Sana Arjumand is one of Pakistan’s most compelling contemporary artists, with a strong vision and thirst for discovery evident in her art. Her success is mirrored by a string of exhibitions around the world, with a recent three-month-long exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art. The same show, Light Beings, featured at Lahore’s O Art Space from January 19 through 29, 2018.
What’s unique about her current collection of work is that this is not reactive art. We’re not seeing a search for a construction of external self or even investigative images of her place in the world as a Pakistani, or a woman or a Muslim, nor a documentation of any aspect of the world today. The beauty of this series is that we’re given a window or pathway into another aspect of internal reflection.
While this journey to inner examination has been visible in Arjumand’s work for some time, the Light Beings series really represents a kind of ‘coming of age’ for the artist, in both its reception and coverage in a worldly sense, and it’s representation of a certain level of inner attainment and the beginning of the artist’s journey to bring about a positive energetic movement in the arts.
The paintings, while linking to elements of Sufism, don’t require the viewer to have any prior knowledge of either the artists work, her cultural identity or place in the world. This universality is perhaps what makes this work so pleasing to viewers, but it was, ironically, Arjumand’s worldly identity that first attracted curators at Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina. Jackie Adams, Director of Education and Engagement at the museum, expressed that there was a curiosity in the community to see the work of a “young, female Pakistani artist.”
However Arjumand, in an interview with local South Carolina news outlet Free Times, while welcoming being recognised for her culture and for her nationality and gender, also stated: “There is such a craving for that politically charged work around the world. Because I’ve done that, I know that there’s a craving and I know that it made me unhappy to do it. And I got success for that. But I want to also be looked at as a human being on the planet making positive work. These labels you get from the outside become a big part of your own understanding of the self. ‘I’ve got to let go. I’ve got to let go of all kinds of labels,” she says. Arjumand feels that through letting go of these labels and external identities, she can begin to express and implement a positive force through her art and hopes to ignite a positive shift in art-making.
Light Beings features a stylised ‘portrait’ of several different ‘birds-as-beings’; symbols that have become quite important in Arjumand’s work and signifiers of other dimensions of reality.
While each bird-being has its own energy and each painting carries a different feeling to the viewer, one thing that seems to connect them all is a pervasive feeling of quiet. The kind of hush that comes over a warm summer afternoon on rare occasions, where you can hear and see with such clarity that you still your breath to preserve the moment. That in-breath, that moment of utter stillness is where these painting seem to hang and while vivid and arrestingly visual, the paintings feel like they’ve captured that pure moment of inner silence between breaths.
As the catalyst for this series, Arjumand was with a muse, a hoopoe bird that alighted on her balcony railing and communicated to her wordlessly and profoundly. From this time in 2013 we can see a marked shift in Arjumand’s work, where a meditative quality pervades and a deconstruction of self takes place. “That magical moment held intense light’, says Arjumand, ‘The imprint of it in my mind is so gentle that I remind myself of it often as not to forget its power.”
This ‘gentle imprint’ is a common concept in Sufism known as ‘Lataif’ and while it is a broad term, it generally refers to a subtle almost intangible state, that is the beginning of the experience of inner essence. The Lataif experience is so fine as to be almost undetectable, and requires a great stillness to acquire, which again can be felt in the Light Beings series.
The eyes of the portraits are the main point of focus, where we can connect and interact, and far from being bird-like, the eyes have an eerie human quality that belies the bird form. In previous works, geometry has played a key role in the depiction of spiritual beings, however this series foregoes that signifier for a more stylised, but clearer view of these beings. A bit like a pixilated image clearing into focus, perhaps this work is a metaphorical depiction of the artist’s own understanding and experiences deepening and clarifying over time.
There is always something of the artist present in their work – such is the nature of Art – whether the artist intends it that way or not. However, it is a rare pleasure to be given a real window into the inner dimensions of an artist’s experience, in such clear and inviting terms. Free from the trappings of external labels, Light Beings is an invitation to come on an internal journey with the artist, and by doing so, start the same journey into our own selves also.