Wardha Shabbir’s work is alive- growing, evolving, and breathing. Shabbir’s career as an artist demonstrates a recurring exploration with the metaphysical, drawing the audience in as each work overflows into its surroundings through her symbolic use of foliage and birds. Shabbir’s first solo show in London, In a Free State at Grosvenor Gallery, conveys a continuation of her experimentation with space, experience, and life’s path. I sat with Shabbir at her studio in Lahore while we drank tea and discussed the evolution of her artistic process.
In A Free State won’t be the first time Shabbir’s work was displayed in London. Shabbir’s work for the 2018 Jameel Prize 5 at the V&A was intricately arranged as she rendered foliage into what she refers to as ‘organic geometry,’ with the nuqta technique. These unique shapes can be seen in paintings such as Two Pillars (2018) and A Cube (2018), with yellow and orange backdrops reflective of the Lahore sky. For the Jameel installation, Shabbir continued her paintings off of the canvas and onto the wall, to guide the viewer through a sensory experience reflective of life’s path. Shabbir’s spring 2019 solo-show for Canvas Gallery in Karachi, The Space Within,, evolved from the encapsulated geometric shapes we witnessed at Jameel Prize, as the foliage sprawled, or grew, out of their forms. Shabbir challenged boundaries with these works that were full of energy, and as mesmerising as ever. Shabbir comments on this shift, “While the Jameel Prize 5 work was about achieving a degree of perfection, my new work is about adapting and evolving.” The motifs were not only growing out of their geometric forms, but also wrapped around three-dimensional figures, as Shabbir experimented with the physical space of the gallery.
Shabbir’s experimentation with space enables her work to overcome physical separation from its audience. Shabbir returns us to the concept of the frame, helping us to realize that the artwork does not end within it, nor does it begin on the canvas. Theorist Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting explores the notion of framing a work of art. Derrida wrote that the art itself is not autonomous from its physical context, despite the attempt to separate the two with a frame. Shabbir’s art captures Derrida’s sentiment- that we are connected, and we cannot remove the art from its surroundings. “If I had the choice, I would never frame my works,” Shabbir continues, “the area outside of the frame is just as important. The whole space then becomes one work”. How the audience moves through the space is very important to Shabbir. Small gestures such as the slight tilt of one’s head, which Shabbir achieves by moving beyond the physical frame, are what connects Shabbir with the viewer.
We witness the same dedication to fluidity in the exhibition/showing at the London gallery known for showcasing modern and contemporary South Asian art. In a Free State’s opening work, A Life Cycle, is arranged so that frame itself is in movement, blurring the boundaries often placed between a painting and the space within which it exists. A number of pieces in the show will experiment with physical framing through geometric compositions that do not abide by the conventional shapes of the canvas. According to Shabbir, the opening work is a documentation of “everyday happenings,” symbolized through bird migration paths she observes from her high-rise apartment window. Shabbir is known for drawing inspiration from her natural surroundings in Lahore. The bird flight patterns are a recurring motif we have seen in her work for the Jameel Prize, as well as for The Space Within. These tiny birds often flutter off of the wasli and onto the surroundings walls, for viewers to observe with a magnifying glass. There are traces of Shabbir’s tiny birds throughout Lahore as well, painted onto the glass pane of the door to Rohtas 2 gallery. Shabbir facilitates an exchange between the viewer and the work, so that more is seen with each interaction.
Shabbir’s natural surroundings become emblems for her own life through painting, culminating in metaphorical maps of her human experience. Seven months ago, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. This transformational life experience, both physically and emotionally, can be felt in her new works as Shabbir departs from the organic geometry we were used to. This can be seen most drastically in Coming Together, inspired by a tree near her home which was shedding skin. Shabbir expressed that when she witnessed the tree stripping of layers to create space for new life, it became allegory for recent motherhood. Shabbir reflects on her natural surroundings to make sense of her place in the world. However, while Shabbir’s work is very intimate to her journey, it is also universal. Shabbir claims “I want to leave [space for] the narrative to be filled in.” Through the twists and turns, as seen in the sculpture A Narrative of Space, which is filled with leaves collected throughout Lahore, we find our own selves in her work. We can’t help but reflect on our individual journeys.
Although Shabbir’s work is characterized by careful consideration, evoking meditation on metaphysics, she has a warm and light-hearted personality. Unable to work upright on her stool immediately after the birth, Shabbir had a special easel assembled for her bed, from which many of these works were made. Shabbir jokes “I was lying like Frida Khalo, painting from my bed.” When talking with Shabbir about this new series, one can’t help but feel a newfound sense of place. Shabbir is content with where she is, as the new works let go to life’s rhythm.
The nuances of framing and movement are not the only innovations in Shabbir’s recent work, there is also now a shift in hues. Known for orange and yellows, Shabbir is now consumed by various shades of blue, which can be seen in her new works. “After you look at one colour for so long, you see its complementary colour when you close your eyes.” Shabbir continues, “Recently, I began to see so much blue.” Shabbir stays true to what she feels, so she began to work in various shades of the colour. Shabbir also noted the intentionality of switching to blue for London. “It works,” she says, “because I like to create for my surroundings, and when I think of London, I picture the blue skies.” Yet, there will still be traces of orange and yellow in the show, reminding us of where we started. “the combination of these colours- orange and blue, happens at sunset,” Shabbir says, “during a time of transformation.” The new use of blue is connected back to the overarching theme of transformation, as each decision behind the show is informed by her own life.
If one follows Wardha Shabbir’s artistic career, it is impossible not to feel moved, emotionally and physically. Shabbir’s work emits honesty. Behind each detail, a very real experience occurs. From the hue to the frame, as well as each nuqta, it is all an extension of Shabbir, reaching out to the audience. On In a Free State, Shabbir comments, “This new work is not about being perfect. It is about being who you are.”