In A.S Byatt’s “The Children’s Book” Olive Wellwood a writer of children’s books weaves richly layered stories for each of her children which are summed up in the following words


“The stories in the books were, in their nature, endless,” we are told. “They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit on to the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning.” 


-The Children’s Book by A.S Byatt


Like A.S Byatt’s richly layered world, Lahore based visual artist Wardha Shabbir’s early body of miniature paintings are visual renditions that abound with plenty of surreal subplots, hybrid creatures, visual detail and a predilection for foliage, flora and fauna that could make any 19th century colonial British naturalist swoon. To boot she collects insects: complete with the hooks, eyes and coiling sections. Literally.


She is rather sheepish as she elaborates


“I am a collector of butterflies and insects…I like collecting things that are pretty but also they are not. My work has come out of stories such as “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. There are many layers to literary meaning and that gives an artist lots of room to explore and understand.”


So what prompted this transition from miniature painting to installation? We discuss her unusual display for her Solo Show at Rohtas 2 in 2012 and her latest preoccupation: experiential spaces in art.


“I always wanted to create experiences that went beyond viewing a painting on the wall. I wanted to hold the finger of my viewer and take them into the work. My first step towards the idea of provoking interaction in my work actually involved covering the whole gallery space with a carpet of grass and I asked everyone to take off their shoes and enter the space. I had hung my paintings in the space. There was rotting meat on the table. Taxidermy crows. People were served sour candies. Everything had to be intense. The human sensorium was important. I was actually taking away choice from the viewer.”


The parallel to A.S Byatt’s description doesn’t end there because her practice has been defined by a constant interplay between revisiting the aesthetics of miniature painting through installation and vice versa- fertile ground for moving, coiling storytelling, rebirth and a new beginning. Wardha Shabbir has, through her practice, paid homage to her traditional foundation in miniature painting and acknowledged its timeless sophistication through constant reinvention and exploration of space.


“We have to keep touching the core of our miniature practice over and over again, pull something out of it to bring out something new and go back to it again. I made peace with my dissatisfaction with flatness in miniature painting after many years. That flatness had perhaps also prompted me, in my undergraduate years, to turn towards the surreal as an outlet. I now realize that the flatness of miniature painting was not something regressive but very contemporary. “




“For example at FLAAC, the Belgium Artist’s Residency I was the only Asian artist to be selected. I wanted people to experience and unravel a miniature painting because it is made in thin layers. There is a grid behind these paintings-an order to their making. This grid actually has a border to it, especially if you look at the Shahnama etc. There is the figure, behind the figure there are elements and then there is foliage behind it. So I was lucky enough to find a space in that Gallery that had a grid for a floor and would mirror as a border. The installation itself was circular and inside a dome because it was about me making a mark in a dot form because purdaakht is always in a dot form. I also wanted it to resemble a cottage made in the Hansel and Gretel tradition with a handmade quality. “


So experiential space and surreal metaphors! Shabbir also explained how she finally made peace with the flatness of miniature painting, a breakthrough that also won her a nomination for the prestigious Jameel Prize. She was one of the fifty artists working there who executed a body of work at Slade School of Art.


“Flatness always creates the illusion of there being more space than there is but I enhanced   that flatness to my advantage in this series. This was when I first started working with the idea of Google Maps. I was bad with maps and directions and often forgot my way there. In my painting I basically visually charted the route from my home to the studio. I often did not have access to the net so I visually drew shapes of routes in my mind to remember and focus on them. When I started drawing for my work what was coming out was an extension of my surroundings.


While my exploration of space and affinity for flatness was already underway, it was at this point that the figurative hybrid elements in my work vanished. My interest in space became so important that my imagery became about space itself. Previously I was looking at space as part of a visual vocabulary but its exploration had by this time evolved to a point where space emerged as the main idea in itself.


