“Before maps the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not jus
“Before maps the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed, not just laid waste and plundered. Maps made places on the edges of the imagination seem graspable and placeable.” Abdulrazak Gurnah
Maps are not only made of land and water; there are cartographies of cultural practices too. On the façade of a Mughal monument, around a Ming Dynasty utensil, weaved in carpets from Iran and Central Asia, are outlines of geography of aesthetics of a society, and how the borders of religion, race, language, conventions are blurred by the hands of a stone carver, a potter, a weaver. Looking at these creative practices — both in functional objects and decorative items — one realizes that no society was ever landlocked. Images, materials, techniques, artisans, and consumers travelled from one place to the other, infusing new elements into the cultural practices of a people in different periods of history.
This has been a distinct feature of the art of the Islamic world. As the religion emanating from the Arabian Peninsula reached distant locations, from North Africa to the Middle and Central Asia to the Far East, it carried alongside an amalgamation of regional traditions to extend the notion of Islamic art. Mughal miniature, which today is perceived as a mark of identity in Pakistan, was the product of exchanges and encounters between communities and regions. This indigenous art form emerged in India through Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, two Persian painters who accompanied Emperor Humayun to India, and stayed on. Later, the art of miniature absorbed and assimilated formal aspects, imagery and subjects from the European paintings brought to the East by ambassadors, Jesuit preachers, traders, and travellers. Other creative products in the realm of decorative tradition, such as calligraphy, textiles, pottery and architecture, were enriched in the same way.
In her artwork – from her recent solo exhibition being held at Gurmani Cenre for Languages and Literature, LUMS, Lahore – Iram Zia Raja seeks these threads that are tangled in time and yet widely visible in our culture. Her imagery reflects an intelligent and intuitive exploration of traditional practices in the region, in fact the entire Muslim world. Raja was trained as a textile designer from the National College of Arts (NCA) Lahore and has been teaching at the institution in various capacities over more than three decades. She is now the Dean of Design Department at NCA. Her contribution in promoting a sense of originality in the field of design — that relates to present times yet responds to a long tradition of pattern making in the Subcontinent — is substantial and duly acknowledged. Inspired by her research and inquiry, Raja has been producing unique works of high quality in textile Art.
Textile was associated, historically and culturally, with women who stayed engaged with weaving, embroidering, knitting and stitching. From the Andes plains to the plateaus of Central Asia, and in the regions of India, Africa, and other parts of the world, women have been the makers of quilts, shawls, spreads, runners, wearables, etc. Though previously exiled from the discourse of art history, the textile is now acknowledged and regarded as a parallel and potent form of art-making. Hence. Faith Ringgold, Mrinalini Mukherjee and many other international artists brought techniques, materials and aesthetics connected with textile crafts associated with women into the domain of mainstream art.
Recognizing this, Iram Zia Raja, has been producing her art in a vocabulary or medium that sways between being functional and aesthetic, traditional and modern, expressive and deliberate. In that aspect, she carries the legacy of Muslim image makers, who by using geometry made innovations in their design as well as their calligraphy. In her works on fabric, Raja incorporates conventional motifs in a range of tones: gold, silver, copper and bronze along with other hues from the spectrum. In these compositions, the history of geometric design is reinterpreted, through manipulating basic shapes, though not replicating the past (and perfect) forms. Fragments of sacred geometry appear and are modified; hence the elementary diagrams of circle, cube, rectangle, triangle, and hexagon are combined, composed and constructed to create contemporary designs.
Her imagery is not limited to the craft of making as it recognizes the fabric of a society that breathes in multiple times and in many traditions at the same moment. Raja has recognized this aspect, and her tapestry panels reflect the change in relationships between old and new, original and derived, local and foreign. Her visuals comprise segments of Kufic script, motifs from sacred manuscripts, elements of Mughal gardens, and patterns from historical garments, thus presenting a contemporary view of tradition.
In her embroidered works, Raja deals with the history of design with ease and openness; in the tone of a person who is playing with form to satiate a personal vision, deconstructing elements and shapes, and joining them with a great level of freedom. Hence fabricating a particular pictorial vocabulary, which has a distant link with the tradition, yet is distinct for its contemporaneity. In her interview published in a past issue of Art Now Pakistan, Raja had explained her position on the question of tradition: “… tradition is the continuity through which we know ourselves… example of the priest king statue from Indus Valley Civilization. He is wearing a shawl that has a trefoil motif carved on it. Today’s Ajrak has the same motif. This is the power of tradition: An unbroken lineage of over 5000 years… for every artist/designer out there I feel it is very important, almost a lifeline, to stay connected to your roots and feel for them and work on them and innovation will follow.”
Her work illustrates her words, as a different interpretation of tradition indicates diverse possibilities that are open to a creative mind. Her works portray the way she has continued her inquiry into Islamic geometry on a formal as well as conceptual level. In any case, form is not delinked from content in Islamic art. The act of putting a mark, shape, letter is not merely an aesthetic excursion, but a serious sojourn towards connecting the transient world with the eternal. The genesis of some works lies in patterns which our mothers, grandmother and great grandmothers have been creating in fabric — an ancient, authentic, and functional surface/medium.
Along with geometry, what distinguishes her work is the presence of script and an uncanny usage of colours. Section of Kufic letters merge with Mughal motifs, to create a language that is rooted in our cultural past but, like any work of literature penned in a vocabulary formed centuries ago, appears unique and personal and new. Iram Zia Raja has created a language that is distinct for its vibrancy, fluidity and depth and is lyrical at the same time. Motifs, texts and textures invoke a perfect past but in a new language in her compositions.
The most remarkable quality of her work is that she deconstructs traditional forms, patterns and texts to create new forms that may be rooted in the past but carry a contemporary sensibility. Regardless of using motifs and scripts from the past, or employing functional or decorative examples, what she has created out of this cultural legacy/heritage are the unusual and creative compositions that are unmistakably Iram Zia Raja; reaffirming the position that artists’ works are primarily a reflection of them.