Satrang Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘A-Visual’, is an interesting journey into our perceptions and assumptions around what we see and do not see in our daily lives. The name of the exhibition sets the tone of the work perfectly, causing us to begin contemplating before we even see the artwork about the nature of what we see, what is visible yet invisible; the a-visible.
Maha Ahmed’s work is the first you encounter when you enter the exhibition. Ahmed’s mixed-media pieces center on the image of a partially blackened-out window, or series of windows. The immediate association for me was the black of the burqa, the misplaced symbol of the Muslim woman as seen through the eyes of foreign media. Interestingly, Ahmed herself says that her work is figurative and the black cloth is representative of women that “are protected from your eye until you really start to see.” This plays in well with the exhibition theme of a-visibility, because there is so much that remains unseen when we only take into account the surface visibility. In Ahmed’s case, the woman is invisible if you only see the exterior, protected by the blackened windows, the burqa, the cultural precept, the outsider’s prejudice. Ahmed says she wanted to stimulate the discussion about the ‘daily injustices that we go through in the name of security,” through the work as well, which is why the obviously visible symbol of the work is the blackened-out window, a classic protective measure for homes in times of security threat. The work asks you to consider what else may behind the blackened windows; what hurt, what happiness. You are prompted to question the layers of visibility that are present in our everyday surroundings, and how these change as our perceptions change, and how the layers of visibility will appear differently to each viewer.
Amna Ilyas’ sculptural work is the next that viewer’s encounter in the exhibition, and it carries on the theme of perceptions of visibility and invisibility, with the added dimension of how this affects our acquisition of knowledge. Like Ahmed’s work, Ilyas’s is asking questions about the nature of visibility and our perception of the world around us. Her transparent perspex books make the viewer consider the efficacy of the book as a vehicle of knowledge. “We are aware that how the whole process of knowledge is part of a large act of power that creates an illusion of truth that is ephemeral and transitory but does not match with the truth,” says Ilyas. The very media the artist has used is aimed at furthering the metaphor, as plastic by nature is pliable and open to manipulation. The artist shows us books that are both empty or with cut-out words, reflecting her view that what we find in books is often a hollow reflection of a truth unknown. Simultaneously, the empty pages can symbolize the possibility inherit in the blank page; that when not in the business of information creation, manipulation or propaganda, the book can also be a symbol of the infinite possibilities of creation; a blank page is a world as yet uncreated. Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” is inscribed in hard-to-read cut-out words on one of Ilyas’ books, the first lines of this iconic poem connecting with her theme of the malleable nature of history, knowledge and the written word itself. Finally, Ilyas’ work asks us to consider how our own prejudices color what we see and so no two people will read a book the same way.
Lastly, we see the wry work of Heraa Khan. Khan uses her training in traditional miniature to take a humorous look at the culture around her. Her miniatures comprise of a series of portraits of her grandmother, a true Punjabi ‘Begum’, however we don’t see her in all her coifed glory, but rather in the mundane acts of preparation that come before: the ungainly blow-dry, painting the nails while chatting on the phone, or just enjoying a cup of tea. Khan has shown us these little windows into this ‘status-conscious’ segment of society, wrapped up as it is in ornamental gold-leaf print. Khan suggests that this cliquey world these society ladies inhabit is a mere bubble, cut off from reality. What we see is almost a gilded cage, the figure inside seems lonely, although a busy social calendar keeps her occupied. Yet this is the segment of society that we are taught through media to emulate, the most visible in television series, magazines, etc. Khan’s work is suggestive of the fact that what we are shown of this society is only the external layer, and although the artist views it with some level of amusement, she is also acknowledging that the externally visible is not always telling the whole story. “My work is not only relevant to a particular segment of the Pakistani society, but strives to go beyond the borders as well. It’s a tale of absurd, frivolous indulgences as well as limitations and loneliness,” she says. We are therefore asked as viewers to not take what is visible at face value, but to remember that there is always more to a story than the initial impression.Questioning our perceptions and biases is what the whole exhibition is asking us to do. The artists have created works that all speak to this theme, highlighting different aspects of how we interact with the world around us, and at times forget to take notice of the a-visible elements in our lives. ♦
‘A-Visual’ ran at Satrang Gallery, Islamabad in August 2014.
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan