Storytelling & the Emblematic Reality
Storytelling & the Emblematic Reality

What makes painting modern? Is it abstraction, or is it about depicting the modern world, or an amalgam of the two? ‘Intense’, ‘critical’, ‘breaking with tradition’ and ‘avant-garde’, these are phrases used to describe modern art often. Zainab Zulfiqar and Houria Khan have radiantly composed paintings that portray this unification at a recent exhibition, held at the Dastaangoi Gallery, in Islamabad. Zulfiqar and Khan’s body of work, is an intrepid attempt to scratch the surface, delineating the circumstances and dilemmas of destitute sections of Pakistani society. The exhibition titled Liminal Spaces highlighting miniature painting, fungus, clay, silk and video artwork call attention to marvellous symbolism and representation to contradict utopian realities.

The exhibition is based on the abstruse sensation, duration, and territory that the less powerful unearth themselves in when they are amid individualities or, do not belong to. Art is outlined by its capability to signify reality, at times metaphorically and, at times through abstraction. One can declare the foundational relationship between artists and art is that of observation and awareness.

Thomas Messer, who was the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, dissected the elements of modern painting for an uninformed audience by describing five basic tenets of modern painting: representation, expression, decoration, construction, and fantasy1. Each section of the exhibition is illustrated by work that presents a glimpse into the theories of modern art. Both Khan and Zulfiqar reflect their vulnerabilities in their respective and collaborative pieces.

Liminal Spaces at the Dastaangoi Gallery.Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery
Liminal Spaces at the Dastaangoi Gallery. Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery

The two artists have intimately and viscerally conceptualized their artworks when taking into consideration idealistic and materialistic matters. Both artists have translated their voices and urges, their relationships (personal and intimate) and concerns with societal norms into their artwork, defining the quest for their identity from an unexplored premise.

Zulfiqar is a Lahore-based artist who graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA) in 2021. Her artwork resonates around memories, musings and reflections whilst touching on the encroachment of invulnerable territories concerning different generations, and the repercussions of these on a human being. In her work Zulfiqar nurtures a sort of bizarre yet wondrous narrative through her imagery. They are comparable to Persian miniature paintings that are founded on storytelling and stylization. The figures and spaces are ostensibly distorted, coalescing into each other; displaying pieces of detachment. Mystery, memory and movement come together in an evocatively divine way.

Khan, a visual artist who is currently based in Lahore also graduated from the National College of Arts (NCA) in the same year. There is an infinite tenacity in her imagery, her technique and mode of expression. Almost inconceivable, she has spent diligent hours on reflecting upon the glorification of viciousness and tumult in society. Khan mainly uses gouache and fungi in creating her imagery. The association of the arts and fungi is not instantaneous, nevertheless fungi are an ideal subject for some artists. Fungi hold the characteristics of being both visible and invisible, and with their protean and versatile characteristics and morbid exquisiteness Khan has ascribed these, metaphorically, to the culling of dogs and the unwarranted inhumaneness perpetrated upon them. The combination of both fungi and gouache are interesting as dynamic, uncontrolled entities that have been thoroughly investigated and exploited.

Subversion (Collaborative Piece), Zainab Zulfiqar & Houria Khan. Silk Paints and Silver Leaf on silk layered on Wasli, 40 x 29 inches,2022. Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery

Whilst going through the artwork, one can envisage how the flow of a storyline comes together quite readily and naturally, culminating in the collaborative piece Subversion. Despite Zulfiqar and Khan having unambiguously distinctive imagery and styles, the movement and interdisciplinary dialogue in the collaborative painting is both perplexing and poetic. As human beings we have the same intention, to investigate and understand all that is around us and ourselves. Both artists portray perceptions and insights into their worlds explored by different means and experiences.

Sabotage, Houria Khan. Gouache and fungus (preserved) on wasli, 23 x 19 inches, 2022. Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery
The Shadow of God in the Garden, Zainab Zulfiqar. Ink and Gouache on Wasli, 29 x 30 inches, 2022.Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery

The combination of imagery in Liminal Spaces conveys deeper meanings and narratives which are otherwise disregarded. Contradictions in exhibition spaces, in whatever form they may take, are always ideological. As hierarchical structures they produce particular and general forms of communication.

The two person exhibition ‘Liminal Spaces’,curated by Amad Mian, showed at the Dastaangoi Gallery from July 30th-August 8th2022.

Title image: Conference, Houria Khan. Shells and Stones on handmade paper, 17 x 12 inches, 2022. Image courtesy Dastaangoi Gallery


  1. Messer, Thomas M. Elements of Modern Painting, New York: Solomon R.Guggenheim Foundation, 1962.

Shireen Ikramullah Khan is a Pakistani artist, art critic, educator and museologist with a background in painting and printmaking. She completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2006. In 2009, she completed her Masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from The University of Manchester, which included an internship at the Manchester Museum to profile gallery visitors and assess improvements. She is an active member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and writer for several art publications worldwide. Based in Europe since 2017, Shireen continues to maintain her own visual art practice, participating in several exhibitions across Pakistan and other countries. She is, in parallel, working with international artists to curate shows in Pakistan as a means of building stronger bridges for sharing of culture and knowledge.

Share this post


  • Such an amazing work portraying unique ideas on cnvas.

    Faizan Jamil

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
Filter by Categories
Shopping Cart