The East India Company from the 16th century onwards made a fortune for itself exporting South Asian textiles, renowned for their material, techniques, design and for the understanding that the craftsmen had of the client’s needs. The Mughal courts and the artistic traditions of that time are strongly linked, where the patronage of the Emperor and his household went a long way in developing many of the artistic expressions, and textile was no exception. The dresses and the attire of the members of the royal courts were works that continue to capture the imagination of the people today, and the Europeans, who came in contact with the Mughal traditions, were no exception to this rule.
It was only mass production and copying of the original designs in European markets that led to the decline and the eventual downfall of the region’s textile industry. Mass production was also successful in reducing these wonderful artistic creations into a commodity – and driving them off from their apex to mundane, everyday trivialities. Iram Zia Raja’s show ‘Embedded in the Weave’ at Satrang Art Gallery is a great reminder of the versatility and great contribution of textiles to the arts of South Asia.
It would be unjust to take these works as simply a showcase of various textile techniques though. The artist has gone far and beyond and each work is an entire composition of colors, stitches, embodying within it the vocabulary of the textile world to create works akin to a painting. And each painting has its own narrative to present. For this particular observer, her works were a reminder of a childhood game, where one laid down and looked at the skies above, redefining each cloud with one’s own minds image.
The medium for the entire body of work is silk and metallic threads and wires on silk cloth. The genius of the work lies in the way the threads have been used to create just with their direction, their thickness and quality the foreground and the background. It is a construction that has been created with threads, and there is nothing that is amiss from the more conventional art forms.
Nowhere does this become clearer than in the work titled Meanings and Motifs. The colors complement and come together in a way to create an entire landscape. Look closely, and you will see a lake in the middle, a brown road, running on the side, and a garden on the other side, populated with trees, flowers and leaves. Motifs, in particular floral patterns, were a recurring theme in the Mughal works, a reference in the mind of this observer of the heritage that has been handed down to us.
In the Beginning There was the Text is another piece that adheres to Iram’s artistry, who has framed the entire composition beautifully to present a narrative for the observer. The urdu haruf or more accurately the Arabic script present in the composition tend to remind one of the roots of this heritage and the knowledge base of techniques, a point that the artist particularly stresses in her statement.
The harufs make an appearance in many of the works, including Text and Work. The letters appear to be scattered on a brown landscape with flowers and rivers accompanying them, playing very strongly on the balance that needs to be present between the subject and the overall form which goes a long way in bringing the subject to the limelight, while not losing its own narrative.
While subjectivity of each element in the works can be seen within each and every piece, it becomes more prominent in the five pieces titled Patterns of Desire. While the basic design of the pieces appear to be the same, each work differs from the other and creates an understanding of how colors can change the mood and the entire perception of a piece – how the blue on blue dulls down the piece, while the same blue with red dominates the entire set. It is an entire study on the effects of colors and how they relate to each other. Of course, the observer’s own aesthetic subjectivity is also of considerable importance in this.
The entire body of work can best be described as a celebration of a great artistic gift of this region; it is a celebration of techniques and crafts taken for granted, which have been put together in a manner which allows the observer to understand the prominence of these traditions. These works are lessons in colors which not for a single moment lose their harmony or the balance which they create with respect to each element in any given composition.
Iram Zia Raja: ‘Embedded in the Weave’, Satrang Art Gallery, Islamabad, 11 February – 3 March 2016. Images courtesy the gallery and artist.
Varda Nisar is a researcher, curator, and director of the Karachi Children’s Art Fest.