This was also when I started looking at individual elements of painting in isolation as well. I studied the trees of Lahore. The Pahari School style was very suitable for their visual depiction because Lahore itself was part of the Pahari Schools of Miniature Painting and that was how the Siraat-e-a Sajar series was born and then nominated for The Jameel Prize.”


But the second Solo at Rohtas 2 in 2016 which took place before Slade was also groundbreaking in many ways.


“Yes, this was when I really accepted that my main artistic concerns were to do with space. None of the paintings were placed at eye level. I wanted the viewer to look everywhere. The floor was important, the corners were important, then I drew on the wall as well so the idea was to merge all the surfaces as one.


I placed a false wall on which I drew minute birds in flight. From a distance you can barely see them. They are so faint. We actually got a chemical colour made specifically for them so that they merged with the colour of the wall. There were the tiniest of two peepholes, pinprick small placed at different points in the wall, they represented the minutest view of the sky- a video projection. It was all about the intimate experience of peeping inside. This was one of the works that was instrumental in helping me make the series that got me nominated for the Jameel Prize.”


We discuss the trials and tribulations that were involved in the realization of her installation at The Lahore Biennale.


“People couldn’t understand why I used fake plants! I chose these trees in order to have a dialogue with the natural foliage of the historical park. Would you call this fake foliage inside beautiful or would you call the space outside it beautiful? I deliberately made the foliage extraordinarily flat. The yellow colour of my installation wall is from the yellow background of my painting in the Siraat- e-Sajar (Way of Paradise) series. Raza Ali Dada and his architectural firm worked incredibly hard to realize the structure. It had fibres, concrete, steel inside. I needed a seamless yellow; luckily there was this new material available that allowed us to do that.


The steep edges of the form mimic the steep edges of a sheet of paper. The shape of the installation is so because it is a fragment taken out of my Siraat- e-Sajar painting.


As for the interior and its foliage, the first wall is a little tactile in texture, the second wall has a little flatness and the next one is completely flat. These trees are taken from the surroundings of the installation itself-from Lawrence Garden. It was within this curated space of a garden that I wanted to envision a garden of my own that would mimic my painting. It wasn’t easy picking these plants. These were not custom made. I had to scan bazars and sit in piles of fake foliage and think which foliage would work for my installation and mimic my painting most accurately. It also had dead butterflies and insects”


The concept of a maze in three dimensional form emerged as an important theme in this installation; can you elaborate?


“Whether you took a selfie or just went in to observe, the idea was that the viewer must lose his choice- he should be consumed by only what I want the viewer to see. I was looking at James Turrell’s work where an environment was created so that one looked up that was the only open place and it was the sky. So you enter and you lose sense of where you are, the sky will seem like a geometric shape. What would you feel like if you are in a claustrophobic wall where the walls are like a 10 feet high maze-like structure and the foliage is fake?”


For your recent Solo Show at Koel art Gallery there was a definite merger of two different elements in two different installations: the brilliant yellow from the Lahore Biennale work and a revisiting of the installation involving the peepholes executed at Rohtas in 2016.


“Each of my works has emerged from the previous ones. I credit them for my experiments. Such an experiment would not have been possible if I had not produced the works before this.


So yes, against a yellow wall I placed my paintings at different eye levels. The triangular painting is placed below eye level and then you see two linear strips placed on a plinth leaning against a wall. This gives you the idea of a three dimensional space- a space exceeding when it is not suppose to exceed.


The peephole now became a video projection 5-foot circle in diameter. I was inspired by Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Tanhaai. Initially one would see a trace of thin clouds. They would float away and you would think you are looking at the moon, a planet in solitude, in Tanhaai.”


Sombre reflection and solitude is certainly not on Shabbir’s mind as she mulls over future projects.


“I am thinking of an installation on the blinding intensity of the colour yellow. It has the capacity to capture the surreal and overwhelming feeling I am interested in!”


Shabbir’s curiosity and penchant for detail defines the entire course of our conversation. The sky is certainly not the limit for this artist.