The etymology of the word “intimate” is interesting. Its variants are versatile and revelatory- in some cases, they contrast, with the current use and understanding of the word. For instance “intimate” means to make known, announce, impress therefore an unveiling of private feelings which are intangible or a confession of sorts is implied while as an adjective the word “intimates” is used euphemistically to refer to a tangible product that is put on display in public to be sold, in this case, women’s underwear.
Working with such dichotomies and contradictions is a mainstay of many artists. They unsettle and provoke dialogue between the viewer and the work so the title of the exhibition of artworks by eight women artists seemed apt as it also dealt with such themes. “Intimate Conversations” which opened at Royaat Gallery in collaboration with LLF not only showcased the fact that the artists had grasped the potential of exploring such incongruities in relation to gender and female identity but could equally be credited with contextualising and translating them into unique images that could be read in a myriad number of ways. The show was curated by Saulat Ajmal while the works of the following artists were exhibited namely Aisha Abid Hussain Fatima Saeed, Masooma Syed, Natasha Malik, Rabeya Jalil, Shireen Kamran, Unaiza Ismail and Zaineb Siddiqui.
There were several strands that wove the exhibition together as a thematic whole yet also allowed each work to impact the viewer independently in terms of their style, form and medium. Most of the works were small, carefully crafted and introspective in approach. Interestingly architecture or some facet related to it featured in most of the works with artists exploring the tenuous relationship between public and private, female and society, constructs and taboos. Text-based work, drawing and sculpture also left an indelible mark with Aisha Aid Hussain and her use of script as a form of mark making, Rabeya Jalil with her bohemian homage to painting and Unaiza Usmail with her knack for making small things look large, strange and tantalizingly sexual.
Overt references to female identity, sexuality and society dominated though. Natasha Malik’s “A Precarious Conversation”, dreamlike in its treatment of space stood out in this context. As voyeurs, one was privy to two female figures in the nude, one whispering to the other as they floated in uninhibited abandon in a languid rendering of a bare landscape. The promise of a secret being shared drew one in; it implied a violation of private space yet piqued interest and in doing so questioned the spectator’s presence. Her other images allied more closely with an interest in architecture as an embodiment of a state of mind or as a societal straitjacket with respect to female identity.
These images consisted of two paintings, each one divided into a diptych and executed along the same lines. “A Swim through Time concluded” for example consisted of a composition that was austere in its division of colour and space. The upper half depicted an outdoor scene with a swimming pool in the foreground while the lower half of the surface was left bare. Yet the image itself was disconcerting with its multiple vantage points, tilted dizzying angles and divisions all painfully contained and seemingly compressed within horizontal rectangles.
The second half of the diptych showed a sparse white sheet, a small portion of which was painted in translucent shimmering tones. Amorphous and ambiguous, the tension between the sum and its part still remained.
This unease was also explored in another untitled image by the same artist and consisted of a series of small snapshots that resembled organic forms akin to wounds, openings, obstructions and constrained pathways.
Such conflicts that teeter between desire and societal control were obliquely referenced in Unaiza Ismail’s sensuous monochromatic drawings done with a Rotring pen. They featured surreal organic forms that resembled delicately rendered fruits and vegetables; on closer inspection, though one could see banana peels transforming into curling octopus tentacles or in the case of “Unrequited Love” they seemed to lovingly wrap and constrict the melon half. Long tubular forms as phallic symbols, ripe fruit halves and titles such as “Popping Cherry” were clues that summed up a vocabulary that was rife with unapologetically sexual themes that dealt with control and surveillance.
Aisha Abid Hussain’s quiet and somber “Bilingual Love Series” compositions with their empty squares and irregular white gaps contrasted with bands of curling minute script in red to create mournfully but arresting narratives about love and loss. The wedding photograph turned minimalist relief prints that had been stripped of colour and life in her Two Not Together series questioned the relationship and power dynamics that existed between a bride and a groom in society.
Fatima Syed used the geometric layout and aesthetics of miniature painting with the Chahar Bagh as the main motif to explore the mediation between private and public. The Chahar Bagh refers to gardens as an embodiment of Paradise on earth but stripped of foliage and context the composition with emphasis on shape and colour simply looked like a demarcation of territory, space, and control. In her other untitled works executed in graphite, it was linear shapes that resembled aprons and/or vests that had been enlarged to dominate so that the contested private space seemed to encroach upon the neatly ordered mapping of squares and shapes that could be interpreted as public space or society.
Rabeya Jalil’s raw, brash textures with animals as metaphors and unschooled forms in the tradition of Banksy and Buffet were suffused with an energy that sought to capture scenes, memories and anecdotes with unbridled ferocity. She exhibited a knack for making process based art seem effortless when in fact one could identify a vocabulary that was couched in a cheeky and irreverent sense of humour with titles like “Halal Self” and “When Hippo Came to My City”. Her 4 panel“Self Portrait” resembled pages of a diary in size and shape but exhibited careless abandon in execution and expression that was at odds with the intimate sizes. Even Shireen Kamran’s abstract composition seemed to convey a sense of urgency with its spontaneous brushstrokes.
Masooma Syed with her inventive vocabulary of staged tableaus and dioramas consisting of arcades, doorways and old photographs-shapes culled from wine bottle labels- seemed to envelop the viewer in an aura of the past that encompassed memory, nostalgia and history but not without a dollop of social critique and rebellion. For example “Centenuary” featured little paper cut figures viewing an exhibition of paintings. One of these paintings seemed to be an old sepia tinted photograph while the second was an oil painting of a figure executed in painstaking detail. Only one spectator on the stage seemed to stoically observe a scene of domestic violence taking place coupled with a sign containing an acidic truism about the art world that said “Art has to be minimal, large, smart and clean”. Possibly self- referential and self-deprecating, the work commented on expectations within the politics of display and representation in a curated space. Or perhaps the combination of satire and sadness simply appealed to Masooma Syed who uses this motif often in many of her works. Zainab Siddiqui’s dreamlike overlapping closeups of vertical grids and structures seemed to fade and reappear much like the haphazard urban structures and shuttering that characterises our unplanned cities today.
“Intimate Conversations” was about looking and therefore performing through engagement with a multitude of works. One was impelled to zoom in, bend down or step away ironically just to enter many of them. Perhaps the title itself prepared one to do so.
Intimate Conversations remained on display from February 25th to March 10th, 2019 at Royaat Gallery, Lahore.