Not all art is spiritual and not everything spiritual is art. Colours vibrate to different frequencies, bringing the viewer to desired states. Shapes from sacred geometry and symbols have existed past millennia, and yet are so potent that their meanings continue to resonate in our very being despite the lack of our cognisance. As a society, and perhaps as an individual, have we all been spinning so fast that we have lost the orientation of our orbits? Is the quest for the soul being answered by our quest to create?
Perhaps one of the foremost reasons that artists create, and the rest of us value their art, is because art forms an inestimable living bridge between the everyday psychology of our minds and the universal spirit of humanity. However, it is important to acknowledge the wisdom of avoiding materialistic contamination of true art: art that through its process of creation reflects on spiritual principles and values such as beauty, ingenuity, honesty, generosity, discernment, perseverance, and patience.
Abid Aslam’s latest solo exhibition held at Sanat Gallery probes this occurrence and lends to its veracity in otherwise spiritually impoverished ephemera. “Sitaron se Agey” (“Beyond the stars”) denotes a remarkable shift in Aslam’s imagery and an evolution of his concerns while retaining his signature methodology. Where once visuals were more representative and straightforward in identification, his current work is seemingly abstract with a focus on the forms, the contours, the light, and the shapes.
Having formally studied miniature painting, the technique of using eyelets on wasli employs its origins from the traditional practice; where each eyelet presents itself as a single stroke or a pixel. The image can be deconstructed from up close, but each character melds and orchestrates a single image with voice in unison.
One can easily discern that Aslam derives part of his inspiration from impressionism and post-impressionism. He dissects ordinary subject matter that is often looked over. Characteristic of impressionist style, his work mimics the technique of incorporating relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, an open composition, an emphasis on accurate depiction of light, and an inclusion of movement as an indispensable player to minister human perception and experience. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ is one example that surfaces in mind, perhaps more for its astronomical visualisation than for its post-impressionist style.
Aslam gazes into the sky and depicts nature’s recurring phenomena in all its splendour. The unabated, untethered repetition and resilience in these cyclical occurrences is majestically portrayed through the scale of his works as well as through the vibrancy of his colour palette that he borrows not just from astral references but also from the quintessential miniature practices of South Asia. The gilded borders, the hues of nature, and the copious use of gold and silver leaf on the conventional surface of wasli, is visible in most of his works. Furthermore, his use of colours also hint a citation to Islam and one’s spiritual ideology – the vivid blues alongside the glistening gold and silver, and the speckled monochromatic black and white are colours commonly used in Islamic architecture and pottery where stones like lapis lazuli and turquoise produce colours like the Persian blue. The combination of colours exudes royalty and opulence, alluding to an exalted, unforeseen being. The artist succeeds in managing to tap into one’s viscera, where the work transcends beyond the corporeal to draw viewers into a spiritual experience. Perception and visual experiences, especially those which one finds unfathomable, is another concept that Aslam delves into. The orbiting of the moon, the eclipse and how a human eye witnesses this dyad of the sun and moon, or that between other stars are few of such sights that Aslam is equally mesmerized and bemused by. Arguably, he uses the same technique to represent pupils looking back at the viewer that also impersonate radiant orbs of mystical, enigmatic energy.
Islamic art has witnessed an increasingly sophisticated use of abstraction and complex geometry, the adoption of which is evident in Aslam’s works. These tessellations may seem confoundingly complex but are relatively simple to create if exercised on a grid. The overlapped squares and circles that circumambulate an unmarked centre and that repeat infinitely inspire contemplation of wonder of eternal order. The kaleidoscopic multiplicity of patterns is a practice that Muslim craftsmen aggressively developed after appropriating from pre-existing Persian and Roman cultures during the golden age of Islamic culture.
Islamic art or decoration also tends to avoid figurative representation; the lacuna left in the possibilities of imageries is replaced by the astute use of floral or geometric patterns. Void of any figurative images, Aslam has extensively assimilated Islamic geometry and symbols in his visuals. The star and crescent, for example, is a symbol that were strongly associated with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and had been used throughout the Middle East extending back to pre-Islamic times, However, by extrapolation from the use in Ottoman lands, it not only became a symbol for Islam as a whole, but it also became a representative of western Orientalism. “Star and Crescent” is a visual signifier used as a metaphor for the rule of the Islamic empires (Ottoman and Persian) in the late 19th century Occident. This association was later consolidated by the increasingly omnipresent trend of using the star and crescent symbol in the ornamentation of Ottoman mosques and minarets, which then was employed by many Islamic nations as their mark of identification. It went from political, to religious, and then back to a political icon. The use of this celestial symbol by the artist not only makes his work speak of the religious and of the spiritual, but it also raises concerns about us brought together under the canopy of a national identity. Just a few weeks shy of the general elections in the country, as well as the appearance of the red moon, the timing of this exhibition seems more than just a coincidence.
Abid Aslam’s body of work detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: what is the dynamics of the dialogue between art and spirituality, and how do the two come together? Aslam’s painstaking technique demands on viewers to create greater intimacy, both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases ‘presentness’ and a fulfilling sense of personal embodiment.