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Studio Visit: Laila Rahman

by Sehr Jalil Raja
Laila Rahman’s abode in DHA, Lahore is distinct and otherworldly – an oasis – a home – a dream – all in one. I went there some time back in the summer of 2014 and the artist and her home were both exemplars of wisdom and the ‘taste for life’…My mother always quotes these words, which she read somewhere: “If you want to know more about a person, look for the library, crockery and the garden in their home.” This home was all that and more – an architectural delight, with books pouring out of walls, high ceilings, bay windows, an abundance of sunlight and greenery, carefully sought after furniture, a Gardner collection (precious painted porcelain) placed in a box shelf till the sky! Just like her home, the artist has an ease about her which makes impressive credentials, achievements and institutions sound like the easiest possibilities. From Kinnaird College to Central Saint Martins, London, Slade, London (MFA), exhibits and endeavors through the globe – it all sounds like a day’s work.
It begins from the scenario prevalent in our homeland, where Rahman is disappointed and comments about not considering it a worthy place for the younger generations – while through a scattered but stirring exchange of notes and thoughts we arrive to the compatibility between ‘religion and myth’. As I listen to her insights I’m baffled by how delusional we are, how our intellect and ‘senses’ have worked through eons concocting, creating, destroying and blending our own stories.
We discuss her exhibition ‘Apocalyse’ (2002) at Chawkandi Art, Karachi, and her ‘New Paintings and Etchings’ at the BAG Gallery of School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the culmination of the artist’s residency at the school. While surveying her works, a blogger, The Evolving Critic, remarkably encapsulates her practice: “The exhibition features twenty-two works which investigate “manipulation, through the exercise of power of strength, of evil [and] of temptation. The story of creation, our idea of heaven and hell, and the downfall of pride are re-imagined in provocative and at times unbearable images. The anguish projected though No Words Written (2010), Fallen Angel (2011), Was it Knowledge, Apples or Even Pears? (2010) is inescapable. Our imagination of what Heaven and Hell would feel and look like is challenged through the inclusion of mutilated bodies juxtaposed with the light and at times seductive colors on the canvas.” While Salima Hashmi wrote earlier for the apocalypse catalogue, “the lyricism once crucial to Laila Rahman’s work has been transformed into an almost savage reflection on her times. The sensuousness of the body is invaded by circumstance, its nobility crucified.” In her text Hashmi also shares the emphasis on titles in Rahman’s practice, which are inevitable for the time spent with the artist is almost like being inside a storybook. Quotes, anecdotes, lessons are shared through a deep knowledge and zest for literature.
Rahman is one of the leading practitioners of the art of printmaking in Pakistan and she mentions that she initiated the first National College of Arts box print. She discusses her tenure as a teacher at NCA during the 80s which was a time of political unrest and the institution suffered breaks in the schedule. We begin talking about a project/book she is proud of. The folk myths of Raja Rasalu were shared with her by her friend Neelam Hussain. The book was forwarded as a collection of Punjabi folk tales. She reflects how myth and folklore are about simple things made elaborate. The art of printmaking as Rahman unfolds comes across to have an innate power of communion. She talks about various experiences, for instance, having had the honor of representing Pakistan in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights exhibition at Durbin South Africa…and I see art bringing continents together in one box; artists as activists and social workers who contribute to a more progressive fabric of society and there is a mention of a project, ‘ the right to assemble in a public space’. We discuss how situations drive work in the life of an artist and she mentions that her husband had a car accident and she hadn’t lifted a paintbrush for some time when she pulled through eight paintings and drawings with kids peering in while she was at work.
On a closer look at the magnificent book by Simorgh publications, Rahman shares that her friend Neelam Hussain was sure that this story had to be drawn out by an artist rather than an illustrator or graphic designer. She confesses that the book came as a “legitimate excuse to dive into colour”; the stories share culture and tradition which is as vibrant as it gets. She inspected the aspects of each story that intrigued her intellectually and imaginatively. So it was decided that the page preceding each story would be a coloured plate. The printmaking practice has given Rahman a visual vocabulary that triggers delightful questions of form. The delicate line where we ‘categorize’ and put ‘things in shelves’ is broken as the eye questions what it is watching…design, illustration or just art? The size of the book was twenty by twenty inches and it comprised twenty eight spectacular works of art with added illustrations. The women protagonists in the book are discussed in some detail by Samina Choonara and Krishan Kanna’s commentary on the historical importance of the visuals.
“All religion is a story”…as we move from the Helen of Troy to the Crucification of Jesus…I see the world as one entity that writes masterpieces. The studio is downstairs – a labyrinthine, L-shaped haven, currently in a less-active situation. Canvases, art material, books are everywhere…Rahman sorts out the visuals we want to decode. Headless figures are incognito and thus open ended – yet – there is a visual history which closes their openness. She refers to the passion of the Christ and asks why we don’t delve deeper into the stories we’ve always heard. “We need to aspire to something”. Rahman mentions experiencing a sabbatical after marriage. It ended when her husband got a Fulbright and was accepted into Harvard and they had to leave for Boston. It was a great year as she was able to develop a body of work.
The image of the Ka’ba had overtaken Rahman’s mind and she constructed a cube of flowers. It was exhibited at the Sharjah Biennial. These concerns naturally took Rahman to a work upon ‘rivered earth’ prompted by Vikram Seth’s writing. Rahman pays reverence to her Portuguese teacher, Bartolomeu Cid dos Santos. The artist mentions how “solidifying the space” and traditional methods of execution intervened in her imagery. She refers to living in London through her education as an ‘osmosis’. Upon my query, I’m told that her home, which is also a work of art, comes from the design philosophy of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and is designed by architect Rashid Rasheed.
With Laila Rahman we mix separate worlds and make new stories. From discussing the possibilities of King Lear being Raja Rasalu being King Lear…as if layered under the same magnifying instrument – between atoms, molecules, cells and beliefs – we are but one…
Sehr Jalil Raja is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore (BFA, NCA 2006). She is currently pursuing an MA (Hons) in Visual Arts at NCA and teaching O-Level Art at the City School.
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