Like any mystery, the future is unknown – distant, but desirable. For both the artist and the viewer, the future holds a surprise of sorts since their prime concern is: what next? Having completed a body of work, how will the past shape or enhance the present and emerge as an entity that is still relevant to the artist’s aesthetic concerns. How might it introduce new possibilities into the realm of pictorial expression?
Such concepts and questions often intrigue anyone who is following the development trajectory of a visual artist. Often, the creative person manages to shock as well as impress his or her audience with sheer innovation and imagination. This is what has happened in the case of Iram Zia and her recent solo exhibition held at X2 in Lahore.
Trained as a textile designer from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Zia has been teaching at the institution for a little over two decades. Her contribution to promoting a sense of originality in the field of design, which is contemporary and still responds to the glorious tradition of pattern-making in the Subcontinent, is unmistakeable and duly acknowledged. Alongside, for at least ten years now, Zia has been producing unique, highly personal works in the area of jewellery design, with several exhibitions held in Karachi and Dubai.
In her previous works, Zia has incorporated conventional Muslim motifs into her jewellery in gold, silver and other metals. In these adorable and adorn-able pieces, she has reinterpreted the history of geometric design by manipulating basic shapes. While these do not replicate past forms, she has used this legacy to investigate the essence of beauty. In her works, we see fragments of sacred geometry modified to create objects that may have been in continuation of certain eras, but not confined to a single period. Hence, the elementary diagrams of circle, cube, rectangle and triangle are combined, composed and constructed to create contemporary designs.
This design sensibility is not limited to the craft of making ornaments because it recognises the fabric of a society that breathes in multiple times and traditions in the same moment – a culture that exists on the margins of East and West, with most of its population mixing ingredients from various sources and histories in order to forge a new entity and identity for itself. For instance, current trends in clothing or fusion in music or language – or even food – all indicate how the notion of a single territory is being challenged.
Zia recognises this shift in culture and her jewellery (as well as her earlier tapestry panels) reflect a change in relationships between the local and foreign, the original and imported, the old and new. Yet her work is always devoid of any sentimentality or overt love or longing for heritage. Thus, her jewellery is recognised and admired because it offers something unique in a discipline that is still negotiating its role and position vis-à-vis authenticity and innovation.
While some designers are keen to either showcase ethnicity (by going abroad, buying kundan pieces and replicating these for the Lahori market) or to cut themselves off from the history of wearable objects in this region, Zia prefers a contemporary view of tradition. In her earlier works, comprising several solo shows at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi, the immediate success of her jewellery owed much to her extraordinary approach to beauty and utility. Her works reflected a sophisticated sense of design solution – including the balance of surface compositions and aspect of functionality.
Like several others, I was curious to see what she would produce next. Given the compactness and sense of completeness she had displayed thus far, there was no indication that her future work might be drastically different. But Zia has surprised her viewers by taking a different angle in her new designs.
In her recent jewellery exhibition at X2, she deals with the history of design with greater ease and openness. In the tone of a person who is playing with form to satiate a vision in her head, she deconstructs elements and shapes, and joins them freely. She fabricates a particular pictorial vocabulary that is linked distantly with tradition, but is distinct for its innovative features.
In an interview for Art Now Pakistan, she explains her position on the question and connection of tradition and innovation:
“Tradition is the continuity through which we know ourselves. Here I would like to quote my favourite example of the priest-king statue from Indus Valley Civilization. He is wearing a shawl that has a trefoil motif carved on it. Today’s Ajrak has the same motif. This is the power of tradition: An unbroken lineage of over 5,000 years. One cannot overlook this power of tradition and its influence of innovation. So I have this conviction of purpose in accepting tradition as my teacher and for every artist/designer out there I feel it is very important: almost a lifeline to stay connected to your roots and feels for them and works on them and innovation will follow. It has to follow. That’s how the building blocks of innovation will be created.”
Zia’s new work is an apt illustration of her words because a different interpretation of tradition indicates the diverse possibilities that are open to a creative mind. The exhibition portrays how she extends the notion of heritage and expands the boundaries of art and craft.
Perhaps the designer’s most important characteristic is her individual scheme of combining different components. For example, stones are joined with metal, but the two types of substances complement one another and complete the complexity of the visual. This aspect of mixing separate materials through which a new entity emerges is a haunting one and continues to move her viewers. Because even if one does not pick a piece, the memory of her strong, poetic, exuberant and exquisite creations is something both men and women will share for a long time to come.
Published in The Friday Times: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/a-contemporary-view-of-tradition/