Gallery. While reminiscing about my visit, I recall the transformation that I felt from a state of activity to one of all-encompassing tranquility. This notion compliments the essence of Alyssa Sakina Mumtaz’s work which was exhibited at the gallery. The work, taking on a myriad of forms, embodied the acts of devotion, perseverance, dedication and evolution. It is experimental, and pays homage to the ‘material culture of Muslim belief’ through Mumtaz’s role as a devoted, revert Muslim with a pastoral American upbringing. Her early exposure to American crafts was in fact through her own mother who taught her about textiles and handicraft. This, subconsciously shaped Mumtaz’s choice of materiality in the given exhibition. The work presents the evolutionary role of the artist as a mother and aspiring weaver.
Mumtaz’s journey carries with it sharp twists and turns, and serrated happenstances while meandering through the everyday— perhaps metaphorically represented through the shapes and patterns encountered in her present body of artwork. The same is also representative of hope and spirituality. Despite all hardships and turn of events, the center does not change or disappear; it is ubiquitous— a strong nucleus of the journey.
The artist’s work has evolved through her journey in a worldwide pandemic— during this time she became a mother, and embarked on a journey to reverting to Islam. This is predominant in her work, her choice of material and her message.
The use of eclectic, raw material coupled with precise and calculated imagery creates harmonization. The organic energy emitting in the space is wholesome and all-embracing. One can say, the juxtaposition of natural with man-made material creates remarkable dialogue. It is as if Mumtaz subconsciously references the confrontation between sin and purity. The work bears a unique, distinct quality, in that it takes the intangible and provides it a platform to be completely tactile.
The material choice for Mumtaz’s work is guided more by symbolism than material itself. Her inspiration to delve into the world of weaving actually transpired on her first journey to India where she met the weaver and mystic, Kabir. He spoke about the art of weaving as a form of spiritual awakening. For Mumtaz, weaving truly became an elaborate and extended metaphor for her life and her journey; that of spiritual growth.
Upon entering the gallery, you are greeted by The All-Seeing which was created between 2012-2022. The timeframe of this piece is a strong reflection of the artist’s journey— one of evolution and ‘becoming’.
These works came about after a period of intense seclusion, due to the pandemic and motherhood. Being a mother of a pandemic baby myself, I can resonate with the frenzied yet vibratory sense of the work. The energy witnessed can immediately be recognized as warm, despite the urgency reverberating through the created patterns.
The notion of reinvention is central to the artist’s practice. The entire journey of physical labor accompanied by the mental strength, and the metaphoric crossing (to Islam), required to produce the works is what really drives Mumtaz’s work to its final destiny. The energetic chaos within the work resonates with a sense of ephemera; paying respect to many evanescent yet defining moments. Those memories are intangible, but through her body of work she is able to give them weight and space in real time. A life in time that stands still within a single frame.
There are layers and complexities that are unpacking in her work, much like the layers within herself; of varying identities that have existed and continue to evolve within her and outside of her. These are the layers she presents within each weave, painting, drawing or sculpture.
The act of creating and abandoning the work for a period of time, only to revisit it at a later date, is a recurring practice which replicates the mystic, trance-like state of abandonment and embracing that the artist was experiencing both spiritually, and when engaging in physical labor during her practice.
As someone who reverted to Islam, there was a period of intense self-exploration; to find her newly evolved self. Then, to push further to advance into the role of a mother. It is almost like being spun around and catapulted into change. This is evident in Loom: Inverted Narrow Gate’(2016-2017). Inversion, being a key facet towards the transformation and final outcome of the piece.
Her reference to the prayer mat, and its design, bears witness to the immense influence that Islam has had on the artist. As the centre of the Muslim faith is the Kabbah (the direction to which all Muslims pray), and the Jaanemaaz (prayer mat) is one of the primary vessels that abets Muslims in their prayers. Turning a corner to the far end of the gallery, you find an intricately woven prayer mat, facing an empty wall, bleak and void of any presence. There is a strong narrative to this final piece. The artist references a prayer mat as a ‘portable mihrab’(the portion of a mosque that delineates prayer). Creating beautiful tapestry is embedded in Mumtaz’s practice; but the tapestry goes beyond aesthetics as it holds value for the artist. Her intent is to transform a luxurious craft into an unpretentious, functional object. She breaks free from traditionalism by creating material prolongation, an intentional precinct, for herself and her children. It is her very own sanctuary, one that can be transported with her; anywhere and everywhere.
Time and time again, Mumtaz will reference fragments of Islamic architecture and belief through the use of arches, minarets, domes and prayer mats. These sacred, geometric patterns and shapes all form in a similar manner. For the artist, they represent her as a portal, for which she enters into her new altered self— as an aspiring weaver.
On careful inspection of I Have Been a Portal Twice’ (Hadi and Jahanara), the audience can truly see the shift in the work. From seeking to be a professional weaver to entering another gateway. There is reference within the work of a maternal body. These can be considered as self-portraits of the artist, and her role as a portal to bear life to her two children, Hadi and Jahanara. She is referencing herself as the physical doorway that opens and allows her to enter into her evolved self. These works also serve as abstract representations of her children; but are not limited to the children alone. In fact, they can be viewed as celebrations of motherhood.
Theologians and mystics have worked with geometric abstraction for centuries, due to its contemplative nature. For the artist, the process of weaving, the devotional aspect of religious practice, and the mental and physical pressure of motherhood are all-consuming, pensive and meditative practices. According to the artist she experiences a trance-like state while at work, which explains what drew her towards this particular pattern-oriented material practice; her philosophy, ideology and experiences became vital to the process of making
Alyssa Sakina Mumtaz, I feel, has done abundant justice to her pursuit of creating a safe haven for herself within and around the work. This is the haven that she wishes to share with her audience.
Alyssa Sakina Mumtaz showcased her second solo exhibition, titled ‘The Center is Everywhere’ at Koel gallery on the 31st of May, 2022.
Title image: ‘Flooded Ghat’, Paper appliqué on handloom silk, 50 x 102 inches, 2018-22
Alyssa Sakina Mumtaz. 2022. The Center is Everywhere – Solo exhibition, Koel Gallery, Karachi — Alyssa Sakina Mumtaz. [online] Available at: <http://www.alyssapheobus.com/news/2022/5/21/the-center-is-everywhere-solo-exhibition-koel-gallery-karachi>
Artofislamicpattern.com. 2022. Introduction to Geometry | Art of Islamic Pattern. [online] Available at: <https://artofislamicpattern.com/resources/educational-posters/>
Nguyen, Brittany, and Brittany Nguyen. “Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette: Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08.” School of the Arts, 1 Mar. 2021, https://arts.columbia.edu/news/uncovering-heritage-silhouette-alyssa-pheobus-mumtaz-08.