The seed, as miniscule and simple as it may seem, has always been appreciated as the most primary and essential source of life. Traced back to mythologies of creation, it is often read that the first form of life that sprouted across the new barren land was vegetation of every kind; all sorts of seed-bearing plants, fruits and trees.
Laila Rahman has had quite a longstanding dialogue with creation in her practice. She traces it back to a show held at Koel Gallery in 2012 and this concern has evolved as the years have gone by. In her most recent exhibition, ‘Blind Oblivion’, held at Chawkandi Art, Rahman again voices her trepidations about the conception of the world and saddening transition from utopia to its dystopian present.
As the story goes, the wonderful Garden of Eden was created for all species to live in harmony and at the heart lay the Tree of Life. It held seed-bearing fruit but was forbidden to Man. As long as it lay untouched, the world remained beautiful and calm. Rahman depicts this is in the first piece she painted namely ‘The Archipelago of Happiness’. The diptych is overpowered with cooling hues of blues and greens. At the focal point lie innumerable branches laden with spheres within which are compressed several living things. The scene is prosperous and tranquil, emphasized further by the perfectly balanced composition centred between the two square canvases. Most importantly, it is a setting devoid of human presence.
Unfortunately, owing to Man’s intrigue, a fruit was plucked from the Tree of Life. It was eaten and consequently led to the end of paradise. This despondency emerges in her other pieces. No longer serene, the rest of the canvases are painted with striking warm tones, unsettling, as they seem to almost jump off the canvas. ‘The Land of Lost Content’ is a great example of this. Similar to the previous artwork, multiple branches centre the diptych. However, unlike the preceding tree that emanated a mystical glow, this one is cold, with colours reminiscent of death. Gigantic pomegranates hover among the tendrils of the plant, overripe and drenched in a poisonous red.
In this show, the pomegranate becomes the focal figure of representation. Sensual in nature, the fruit once cut open, forms into curvaceous tendrils, which resemble the human form in a way. Its seeds give the impression of lovely rubies and it is greatly enjoyed by many. However, Rahman takes the beautiful produce, maims it and provides an almost horrid entity for the audience. She explains that the most beautiful and innocent are destroyed first; it is just way of people. The maltreated fruit is her vehicle to describe all forms of power in society; consistent power struggles in any size, shape or form lead to corruption. This can be seen in ‘Forsaken’; as the crimson limbs impinge the canvas, they gradually take over the delicately rendered grey world, inhabited by animals and plants. There was peace and splendour in the world, Rahman says, much before the creation of the human; it is the human species that has led to its downward spiral, as “people are dedicated to being corrupt”
As one who has always drawn inspiration from myth and literature, Rahman also draws her inspiration from Plato’s ‘Ship Of Fools’, which has inspired others in the past. These include Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch who used outcasts of human society to depict these ‘fools’. Rahman however, takes a different and more interesting approach; by showing that human society has instead shipped off good virtues and left the actual fools ashore. Her painting, named after the book, is of a pomegranate spread out to resemble a ship and surrounded by water. As this organic boat sails, it carries with it seven human figures with animal heads, each one representing a virtue. On the far left stands the antelope which is a symbol for adaptability. Below, sit the unicorn and lion, symbolizing innocence and courage respectively and near them is the wolf, a sign for guardianship and mothering. Then comes the butterfly, a symbol for metamorphosis; the dragonfly is free will and finally, on the absolute right, stands the monkey looking towards the sea and representing intelligence. All wait calmly on the ship, with no destination in sight as they are shipped off to nothingness. Again here the red stands out violently against the subdued blue of the figures and background. It is interesting to see that the reflection of the fruit is whole as opposed to its actual state; like a mirage of the past before being disfigured by humans.
“The Moon is weary…of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.”
Rahman has used the moon in a much of her previous work; however, it does not seem to be present here at all. The moon that is widely thought of as gentle, beautiful and a symbol of light does not seem to have any room in these works of destruction. There is a realization that just like the moon, there is no space for the gentleness in the world anymore; there is so much chaos and destruction that the present and future seem hopeless. One understands also, that history is repeating itself; we have continuously been hearing of unrests and turmoil, not only in our own country, but all over and even of the past we have heard more stories of war and death than we have of peace.
Nevertheless, through all the sadness the world has faced, as human beings we need to move forward, to have hope and strife to be the change we want to see. Rahman too, understands this; the last piece of work made for this exhibition is ‘Endless Night’. The colour palette reverts back to the cool tones of her first piece and in the centre of the quadriptych lays the nautilus shell. In nature, the nautilus starts of as a tiny form and slowly grows by adding chambers around it, thereby creating spirals. It is known for laying the groundwork for mathematician Leonardo Pisano Bigollo to figure out the Fibonacci sequence, which shows that the nautilus was created so efficiently by nature that their growth and movement could be mathematically understood. It becomes a symbol of optimism for Rahman because of its nature to continuously grow amidst diversity and so she ends her oeuvre with gentler tone, an image of hope, a necessity for us all. It also resembles the moon, in a way, with its almost perfect circular parameter as well as similar colours.
As an artist, Rahman explains that she has always had a preference for the square. This can clearly be seen in all her pieces where every diptych and quadriptych is made up of square canvases. Her use of it is interesting as the lines that result from the break between the canvases add a wonderful aesthete to the works. Another use of these lines comes from the quadriptychs. Each of the quads have a cross running through the centre of the works. Strangely, this cross also resembles the one seen when aiming through a gun rifle, a human invention, and one then realizes that the subjects of these paintings are in fact, in the crossfires of these weapons. This brilliant use of the lines by the artist shows us that, whether it is the defenceless pomegranate, the virtues or the shell, nothing is safe from the destruction of human hands.
The artist lives and teaches in Lahore as well as works as an independent artist, displaying nationally and internationally. Her work is displayed in the House of Commons Permanent Collection, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Strang Print Collection, UCL, London; the Transcultural Gallery, Bradford; Cartwright Hall Museum, Bradford; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA and the National College of Arts, Lahore. They are also owned in private collections in Australia, France, India, Italy, Kenya, Pakistan, Portugal, the United Kingdom and United States.
Rahman wonderfully captures the ephemerality of the fruit and makes one understand that as people, we care only for ourselves; we are selfish and have exploited this earth and inhabitants without consideration. Nonetheless, we still need these things to survive and if they disappear, eventually, so will we. So Rahman gives us hope; if we change, maybe our future will not be so bleak.
 Interview with artist, Laila Rahman.
 Samuel Beckett, From the catalogue, Blind Oblivion paintings by Laila Rahman
‘Blind Oblivion’, paintings by Laila Rahman were exhibited at Chawkandi Art gallery, Karachi from the 18th-25th April, 2017. Images courtesy of Chawkandi Art gallery