The simplest of symbols, the most basic glimpses of the familiar, can be used to create worlds we only half-know. Some of the greatest feats of visual
The simplest of symbols, the most basic glimpses of the familiar, can be used to create worlds we only half-know. Some of the greatest feats of visual deception take place on very pedestrian, very brown, very familiar wooden stages. Theatre, despite all the familiarity of its wooden stage, its collapsible sets, its unheroically thin partitions and walls, can take audiences to regions of their minds they are unfamiliar with. It can make them confront and question shadows and thieves. Art that employs the familiar in unlikely and concise ways can do the same.
Lahore-based artist Sadaf Naeem knows this better than anyone. She has pruned and perfected her imagery over the years to create a modest lexicon that can be put to infinite creative uses. Her second solo show, titled ‘Silhouettes’, was recently held at Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore and featured twelve paintings that were poetic expressions of her thoughts on femininity and its cultural implications. She gave to viewers a world of papery structures and stray shadows. A shrouded female figure would occasionally be passing through the desolate spaces but would not look you in the eye or correspond.
Interestingly, these spaces have the semblance of being fortifying and constrictive but the more you look at them, the flimsier and more vulnerable they appear. They are assailable and offer neither protection nor coherency, which is perhaps felt by the artist to be true also of the domestic environment females are encouraged to attach themselves to. But the artist does not make that her only concern. She counterbalances the segregation symbolized by these divisions by introducing into every piece a pervasive pattern. These patterns are unmistakably feminine – floral, lacy, the stuff of doilies, drapes and dreams – but rather than being powerless like the ‘weaker’ sex they represent, they are intractable. They rise and permeate.
So there is a duality underlying the work, a continuous tension, which gives viewers the sensation that there is more to these cloistered views than meets the eye. The use of lace is one of Naeem’s preferred devices, and one which she uses with a great degree of proficiency. Now lace, even as a fabric in its own right, trails with itself a plethora of connotations. It has frilled and bedecked ladies of repute in historical paintings; in more modern times, after undergoing reinvention at the hands of fashion houses and screen icons, it has emerged with sultrier nuances.
From forming a collar around Elizabeth l’s neck in the imperial Armada Portrait to being wound around Goya’s presumed lover in his Mourning Portrait of the Duchess of Alba, lace has been used through the ages to depict the various roles taken on by womanhood . In The Cradle, by Berthe Morisot, a thin net curtain hanging over a sleeping child alludes to maternity and protection. It is an articulate fabric. Even the names of some of the traditional techniques of lace-making have an elegiac ring to them. An antiquated form of needle lace was called ‘Punto in Aria’ or Stitch in Air; another was called ‘Ave Maria’. One cannot help but associate lace with purity, fragility, matters of the heart and soul.
In Naeem’s work, fragments of lace conceal faces and figures, blurring activity, negating presence. Mostly white, they contrast and struggle with ghoulish red skies and patches of green that have seen no sunlight. They can be seen as a motif for the soul. Perhaps in them rest the meticulous thoughts of a feminine mind. They suffuse their surroundings, taking over foliage and clouds. I was reminded, by Naeem’s flair for these delicately painted shreds of lace, of a Polish street artist who goes by the name of NeSpoon. By painting large lace patterns on worn, shabby, mundane structures or dead trees, she aims at beautifying the great outdoors one stenciled pattern at a time.
But Naeem’s veils do not just ornament, they also mystify. Like the recurrent curtains from Aubrey Beardsley’s eerie world, they serve secrecy. They lend themselves to whispers and half-formed thoughts. Though her emphasis has always been the depiction of stagnant societal values, marginalization, loneliness, the universality of her treatment in this body of work leads to a kind of abstraction which is very welcome. There are pieces, like ‘Kali Shalwar’ and ‘Obscure ll’, in which subtexts of violence and alienation can still be read, but they are low-key and not allowed to compromise the tremulous grace of the works.
It is just as well, for these works can now be seen as representations of some of the ideas that characterize classical Urdu poetry and literature that deals with questions on immanence and transcendence – is divinity present in all things? Is the material world a reflection of the immaterial world? Can we learn to look beyond the symbolic veils that separate us from the ultimate Reality? ‘Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill/ My perspective (still) as they pass/ Or else remove me hence unto that hill/ Where I shall need no glass.’ (Henry Vaughan; ‘They Are All Gone into the World of Light’)