Stitching Memory – The Inner Journey of Ruby Chishti
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Stitching Memory – The Inner Journey of Ruby Chishti

Ruby Chishti’s sculptural art expresses a profound engagement with the human condition. It is poised at the meeting point of personal reflection, family history, memory, and the anxieties that beset the world. From her subjective and intuitive considerations, Ruby distils narratives that transcend into universality. The work urges silent engagement by the onlooker as if sound would dissipate the subtle narratives that reside in the sculptures. These sculptures become the external manifestations of the internal processes of remembrance, perception and recall.

The primary tools of Ruby’s art are fabric and the time-honored needle and thread. Ruby has a deep, abiding intimacy with cloth. Stitch-by-stitch, she reconstitutes fabric to create the form of her sculptures. The shreds and tatters of cloth that she assembles into coherent shapes, form a parallel with the shreds and fragments of thought and memory.  The narratives are questioning statements – riddle-like in their layered complexity – that play with dichotomies of presence and absence, ancient and contemporary, self and other, and identity and anonymity. Expressed as sculpture, they serve as repositories of psychological processes.

In addition to fabric, Ruby sculpts with composite organic materials which she gathers from the abandoned detritus of everyday living. Rags, twigs, discarded and used clothing, along with random ephemera are reconstituted into signature forms of her personal iconography. Ruby stitches her thoughts and memories into these forms which exist as a palimpsest of both private memory and universal archetype. She turns her thoughts inside out by materializing the monologue in her psyche into external forms that become a part of her recurring iconography. These forms include stuffed and faceless ragdoll figurines, architectural wall installations of enormous intricacy, and crows among other varied figures. Even as these materials are transformed by the artist to tell a story, they never trick their beholder or disguise their origins. The rags and garments retain vestiges of their original cast. In this manner, they underscore the narrative with honesty and bring to mind the persistence of historical traces.

As a child, Ruby used to make her own fabric dolls. As the youngest of four daughters and followed by a brother, Ruby’s perception of her upbringing is that of being left to her own devices. She has recalled this perception in her statement:

“I felt my elders never gave me the love I needed, no one was really concerned about me…I remember being constantly heartbroken because of this.’’1

The self-reliant young girl grew to love doll-making. Perhaps the process empowered her and assuaged her sense of being marginal. When Ruby grew up, the skill she had mastered for stitching, shaping, sculpting fragments of material, became an intrinsic part of her art practice.

My Birth Will Take Place a Thousand Times No Matter How You Celebrate It (2014), recycled cloth, thread, straw, yarn. Height 18” each
Ever After, recycled cloth, thread, straw, found cardboard box, 2001

The stuffed female figures are used in multiple sculptures and installations to express the challenging state of womanhood in a patriarchal order. They are loaded with a discourse on gender as a blessing and a curse. The figures are chubby with featureless faces, plaited hair and as often naked as clothed. Their well-stuffed contours are enclosed with a carefully stitched, ragged wrap that forms the skin of their body or clothing. The visible stitches that create this skin convey a vulnerability. Their fecund shape bears an uncanny resemblance with archaeological figurines such as the archaic Venus figurines unearthed in Europe millennia ago.

The archaeological and archaic resonances are quite deliberate and are triggered by the often headless and footless ‘’incomplete” figures. Their raw vitality is primal and archetypal. In installations such as The Blind Spot in History II, the arrangement of dolls within the frieze sculpture deliberately invokes the idea of ancient energy coursing through the work. Fertility is an ambiguous phenomenon, a celebration of the new and plenty as well as a trap which tethers women to a child-rearing and domestic role.

The Blind Spot in History II, Foamular board, recycled textiles, thread, polyester, archival glue, clay, 2020

In a feminist take of Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1942), Ruby attaches the horns of cattle to a corseted female torso in order to connect the idea of the woman with that of the beast of burden. The revealing form of the garment also addresses the entrapment of female sexuality by cultural norms of what constitutes the ideal female form. But the narrative is never simple in Ruby Chishti’s work. The corset is topped by bull’s horns, symbols of male potency. There is a dialogue contained in the sculpture that speaks of the differences between and interdependence of male and female sexual tropes.

Untitled, recycled textiles, polyester, thread, string, bull’s horn, 2019

The repurposed item of clothing is a frequent part of Ruby’s sculptural repertoire. Ruby uses found garments from second hand stores as well as items of her own clothing to create architecturally complex installations. In contrast to the molded figure sculptures, these creations are notable by the apparent absence of the human figure. And yet, as used and found objects, they simultaneously echo the absence and lingering presence of the original owner who has now severed ties with the garment.

Ruby creates wall installations in a range of sizes with these garments. The installations have a powerful architecture, comprised as they are of numerous folds inserted with a vast quantity of carefully folded cloth fragments. Ruby frequently attaches miniature door and window frames within the layers to amplify the architectural impact. The folds and layers usually change the original silhouette of the garments. They acquire immense complexity through their topography and by inviting the viewer into a microcosm of mystery that connects with the fundamental human requirement for shelter. And where people have lived, there will always be secrets, unspoken thoughts and memories embedded into the structure of the habitat. These ineffable voices communicate through the medium of the artist’s imagination. Ruby’s stream of consciousness articulates its visible form in the fabric installations just as the music in a composer’s mind is committed to a reproducible form on the score-sheet.

