The overall impression given by Wardha Shabbir’s work is one of great clarity and order. She works with color fields, geometry and floral figurative elements with extraordinary precision in order to create sophisticated compositions in which nature and geometry form a complex relationship.
Wardha is a contemporary miniaturist who received her training from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore. It is fascinating to see the continuities and innovations in miniature artwork by artists like her whose imaginative explorations have brought the traditional genre of miniature painting into the foreground of contemporary art. Green Matter is Shabbir’s second solo show at Canvas Gallery.
Vast fields of space largely empty of figuration (except for minute flocks of birds that are sprinkled delicately like flakes of pepper) and saturated with a single color play an important part in her compositions. Within these color-soaked fields, the artist arranges broad folds or bands at an isometric angle. This angled viewpoint makes the folds seem to float on the sea of color, serving as architectural elements in their own right. They present multiple surfaces upon which Shabbir paints the profusion of flora which are the most intricate part of the composition.
The relationship between the color fields, the architectural bands, and the floral elements is a complex one as each element has a rational boundary yet each cannot exist without the other. The mathematical geometry of the floating bands and the organic geometry of the stylized flowers create a dynamic contrast.
A holistic overview of the work undoubtedly leads to thoughts of the garden and in particular to the ancient Persian gardens that evolved under the Achaemenids and became the template for the Islamic paradise garden known as the Char Bagh (or Chahar bagh). The garden was enclosed by walls to create an inner sanctuary from the imperfections of the world.
The notion of the garden enclosure is encapsulated in the framing borders of Persian and Mughal miniatures. The hashiya or margin which surrounded the traditional miniature painting was a purely decorative border. Contemporary miniaturists often subvert the border by detaching it as a frame, centralizing it, and giving it a mainstream character.
In Wardha’s work too, the bands of flora seem to be breakaway hashiyas that are freed from their traditional role of enclosing the central content of the painting. They now claim an independent existence, and even contain secret narratives which are disclosed to us in the artist’s statement. She states her desire to induce a demystification process through the use of “hauntingly beautiful visuals”. Her statement also reveals that she is paying homage to the struggles of women. She explains, “the organic compositions portray a plethora of women’s experiences. The abundance of growth, morphing into elaborate motifs emulates the unfathomable contours of female imagination. Vivid hues illustrate the strength and vitality of feminine emotion.” Her statement enables us to become aware of the allegorical narratives infused in the artwork.
A close examination of the floral bands reveals exquisite, imaginatively drawn plants in opulent hues. Tree and floral forms nestle close together with an intimacy that is almost visceral. These are Wardha Shabbir’s gardens, enclosed in the strict formality of geometrical folds which float in a broad, abstract field of color. Works such as ‘Growing in Silence’ reveal the variety of shape, color and form Shabbir incorporates in her “gardens”. The colors are jewel-like. They are a testimony to the artist’s skill in juxtaposing hues to yield maximum impact. The forms vary from naturalistic to highly stylized motifs, as in depictions of nature in Pahari miniature painting.
Green Matter takes its name from a green field of grass. The artist has drawn prominence to it in the form of a five-minute video loop that covers an entire wall of a room in the gallery. The grass sways in wave-like motion to the unseen force of the wind. This loop is titled ‘The River’, and it underscores the parallel between the movement of swaying grass and moving water. It is meant to symbolize resilience and it bears a specific reference to the Motorway Gang Rape which occurred in 2020.
Shabbir has taken the coursing of the river as a metaphor for life’s journey which she “maps” in the form of the visuals. The diptych titled ‘Like a River’ best represents her synthesis of self and nature. A grassy “river” floats on a field of lapis lazuli blue. Clusters of yellow sparks form overlapping constellations. With just three colors – green, blue and yellow – she has presented a cosmos within which she nestles her reflections on selfhood.
The artist’s statement further reveals the deep psychic energy that gives birth to the carefully crafted, color-saturated forms on paper. One understands how the inner and multiple faces of her geometric shapes may be construed as states of mind. Because of their contemporary nature, they have transformed from decorative function into a vehicle for personal expression. The paradise gardens are beautiful, and they contain trauma as well as the spirit of redemption
Wardha Shabbir’s solo ‘Green Matter’ was held at Canvas Gallery from 13th July till 24th July 2021.
Title image: I Have Seen An Ocean, gouache On Acid Free Paper, 73 x 45 inches, 2021