Sobia Ahmed showcased a powerful collection of works at Khaas Gallery in November. Two themes were evident through her work, that of environmentalism and political commentary. This body of work clearly shows Ahmed’s passion for the fate of her country; her struggle with the current trajectory of political affairs are evident through her art. She uses strong symbols in her work, starting with the classical face of the traditional Mughal miniatures, but contrasted with thoroughly modern backgrounds reminiscent of Mondrian, western symbols such as Cupid and the universal symbol of death, destruction and decay, vultures and crows.
One theme that is evident through many of these works is the relationship of Pakistan and the US. The ‘stars and stripes’ appear in various forms in an number of works, such as New Order where an unconscious or perhaps deceased man hangs upside-down from a symbolic rupee note, hands, neck and ankles tied with red and white striped rope. More obvious still is the symbolism of Who Will Be Next where we see the same unconscious man, his green dress with white stars symbolic of Pakistan. He is hanging from a fishing rope held in the hands of another Mughal-faced man whose outfit bears the stars and stripes symbolism and whose right leg is decked out in military camouflage and boots. This bold visual statement by Ahmed appears to show the US-Pakistan relationship as one where Pakistan is not only being hung up to dry, but is being used as bait at the same time.
In the Offing shows a similarly asymmetrical relationship between the US and Pakistan, with a student-teacher or master-servant relationship seeming to be depicted. The faceless figure of the teacher, clothes bespangled in the stars and stripes, puts out a not-so-benevolent black hand towards the ‘student,’ the faceless green Pakistan, who is dwarfed by the sheer size of the US. Behind the carmine background, the outline of crows can be seen, perhaps waiting to feast on the outcome of this encounter.
The issue of Kashmir also rises in Ahmed’s work, with her painting Once Upon a Time in 1947 clearly making reference to the Indo-Pak war of 1947, the ramifications of which are still very much in play to this day. The vultures and crows symbolic of the death, destruction and betrayal this conflict still inflicts.
Changing in tone slightly, her environmental work for this exhibition makes a statement about how we as a race and perhaps Pakistan as a country has sold off its natural resources or left the environment to suffer at the hands of Big Money. In Once Upon a Time on the Map II, Ahmed uses the classic miniaturist leaf motif to create the illusion of a bird’s-eye-view of a lush green landscape with a large body of water. Across the top of the painting however is the ghostly imprint of a rupee note, a symbol she uses in many of her works. This signifies to the viewer that what was once upon a time green and lush and verdant has been sacrificed for the artifice of profit.
Sobia Ahmed uses her considerable skill with traditional miniaturist style, mixes it with modern symbolism and backgrounds to create compelling works that tell the story of her country, as she sees and understands it. These are powerful commentary artworks, skillfully portraying the artist’s strong convictions and in many ways registering with the viewer as a form of protest. Thought-provoking and confronting, Ahmed forces the viewer through her art to step back, at least for a moment, and reflect on the history, and future of Pakistan.
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan.
Images courtesy Khaas Gallery