Mussarrat Mirza – A Study of Light, Space and Color

It is an overwhelming experience writing about the art of Mussarat Mirza; an icon and a living legend in the Artscape of Pakistan despite her reclusi

In the Madding Crowd
After all this time

It is an overwhelming experience writing about the art of Mussarat Mirza; an icon and a living legend in the Artscape of Pakistan despite her reclusive disposition from the mainstream art milieu of the country, her career spans 5 decades and seeks to defy categorizations into oversimplified labels. The extensive breadth of the display at her recent retrospective show at Koel Gallery curated by Maha Malik, along with the accompanying monograph, allows for a comprehensive look at the artist’s process and the progressive development of the philosophical underpinnings inherent in her oeuvre, while also bringing to the fore some of the recurring themes that have become the hallmark of her brilliant art.

Mirza started painting from the tender age of twelve, a talent that was encouraged and honed by her father and the creative intellectual environment of her home in Sukkur. In the 1960s she travelled to Lahore to receive academic training in art and earned an undergraduate degree from Lahore College for Women, followed by a Master’s in Fine Art from Punjab University. As compared to her contemporaries who formed the Lahore Art Circle, and their attempts to break from “conventional representational aesthetics” with “new modes of visual and conceptual inquiry” through “interrogations into conceptual and formal abstraction, cubism, as well as a nascent and calligraphic modernism,” Mirza was “entirely unconcerned with the city’s theoretical debates… consumed with the raw matter of painting. This was the image of Mirza in her Lahore years: quiet, tempered, formidable talented, working constantly; already a young legend among her peers”[1] (Maha Malik, 2022)

Much like Khalid Iqbal, she feels she has been incorrectly dubbed a landscape painter when her concerns are fairly modernist. “His ‘realism’, if one must call it that, was of a different order to pictorial depiction.” An important distinction for Mirza. “Unfortunately, my work seems to carry the imprint of this label, perhaps because of my academic training. My lived environment is entirely different…My concerns are entirely different to those of a landscape painter.”[2]

Early responses to her work sought to confine her into an ethnic and genre-based box. Yet, “Her work guides us though, to both acknowledge and dissolve any impulses we may have to exclude, essentialize, or freeze meaning,” says Malik.[3] The essence of Mirza’s work can be found in her negotiations between color, light and space, situated very firmly within the visual and narrative context of her home in Sindh and its surrounding landscape. “Mirza has spent hundreds of hours of her life on this roof, as she has standing on the balconies and at the windows below it—a meticulous and poetic observer of changing lights and seasons. The city and its environment are her lifeblood as she discovers poetry in the most mundane of locales. Through her eye, the land of Sindh has been personified and made tangible. Experiencing this moment for oneself is to be convinced of the quintessence of Mirza’s work and its immeasurable connection with her physical surroundings.”[4]

[1] Malik, Maha, “Har Ja Tu – In the Realm of Light”, Monograph Accompanying Retrospective of Mussarrat Mirza, Koel Gallery, 2022.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Hashmi, Salima, “Har Ja Tu – In the Realm of Light”, Monograph Accompanying Retrospective of Mussarrat Mirza, Koel Gallery, 2022.

In an interview with Saqib Hanif for Dawn News, she talks about the scorching heat, harsh sunlight and endless dustiness of her hometown, which lends to the gloominess in its people, and remains the main protagonist of her paintings. This depressive gloominess also bleeds into her work, yet she also counteracts it with the depths and complexity of her palette through which this space takes shape. She never uses pure color but always mixes color, which lends to a more mature surface, and in certain lights, this is revealed and accentuated. It is in response to this that she looks towards light as a source of hope, drawn to it ever since childhood as it played off the surface of the River Indus in sparkling beads. In her work, light almost becomes a space in itself, light and shade built through layers of hues, applied in side-by-side to demarcate form and space.