The present is a ruin without the people, recycled textiles, thread, children’s clothing, lace, metal scraps, wood, paint, soundscape, 2016

The notion of presence and absence is pervasive in Ruby’s work whether it be the featureless faces of her stuffed figurines or the once individually owned and worn garments now repurposed into textile architecture. As art, they represent a transfer that has taken place from individuality to universality. The anonymity of the face, the anonymity of the original wearer of the garment overtakes the particular, the recognizable and the nameable. The idea of ownership is dissipated as the material takes on the power of an archetype that speaks for all humanity. The absences express the ephemeral reality of human existence which is marked by irony.

The sense of irony converts into full blown pathos in Ruby’s sculptures of babies. Amour II (2008) is a monochromatic sculpture of an infant. Its swollen features indicate that it is newly born. In contrast to the ragged figurines, this child has a realistic face but its body is hollow. Although the head of the baby is attached to clothing, the body is missing. Once again, the dialectics of absence and presence are embodied in this sculpture.

Armor II, cast sanitary napkins, thread, 2008

The baby is simultaneously a symbol of renewal and fragility. Its beautifully stitched yet empty clothes tease out multiple meanings to do with the human condition. The baby implicitly draws attention to the role of motherhood and the validation women in patriarchal societies are understood to derive from their ability to bear children. Children become their only route to acceptance and security and Ruby critiques this in her poignant sculpture of this beautiful, vulnerable baby with no body to fill in its lovely clothes. At a very personal level, Ruby has made a decision not to have children herself as she does not feel it is ethical for her to bring a child into a world filled with turmoil.

Ruby Chishti’s sensitivity to turmoil acts as a permeable membrane through which she processes trauma into art. The trauma can be personal or political as is poignantly evident in her powerful work titled There is no hero (2008). The work foregrounds a scene of carnage with bloodied bodies. A winged horse soars upwards. Ruby has created a narrative based on the Karachi bomb blast that struck Benazir Bhutto’s procession in October 2007. The horror of the event is rendered as an epic narrative. A mythic element is introduced by the Pegasus-like winged horse and this combination of myth and reality transforms the narrative from relating to a specific event into cosmic tragedy.

There is no Hero, fabric, thread, wood, polyester, paint on canvas. 48 x 64 inches, 2008

Crows hold a special place in Ruby’s repertoire of icons. She loves them for their intelligence and their ability to care for one another. In folklore, they are significant as bringers of messages and omens of things to come. Ruby has crafted crows from fabric and wire. They are amazingly realistic in their form and posture. The floral print of the fabric used in their construction becomes part of their body and augments the realism of their form with fantasy.

Crows, approximately life size, recycled cloth, thread, polyester, steel and wood, 2014

The complex interplay of realism and fantasy is a distillation of thoughts and emotions that defines Ruby’s unique sensibility. Drawing upon biography and history, experience and myth, Ruby creates art with a subtle philosophical sub-text that articulates a way of being in the world through the sensitivity of perception. There is also a strong psychological sub-text particularly in work that references self and identity.

In an untitled sculpture, Ruby creates a composite creature in an off-white monochromatic tone. The creature is hugely enigmatic with a bovine hind, wings and a human head. The head is adorned with a tiara, and that is the only concession to color. The face is featureless and partially covered with a mask; yet this face is unmistakably the artist’s own. Ruby has created a self-portrait in the guise of a chimera that carries resonances with that ancient, majestic chimera, the Sphinx.

This is a deeply psychological sculpture carrying within itself a complex negotiation between identity and anonymity. Ruby has spoken about the artist’s judgment in knowing when an artwork is finished or as she puts it “resolved”. Her chimerical portrait is indeed aesthetically resolved even as it ponders the dilemma of what it means to be oneself. This fantastical sculpture also suggests that the artist may achieve an aesthetic resolution without achieving a personal one. The desire for personal resolution remains unfulfilled and perhaps nourishes creativity.

Through the array of topics addressed in Ruby Chishti’s art, it is clear that she is a presenter of truths. Her framework is wide and deep, drawing on echoes of the past as well as the unavoidable onslaught of current issues. She sublimates the plethora of influxes to create art that is deeply contemplative.

Ruby Chishti is a representational sculptor. She was born in Jhang, Pakistan in 1963. She trained at The National College of Arts in Lahore. She lives in New York with her spouse Khalil Chishti who is also an artist.

Title image: Untitled, cloth, cast fabric, thread, polyester, plastic tiara, 2012

Bibliography

Unveiling the Invisible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan; Salima Hashmi; Sang-e-Meel Publications (2003)

Endnotes

  1. Unveiling the Invisible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan; Salima Hashmi; Sang-e-Meel Publications (2003)

Nusrat Khawaja is an independent researcher and landscaper. She writes on art and literature. She is a member of the Karachi Biennale Discursive Committee.

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  • It is after ages that I have enjoyed a thoughtful reading of an artist’s oeuvre, and someone as complex as Ruby’s, has been conveyed by Nusrat, as if effortlessly. Wonderful that the author doesn’t rely on jargon, but is truly engaged with the work

    Amra Ali
    Reply

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