Wardah Shabbir has created a mythical world in her solo show Of Trees and Other Beings which serves as a language to present various narratives as well as a topology to operate in in an attempt to navigate her own psychological landscape.
I will present a psychoanalytical reading of the work to go where the work itself leads but shies away just in time. I deem this necessary because I feel that the work is deeply personal and more overt compared to her previous body of work. This time Wardah has gone where she had not ventured before, pushing her own limits as well as that of the genre of miniature painting.
A common streak that runs throughout the work is of duality. Not simply because of the hybridity of characters on a physical level or the presence of two heads instead of one, e.g. in A Plant I Died and Rose an Animal, but also in terms of what the work seems at the first glance and what it is revealed to be at closer examination and in other more important ways which will get clear as I proceed.
The characters presented in Wardah’s work appear uncanny. Sigmund Freud developed the subject in his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny), in which he drew attention to Otto Rank’s concept of the double, which might explain the doubling of heads in Wardah’s work. However, one thing to keep in mind is that what makes these landscapes uncanny is not their physical deformity but their connection to the mind from which they originated. Freud proposed in the above-mentioned essay that the uncanny is that which reminds us of our repressed impulses and emotions. Thus the monsters in Wardah’s work are not uncanny in themselves but are scapegoats onto which is projected the repressed content of the psyche.
In By the Skyscape, a red winged fish is crouched over a mountain, out of which flow streams of water irrigating the lush valley below. The reservoir of water at the bottom of the composition is shaped like a funnel, perhaps referencing the womb, forming an almost upside-down reflection of Untitled, in which a reservoir of water in the form of vapor (cloud) hovers overhead in the shape of a pyramid. Where in By the Skyscape this reservoir pointed downward, here it seems to point upward. The central figure in Untitled is a human-like creature with two (parrot and buffalo) heads. The heads this time are not affixed side-by-side but exist within each other as if in two parallel dimensions. The left hand is again positioned over the genital area, a posture that is only reinforced by the womb-like capsule constructed out of leaves within which the figure is standing.
The symbol of the fish is one that recurs in Wardah’s work. Looking at By the Skyscape I am reminded of the Greek myth that recounts how Aphrodite, the goddess of love and pleasure, transformed into a koi fish to escape from Typhon, a fearsome monster sent by Gaia to kill her. But if one were to move forward with such a reading, then where is the monster from which the fish is hiding? A hint can be found in A Tree Realm in which a fence of leaves in the shape of a circle encloses an eden-like garden. Crouched on top of a palm-like tree is a human figure with a goat or cow head. The only visible hand is squeezed within the genital area. This repressed sexuality is only made more intense by the presence of the only tree present outside the circular garden. The tree resembling a spruce, because of its verticality and radiance (portrayed through the use of white), points upwards to a divine realm, but seen in reference to the figure inside, can also be read as a phallic symbol. In this sense, this work is similar to A Rose which, too, references both sexuality and spirituality, the fire being an equivalent of the white tree in A Tree Realm and the rose being a symbol for the Goddess Aphrodite. The rose is on fire but the flames do not consume but caress.
But the relation of a feminine protagonist in each work with what seems the divine/masculine is not a warm one. The “other” is experienced as traumatic; at times with longing but also with caution as if there is an awareness that complete assimilate will lead to annihilation. The traumatic is always kept at bay ― outside an enclosure bounded by what appear to be hedges ― a space to which Wardah frequently refers to as ‘personal turf’. In the show the whole gallery becomes her ‘personal turf’ while the peepholes spread around the walls, through which can be seen the sky, provide access to the ‘other’ present outside this safe haven. For me this ‘personal turf’, which she constructs physically in installations too, is neither personal (because the viewer is allowed in) nor physical. Rather, it appears to be a psychological space shaped to provide shelter from the demands that the ‘other’ presence, be it phallic or divine, makes on the psyche. In this sense, the work, even when daring in other ways, depicts a safe existence ― yes, an existence that is on the brink of annihilation or assimilation, but just not yet…