Fresh out of art school, having studied under the tutelage of Anna Molka Ahmed, her first show reflected her training, with realistic scenes of Sindh rendered in bursts of color applied with palette knife in thick impasto. “…an ensemble of dargahi musicians, or a bullock cart from the time of Indus Valley seals, still found plying the backlanes of Rohri. Mirza was rendering a world that brought her much personal joy…These early works were at once narrative scenes, as well as mosaics of colour and light. More academically inclined reviews classified her art as ‘semi-cubist’. These referenced the new modernist nomenclature. Alternative, ethnic reading sourced her aesthetics in patchwork designs of Sindhi rillis.”[5]

During the 80s and 90s, she took up a position at the Sindh University at Jamshoro and established its Fine Art Department, spending her time travelling and working between Jamshoro and Sukkur. During this time, her work transformed. Rather than subject and form, there was more of a focus on space and environment. Color became subtle and muted, sparsely applicated, scratched and layered. The overloaded texture now gave way to more sparse surfaces. From here on out, moving into the 2000s, her work continues on his path, shedding its narrative weight and reference to distinguishable form, towards a sort of abstract landscape. “The poignancy of the moment was such, it was almost as though an autonomous direction in art were being conceived. ‘Neither landscape, nor abstraction.’ Or perhaps both landscape and abstraction, but resourced away from their meaning within western art history.”[6]

It is these later works that the retrospective opens with, curated in a way to bring the evolving trajectory of her practice to the fore, while also drawing comparisons between works separated by decades to highlight an ongoing visual and intellectual narrative. These works define her practice, studies of light and space through line and form, and in that sense become a study of image construction itself by splitting the picture plain into its constituents. For what else is an image but a demarcation of form and space through light?    

One is struck by the oscillation between a quiet opacity and textured urgency present within the same canvas, coaxing the viewer to move in close and then further away to reveal a different visual at each distance. The musty, earthy hues and shades merge and burst apart as the eye traverses the canvas, and what seems muted and enclosed at one point becomes sparse, cavernous and turbulent at another.

[5] Malik, Maha, “Har Ja Tu – In the Realm of Light”, 2022.

[6] Ibid

“Mirza was painting a new quality of depth views, with a feel for what we might call ‘void space’ (ehsaas-e-khala). She possessed this knowledge, as spiritual path, and as creative expression,” says Malik. And within this, light takes on a prominent shape and acts as the subject, while at the same time it is a diffuse presence felt in its subtleties. The works represent a brooding sensation, felt rather than seen.

As the works move towards the 80s and 90s, one feels more distinguishable referential forms appear, and spaces become slightly more defined as dusty rural scenes and cityscapes populated by ghostly figures and birds. On one wall, a series of works displayed together ranging from 2000-2008 read almost as a polyptych, identical color palette, one bleeding into the next, almost as a continuing landscape. Similarly, works like “Dust Storm” (1988), an untitled work from 1989 and “Ever and Endless” (2005) read as extensions of each other when placed together.

Moving up the stairs one comes across a series of 5 works that act almost as a transitory space to earlier decades, highlighting the shift in style to more representational form and more generous use of color and paint. These works range from 1989 till 2008, and feature a very similar composition of shapes and color, which become apparent when the works are viewed in unison from afar. What first appears as a still life of a charpoy and an earthen pot can later be seen in formal residue in cityscapes, diffusing into abstraction on smaller canvases by 2006-08.

This leads us to the beginnings of Mirza’s practice, with works from the 60s and 70s. Here we see the patchwork cubist style depicting the life and lands of her native Sindh in colorful exuberance. A sprawling cityscape, an interior space, a bull cart driven by turbaned figures; these works represent a more definitive narrative study with specified visuals. Yet, when displayed next to comparatively recent works, one can see the underlying essence and the foundations upon which her unique style evolved.  

In this way, the retrospective, along with the accompanying monograph, provides a comprehensive portrait of one of the most importance artists of Pakistan. It is a rare opportunity to study her work firsthand, guided by the gentle curatorial wisdom for a deeper understanding of the evolution of her style, themes, and process, and  its spiritual tethering to her and her surrounds. As Hashmi puts it, “Mirza has not succumbed to the dramatic winds of change in art-making in Pakistan over the decades. Unperturbed, she has sustained her vision with an inspirational, unflinching hold on the spiritual depth in which her work is rooted. A philosopher who thinks and speaks through the parlance of paint, the work embodies her just as she embodies the work.”[7]  

[7] Hashmi, Salima, “Har Ja Tu – In the Realm of Light”, 2022.


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