Between meaning and making

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Between meaning and making

Rabeya Jalil's solo exhibition titled Between Meaning and Making opened at Canvas Art Gallery located in Karachi. The show opened on August 29th.

Half-Truths
Remembering Zahoor Ul Akhlaq
Studio Visit: Sanat Residency

Rabeya Jalil’s solo exhibition titled Between Meaning and Making opened at Canvas Art Gallery located in Karachi. The show opened on August 29th.

Within contemporary art theory, Algirdas Julien Greimas’s work in semiotics has had a profound impact on understanding how meaning is constructed and conveyed in various forms of communication, including art. His theories provide a structured framework for analyzing the complex relationships between different elements within artworks, shedding light on the intricate ways in which, on the one hand, artists create meaning and on the other, audiences interpret the message.

Artists create meaning through their creative choices, which encompass a wide range of elements such as visual components, symbols, colors, composition, and context. These choices are intrinsically deliberate and purposeful, aimed at communicating specific ideas, emotions, or messages to the audience. Artists draw upon their personal experiences, cultural influences, and the artistic conventions of their time to shape the content and form of their work.

Audiences, on the other hand, play a crucial role in interpreting the meaning of artworks. When engaging with art, individuals bring their own experiences, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds to the interpretation process. This diversity of viewpoints leads to a variety of possible interpretations for any given artwork. Audiences decode the visual and symbolic language used by the artist, forming connections between the elements presented and their own understanding of the world. Interpretation is not a passive act; it involves active engagement, reflection, and the search for personal significance. Ultimately, the meaning of an artwork is co-created through the interaction between the artist’s intent and the audience’s interpretation.

The term Making too, has a history of usage that can be traced back to a number of sources, including, for one, the Constructivists of the early twentieth century. In their case, ‘making’ stayed within Greima’s remit of art production that has a definite intent to express and communicate, as opposed to the lesser and more difficult conception of ‘factura’, which is supposed to be the making of art from materials that dictate both form and content. With this in mind, happily, Jalil avoids confusion by keeping to canonical methods of drawing and painting.

There is also that particular psychological aspect that Jalil would want us to accept as the mainsprings of this series of works. With a high degree of relevance to Jalil’s modus operandi, we may look to the works of Jean Piaget, who was a pioneering child psychologist and was responsible for significant contributions to the understanding of cognitive development in children. His work, often referred to as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, is one of the most influential theories in developmental psychology. His work revolutionized the field of developmental psychology and education. His stages of cognitive development have been instrumental in understanding how children’s thinking evolves as they grow. While his theory has received criticism and has been modified over the years, Piaget’s influence on our understanding of child development remains profound, and his work continues to inform research and education practices.

Already, in early Modernism, there was an appreciation or at any rate an appropriation of ‘primitive’ art, and soon after, this led to an acceptance of Naive art. This latter form of art eventually turned to ideas that are more closely related to Piaget;s theories. Jalil in fact, by her own admission, closely examines and follows the french artist and sculptor Jean DuBuffet (1901-1985), who, in his ambition to create a radically different aesthetic, created the Art Brut movement. The complete history of DuBuffet’s work and his influence on future generations of artists worldwide cannot be produced here, but it is known that his work was known to Jean-Michel Basquiat, mention of whom by this writer to the artist, during a brief conversation, contributed immensely to an understanding of her work.

The impetus, apparently, to go down this path of exploring and understanding her own artistic practice arose from Jalil’s observation that, in so many words, young children treat the very ground of existence as the place of pictorial representation. Children no doubt have a developed sense of near and far, but when it comes to putting a scene together, the pictorial space is flat ground, that is, it is rendered in two dimensions, with no understanding of perspective.

Jalil’s paintings are amongst those that cannot be fully appreciated in photographs – the size and scale of her works are integral to her discursive domain. The works titled ‘Cabbage On the Hen’, ‘Hand Over the Dog’ and ‘Green Dog’ respectively are impactful, therefore, in their scale and their chromaticity too is supported by that physical parameter.

It is said that the American Abstractionists of the mid-century – indeed amongst those who were inspired by DuBuffet himself – managed to do what the early modern masters had not quite achieved, which was to escape the canvas’s limits by way of staying ‘locally pictorial’. Technically this refers to the entry and exit points of lines and the positioning of intelligible shapes, a play of both physical presence and potentiality of imagination. Jalil manages these two latter factors very well – perhaps wisely not crossing over into the seemingly chaotic ethos of graffiti – thereby setting aside the temptation to go ‘whole hog’ in a manner of speaking.

The grid that is so much a part of art-pedagogy is used to its full potential by Jalil, not surprisingly given her position as an educator, to practice repetition, and in her case it is used to maximise lyrical expression – those who have had art-classes will recall the endless building-up of hue, gray-scale and tonality. This process also includes the rapid drawing of ‘thumbnail’ sketches on a single sheet of paper, an exercise calculated to encourage the connections between memory, eye and hand. In the simpler form, this exercise is visible in ‘Women Painting’ and ‘Green Portraits’, then this line of exploration is taken up by a more complex form of tablature, reminiscent of inscriptions on ancient monuments or stellae – ‘Zoo’ and ‘Lipsticks’ exemplify this furtherance, while ‘The Dividing Lines’ was the sole work that journeyed into the scriptural.

In sum, Rabeya Jalil had presented an extensive set of works that were demonstrative not only in their attention to detail and mark-making (‘Dragon’ for example) but also, a continual focus that tells us of a meditationary standpoint as well. The overall thrust, of course, is toward a mediationary approach to, and an intelligent acquisition of, Dubuffet’s ethos. To be sure, by way of this mapping, the exhibition also revealed that the artist may have discovered an artistic territory that will remain very much in her own possession.

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