Sana Arjumand had a busy 2013, with exhibition in Sydney, Karachi, Dubai and Mumbai, but the talented Islamabad-based artist has already come out with a collection of new works for 2014. Arjumand, who studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore, presents her latest works at Khaas Gallery in Islamabad, showing from March 20 through to March 31st.
‘Ascension’ is the title of the exhibition and it reflects the nature of this new work well. Upon entry to the small but well-lit gallery, your are met with the titular work of the exhibition, Ascension, a large acrylic and enamel on canvas painting, comprising twelve separate paintings of birds. Birds play a central role in Arjumand’s current work, and she says they represent to her angelic beings, a “conduit between the sky and the earth” and in her paintings they are signifiers of help and assistance from the unseen realms. Ascension details this angelic dimension the artist attributes to birds by showing us the monochromatic, physical bird in ten of the squares that make up the painting, contrasted with the vibrantly colored and geometrically rendered manifestations of the birds’ higher symbolism, that of the heavens.
The two strong images that characterize this exhibition, the bird and the geometric plane, are again seen in the painting Mountain of Light (Jabal-al-Noor). This work is made up of five panels, but it is the central panel that immediately draws the eye. There is a tension in the composition that is quite captivating, with the free fluid form of the bird placed in the middle of a structured and still geometric background rendered in deep greens. Jabal-al-Noor of course is the name of the mountain in Mecca where the cave of Hirra is found, and indeed we can see that the head of the bird in the painting is just above the image of this mountain, however the symbolism goes beyond the reference to this specific place, rather detailing the connection between mountains and spiritual revelation in all creeds. The three bottom panels seem to suggest a proximity to the heavens, with the three green squares all in the process of ascension. Above them are two more birds in the top panel – signifiers of divine help – pulling at threads of light and bringing them near to those who have come seeking on the mountain.
Spiritual traditions and stories have had a strong influence in this series of work, and Arjumand has used her canvases as a means to explore the inner dimensions of these traditions. One such painting is In the Heart of the Tree There Was a Voice – I Belong With Him. This painting details the story of the Oudh tree, which was said to have cried deeply when Adam was sent down from the Garden to Earth. The Oudh cried so much that is was allowed to join Adam in the physical realm. The painting shows a window to the heavenly Oudh tree, portrayed geometrically which signifies that it is not in an earthly plane. This is surrounded by the rest of the painting in deep russets and burnt umbers; paint dripping, languishing on the canvas and calling to mind the mellifluous flow of sap from the physical Oudh trees that give the world its most prized perfume. A single embroidered thread, which seems to represent the presence of noor, or spiritual light in Arjumand’s work, weaves its way off the canvas from the Oudh tree, a reminder of the Heavenly station of these trees.
Embroidery is a new element to Arjumand’s work, something she used to do and love as a child. One painting in this series that uses this element heavily is Veiling of the Consciousness which depicts myriad eyes all staring unblinkingly, while being sewn together by five geometric birds. The painting represents the layers or veils that are placed on our consciousness from birth, which are the black threads of the embroidery. Those who are seeking connection with the higher realms work to peel away these layers as they journey deeper into their own consciousness. A while ago Arjumand shared with ArtNow that she hoped her next works would be a ‘peeling away’ of the layers of consciousness, and she has shown that theme strongly, not just with this painting, but throughout the whole exhibition.
All eleven paintings presented for contemplation at Khaas Gallery explore some aspect of our connection with the divine, and the ways in which spiritual seekers are assisted and guided along the path. Arjumand is clearly passionate about investigating the inner experience of life, and the effect of standing in front of her new series is that you, the viewer, are invited to do the same.
‘Ascension: New Works by Sana Arjumand’ was on at Khaas Art Gallery, Islamabad, from 20-31 March 2014.
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan