Magical menageries and the imaginal realm: Breathing Light at Koel Gallery


Magical menageries and the imaginal realm: Breathing Light at Koel Gallery

“The poetry of Earth is never dead.” -Endymion John Keats An anthropomorphic paradise replete with mythological figures, flora, fauna and lu

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Scenes for a New Heritage

“The poetry of Earth is never dead.”


John Keats

An anthropomorphic paradise replete with mythological figures, flora, fauna and lush yet manicured verdant backdrops, contrast with savage dazzling beauty as ones’ eyes adjust to the jewel-toned saturation of sister artists Rabia S. Akhtar’s and Khadija S. Akhtar’s two-person exhibit of paintings at Koel Gallery, Karachi.

Held from 7th – 22nd December 2021, this rare display of emerging talent in ‘Breathing Light’, showcased vastly different yet equally mesmerising works spanning the mediums of acrylic and contemporary miniature painting. One of Karachi’s finest budding resident art writers-cum-artists, Rabia S. Akhtar, excels in channelling the imaginal realm into the visual, via a circumlocution of shamanic proportions. Her naturally imbued vistas, unlike Khadija’s similarly vibrant pieces, are a phantasmagoric mélange of conversely tempestuous and frolicsome creatures inspired by the conversion of kingdoms. The noetic quality of mystical experience courtesy mythology, folklore, fable and scripture, permeate the enclosed secret spaces of ‘Quiet Pathways to Eternity’ (Gouache on Wasli), where Indo-Persian curlicues of water mingle with primal Lascaux-esque profiles, simurghs, centaurs, beaked archers, morose ducks and joyous fish. Vibrations of tactile warmth and cool tones differentiate zones of peace and strife; a pendulum of binary energies, similarly found in ‘Chase and Silence’. Akhtar stresses the frailty of the natural and animal kingdoms in relation to mankind’s complicated nostalgia for a lost coexistence. Existing on the vibration of desire, dreams, possession, magic and grief, these post-mammalian entities cast a shadow of doubt on secure hegemonies of the waking state. Significantly, the freedom of such posited fantasy geographies and habitats allows for a deepened appreciation of the shamanic realms – the psycho-spiritual quest in many traditional frameworks for healing, brought on by embodying the consciousness of an animal through the designated human. The creative persona, so deftly illustrated by Akhtar, similarly manifests the dreams of the universe into corporeal form. In doing so, both shaman and artist, and indeed the artist-as-shaman, catalyse a healing wave across varying states of consciousness inhabited by man, animal, and the intangible anthropomorphic.

Khadija S. Akhtar on the other hand, invites her viewer into sacred spaces of vulnerable repose, filled with the palpably poetic presence of absence.  Throughout the carefully curated chaos of paraphernalia runs an undercurrent of tristesse, and the wilderness creeps into each abandoned nook. ‘Kindred Spirits’ (Acrylic on Canvas), for example, spares no expense at reminding one of early Fauvist palettes, juggling for attention with Impressionist-grade impasto. A heavily pockmarked moon, lights the solemn embrace of bears, while in the foreground, the gaze of a wary flamingo meets the viewer’s eye, and in the corner a seemingly incongruous teddy bear sits abandoned amidst a resplendent Eden of blossoms and arboreal growth. ‘Wet Dreams’ presents a haze of ‘Time Machine’ savage beauty, with flowers wafting headily in the indoor bower of a family of leopards seeking sanctuary amidst fish swimming magically mid-air. Heavily embellished Andalucían archways frame this ethereal scene, and a fountain with skewed perspective nods to traditional miniature’s multi-planar utilization of space. Akhtar is careful to compose within the framework of contemporaneity yet does so with heavily laden reference, a mode of questioning history, and recollecting the euphoria of better days. Her abandoned yet sacred spaces evoke scenes of lingering delight over sensory memory akin to Proust’s picturesque descriptions in the seminal ‘Remembrance of Things Past’/ À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’.  Akhtar’s strength is her ability to task formal elements with narrative quality and translate emotive experience as breathtakingly vivid.

Utopias are often overlooked in the niche genre of ‘future-past’, however ‘Breathing Light’ casts its net wide in an attempt to reconnect a sense of engaged awe and mindful be(wild)erment in us through its binary lexicon.  The respective Akhtars demonstrably hold the space for a future wave of Karachi-based neo-expressionist miniature firmly rooted in exploration of the surreal and the sublime.


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