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Alif the Unseen

Instead of going to a gallery this time to review an exhibition, I chose cyberspace as the venue and the exact location was The Paint Bucket Gallery (Online). This Gallery is currently showing Aswa Mahmood’s creations titled Alif. Mahmood is a young artist deeply rooted in tradition and seeks inspiration from religious resources. This has led her to explore calligraphy as her source and the nuances attached to its different forms and meanings. At a time where hybrid identities are engulfing the society and a constant flux of artistic narratives laden with unfamiliar discourses abounds, Aswa’s traditional visuality presents a serene and soothing aesthetic relief. Her work provides layers upon layers of mystic and esoteric charm that captivates the spectator in spite of the virtual space disconnect.

Mahmood prefers wood over the conventional canvas for her compositions as she finds woodcarving and the resultant three-dimensional contours a better medium for her purposes. To her the third dimension of the alphabets bridges the gap between her artwork and the spectator both physically and metaphorically. The work and the viewer then engage in a visual dialogue beyond each other’s physical space at a level where all else is set aside and the spiritual meanings take command.

One of the artist’s creations is titled Alif that features a variety of alphabets common to Arabic, Urdu and Persian, morph into the alphabet Alif that holds deep-rooted significance in the Sufi thought. Since the shape of Alif is isolated and can never be joined with any other alphabet and resonates the numeral one, according to the Sufi Chishti order, it is believed to signify the oneness of God who is incomparable, inimitable and stands unrivaled in his supreme position.

Bulleh Shah the great Sufi poet has also used Alif in his poetry. As a child on the first day of school, he is said to have asked his teacher the meaning of the word before following the instructions to memorize it by heart. The teacher failed to offer a satisfactory answer and it took decades of meditation for Bulleh Shah himself to find one. He finally wrote the following verse:

Ilm-o bas karein o yaar
Ek Alif teré darkaar

Leave all (superficial) learning oh my friend
All you need is (the secrets within) Alif!

Carrying a plethora of meanings similar to this verse, Mahmood’s Alif also emanates the aura of mysticism. The alignment of the alphabets projecting from the base in relief creates illusions of shadows that appear to carry them closer to the viewer. Here the diminishing scale of alphabets converging into Alif creates a rhythmic pattern and reminds one of the gradual fading away of life – the ephemeral existence of all beings on earth.

Alif, Laam, Meem are the very first three letters of the Quran. Recited together in this order, the meaning of these letters is unknown as they can neither be translated nor inferred. It is understood that their true meaning would be revealed on the Day of Judgment, therefore, they carry a mystery beyond human comprehension. Mahmood’s frame carrying this title resonates with the reverence and resignation a believer is meant to show and experience while reciting or memorizing these words with the complete confidence in their sanctity. The image presents several visual appearances: at one glance it seems like a lotus flower that holds symbolic significance beyond the Islamic religious realm in the subcontinent, upon the other like a dome flanked by minarets and can also be read as Allah. The rendition is actually the mirror image of each side of the other where Alif merges with Laam creating the bulbous shape in the centre crowned by the feather and the orange Nuqta or dot. The two Meems add fluidity to the composition complementing the weightlessness and delicacy of the feather giving it a transcendental quality.

Upon being asked to express her views about showing her work online, Aswa Mahmood expressed complete confidence in the cyber space. According to her, it is fast and responsive and does not pose hurdles young artists like her encounter in physical gallery spaces. The challenges and long waitlists to showcase their works in prestigious galleries are daunting and more than often unending. The Paint Bucket Gallery, for these very reasons, aims to promote promising young artists providing them a virtual space where spectators beyond all borders can easily view their work and register their appreciation.

Each work exhibited by Mahmood is significant and special in its own right although collectively bound by a similar visual and metaphoric thread. The use of wood cutouts casting shadows, the fluid forms, the subtle touches of lighter materials and the surprising dashes of vibrant colors create a delightful sensory drama. This is heightened by the fact that each frame is laden with mystic meanings offering a spirit elevating experience to every eye that cares to engage with the text and each heart that is ready to chant – HÚ – the constant Sufi reminder of the Ultimate!

Aswa Mahmood: Alif can be viewed online at The PaintBucket Gallery.

Amina Ejaz is an Art History graduate from the University of Edinburgh and has recently started working as a lecturer at NCA.



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