In her recent solo exhibition titled Un-Weave, at Lahore’s prestigious Rohtas 2 Gallery, in collaboration with the commencement of the Lahore Literary Festival 2020, Sabina Gillani returned to Lahore after a long gap, with a collection of finely drawn, delicate paintings. The imagery of flowers, suicide belts, traces of blood on white kurtas, appear at first to be quiet, on closer inspection they shout of violence, compelling the viewer to enter their world. In the following interview and discussion with Gillani, the artist spoke of the beginnings and underpinnings of this body of work.
Laila Rehman: The earlier works are significantly different, it’s still paper, frame within the frame format, the same size, but they stand apart.
Sabina Gillani: That’s the reason I put them up – they’re the bridge to the later work. My earlier work dealt with identity. I did a series of portraits of Pakistani women (“Revealing Identities: Insubordination”) and Algerian women (“Revealing Identities: Subverting the Veil”), wearing hijab. I approach them in the formal miniature tradition, meaning the portrait is positioned in the centre and surrounded with something decorative; a decorative border.
LR: Those portraits were in profile?
SG: No, a frontal pose. They were photographs, so they weren’t painted, that I had printed onto photographic paper, analog not digital, and then on that paper I did my painting. For the Pakistani women portraits, it was abstract… I was treating them as layers and collage and then when I did the series on the Algerian women, it was on the lines of a traditional miniature painting, meaning the portrait was in the middle, with the hijab. Then I worked on very decorative borders linked to the hijab…in Algeria I saw these young women who wore the veil… Algeria had just started to come out of this very bloody civil war that had lasted ten years and it had been very, very violent. They would target women who did not cover their heads… and women really fought back. So, it was very contradictory, you had the older generation who did not cover their heads and then you had this younger generation who had started to cover their heads.
I’ve always related my work to literature. There was a lot of writing on the wearing of hijab by Algerian women. Leila Sebbar writes about these women in one of her stories, who state… “ we’ll do it our way”… in those days in Algeria you had these most fabulous hijabs, in terms of pattern, in terms of colour, the way they were tying them… but for the older generation, it was very difficult to accept that their daughters and granddaughters were covering their heads.
LR: So, why women?
SG: Because that’s something that struck me. I was in Algeria for four years and I found it very oppressive as far as women were concerned… and while that’s got nothing to do directly with my work, but it was this decorative element that came from their hijabs. Religion in Algeria was oppression…for me it was that confrontation with religion… I began to wonder about all the women around me and I began talking to them… So, it was a logical continuation from my work with Pakistani women. I’d read “The Wasted Vigil”, by Nadeem Aslam, about the psyche of suicide bombers and how they’re told they have the keys to Paradise and if you blow yourself up, you’ll go to Paradise… You think how can they do such a thing. There was this case of this one woman, so it was through a woman actually that I came to this body of work; an Iraqi woman whose husband strapped all these explosives around her… she tried to blow up women at a wedding. This was one of the first times that a woman was doing this—that was the entry point for this work for me. I found that image of her strapped with explosives shocking—from that image I went to these.
There was the awful attack in Peshawar, the school… that really, really got to me. That happened in Dec 2014 and in Jan 2015, it happened in Paris on the streets—so it came home to me as well, over there… just the sickening disregard for life, it’s so unnecessary and that’s when my view changed. I didn’t want to talk of the psyche of a suicide bomber any more… so I started thinking of violence in general and how it affects us. I was trying to approach it by asking how do you address this, how do you address someone’s pain—with respect, with humility, nothing you want to exploit, but it affects us, it touches our lives.
When I started these paintings, I was thinking of ways of painting a traditional border. I was looking at paper as a printmaker… I’d found Japanese paper in Paris, that was beautiful, not embossed but like lace…the paper was so fine.
LR: Can you talk a little about how as an artist when one starts work, there are initially many strands, and as one works through them, the ideas keep getting distilled and filtered? So, in your work, seeing “Mapping Lament I” and “Mapping Lament III”, these two paintings for me, are the beginning and end of this series. Is that so?
SG: Yes. In my work, it’s like using a camera, I look at something from a wide angle, and as I work, I get rid of extra elements, like zooming in. If you keep losing elements you get down to the essentials in the work, what you want to say, what you’re searching for; because it’s a quest, with each piece it’s a step in a certain direction. Sometimes I like to go back to older work, look again at older work so I can reconsider some images.
LR: I see a link between the suicide belts on Japanese lace paper, to the Algerian women wearing their patterned hijabs, to the Pakistani women within their framed format, and beyond this; I remember your Slade prints, where the landscapes were so harsh and deeply scored into the metal plates; all these make a connection with land, any territory that has soaked up blood…..
SG: Well, you can say that in hindsight. That particular landscape series from Slade also ended something in my life—Printmaking. That series for me was transcendental, something I’d gone inside myself to look for and that I feel, has happened now, again, after all these years. I’ve had to build it up again, a new journey. It’s like breaking something down and then having to build it again. Initially the portraits were about identity for me… this series too is like that.
LR: In terms of your palette, your three earlier works, “Portrait of a Suicide Bomber I, II and III”, are different from the rest of the series?
SG: Not really, I’ve been using this palette since 2001. I work in gouache, using pigments, graphite, tea and coffee. I also use watercolour pencils, watercolour crayons…but mostly pigments. I got into this red colour when I was in Nigeria, their soil is red, a deep ochre. I got a kilo of soil and cleaned it, washed it, pounded it and I used it as a pigment. In the South of France there are these quarries producing beautiful pigments, and it’s the same red as dried blood.
That colour has been in my work, in all my work and even coming back to the hijab, I see that garment as violence towards women… there’s something tactile about working with pigment on the lace paper, something that connects me to the earth.
LR: And earth is female?
LR: And in terms of borders, why have you left the tape edges visible?
SG: That’s purely aesthetic. I used the tape when I was making the work. The intention wasn’t to show it but when I started looking at it, it added to the fragility of the paper. When you are working, you unconsciously do take it into consideration as visually its there, so when you are looking and start your dialogue—because there’s always a dialogue with your work, this back and forth… each mark will lead to another mark. And so, the tape edge did end up playing a role.
LR: There’s a centrality to the middle of your rectangles…
SG: I’ve always been attracted to that positioning but it also connects back to the portrait for me—so the idea came from there. These are portraits around which there is something. I’ve used a hard-pressed charcoal in these works, it’s graphic quality and immediacy, it’s gestural quality appealed to me. I think that goes back to my printmaking days.
LR: The fascination with black…yes, I see that. As Barto (Bartolomeu dos Santos, our Slade tutor) used to say, “…the state of the plate is found in black..…”! And the mark-making, if you’ve drawn a line and then you want to shift slightly from it…
SG: I think this also goes back to printmaking where you build up a surface and then break it down. Even then, the process leaves a trace and it’s that mark that I find very interesting—and I build upon that.
LR: It’s almost like what might have been…
SG: It’s the history—it puts itself down as a historical mark, so where we are now, depends on what we have done in our past. Each action has led to this point and so the trace was always there. I like that idea of the past always being there and past traces also being there… all the richness of mark-making. Again, something that comes from printmaking is that I like to make a perfect picture and then I break it down. I’ll spend hours and hours working; in that time, I’ll knit a relationship with the work and then it just starts to dictate which way it should go.
LR: So, time and connectivity for you, in terms of being up-rooted, are you dealing with that in your work?
SG: Yes. Those Slade landscapes maybe subconsciously definitely did… Being up-rooted and leaving this country was exile for me and I lived it like an exile, which is why I then went back to poetry and music. That’s where I found my base, my anchor. It started with Faiz Sahib’s poetry with the notion of exile in his ghazals specially and qawwali—and Sufism. When I was at the Slade, in those days no one used to talk about it…but that’s from where the whole notion of the transcendental and the beyond, began for me. I found my anchor there… in poetry….and its really important because you need an anchor. You need to belong somewhere and if physically you don’t belong somewhere, you need an anchor.
LR: So, one can trace a line from you actually leaving the earth of Pakistan, using soil from Nigeria and later working in earth tones and pigment which in itself is like crumbling earth; can one say that it is the landscape of your life that you’re drawing, your lived experience?
SG: Well, it could be…yes. I hadn’t thought of it like that but I guess it was always there. When I work, I listen to either qawwali or Abida Parveen—I can’t work with any other music. I’ve learnt some Farsi so I can understand Persian poetry, for me that’s very important… but yes, those black and white landscapes from the Slade were inner landscapes. I always go back to them because there’s that sense of belonging in them, and I think that’s how I came to terms with my exile.
It has been a journey for me… this work has accompanied me on it. Those landscapes did reflect my life. This series started off with something violent, the paintings “Portrait of a Suicide Bomber I, II and III” and ended up being about a reflection on life and the fragility of life. The fabric of existence is the thread that connects this series to my previous landscapes. That’s something I’ve been exploring side by side. And I’ll go back to that. I wanted to come to terms with this violence first. It’s about finding peace in these very ugly times.
Un-Weave is showing till March 7th 2020 at Rohtas 2 in Lahore.
Laila Rahman is an artist and teaches at the National College of Arts, Lahore.