Her CV is kept in the last page of my diary; I’ve let the load of her achievements dissolve with the rain on this beautiful day. I feel small – yet – warm in the magnificent presence of this tree that dominates the front elevation of her idealistically located home-studio in Lahore Cantt. It has embraced me along with the entire residence and instead of looking up…my gaze is determined upon looking down …there are shoes in a small shoe rack. I ring the doorbell and the main door pilfers my attention just when it is opened by the young house maid. I’m guided to take of my shoes before entering. “Come in …I was going through this book (gift) that was just sent to me.” Aisha Khalid is seated right across the entrance and I step in to be consumed by a space that is all art. Solid dark and tan woods, exquisite traditional rugs, meticulously – rather beautifully divided living spaces and walls that share the supremacy of the Pakistani contemporary art world. No wonder this is a home-studio shared by Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid (no introductions needed) …and we savor/discuss the book, titled Beyond Extravagance: A Royal Collection of Gems and Jewels edited by Dr. Amin Jaffer, Christie’s international director of Asian art. It has been sent with a note that says here’s something small and Khalid shares how it isn’t a small gift. Khalid’s work has been auctioned at Christie’s several times since her career took a leap. On the cover page we have the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, beholding a large inscribed emerald – we celebrate the picturesque and academic value of the gift…
This compelling encounter with beauty as a way of life instinctively leads me (somewhere along the discourse) to ask her about her own interest in jewels and gems and sometime before parting I’m honored when Khalid brings to share a selection of her most personal, delectable assortments. An exquisitely crafted long necklace in gold and black is in itself contemporized to astonishing limits, it reminds one of the gold thread, beaded necklaces that were crafted in the local villages of Potohar (gaani). “I wanted gold and black together in a piece so I got this made; emerald green, gold with green, red and black have been reappearing in my work”. There are earrings neatly crafted out of gold safety pins that are used by Arab women to hook their abayas (cloaks/veils). Rectangular emeralds relish their existence with a gold border in another pair, the simplicity of color and form spectacular. A contemporary version of Bahawalpuri earrings to intricate Kashmiri jewelry gifted by her husband; it is almost paradise in a small box. She shares how she foresees making jewelry that is art somewhere in the future.
In the latter half of my visit upstairs in Khalid’s workspace she shares a chequered green and black work in progress and explains how the mesh develops in an order where the lightest color overlaps. The process is poetic, spiritual and repetitive. “The first time that I used black and white chequered it came from the floor patterns from my father’s house (our old house) in Sindh”. It was some time after her graduation that a body of five or six works received great critical attention from prominent teachers and contemporaries. “I took the works to Prof. Salima Hashmi and a great discussion went on as everyone was there…I was fortunate to get such a response to the works.” A burden of the ‘lost’ lingers in the air when Khalid mentions her family’s migration from Sindh. Her brother was under threat and they had to leave everything. The highly ornate main door of her residence was transported and installed later from her father’s home back there. Khalid recalls it as the second migration, as her parents are originally from Kapurthala state and Jalandhar, India.
“I knew nothing about art and had decided about being a doctor. I came to Lahore and got a chance to see a group show in Lahore at Nairang gallery, it was a notable show and all the bigwigs of Pakistani art were a part of it. My father was friends with many artists and one of his close friends was encouraging me to pursue art/join the National College of Arts. The caliber of that great work impressed upon me to do nothing but art.” This inclination was rooted in the fondness of detail and aesthetics from fine textiles, embroideries, patterns and more in her own environment.
As we head to the studio and climb the solid bridge-like staircase, I admire it and inquire about the architect of the house; it doesn’t come as a surprise that the couple did it themselves. The academy where Khalid pursued her postgraduate studies was a cutting-edge amalgamation of a new and old structure. “We had decided that we would make something on those lines”
Khalid’s works was recently exhibited at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, The Netherlands. And after many years she also visited Rijksakademie, Amsterdam and talked about her work over there. It was special going back to Rijksakademie, where she studied (post-graduation 2001-2002). She applied some time after her graduation (BFA, National College of Arts, Lahore, 1997) via a UNESCO bursary and got selected for a prestigious fully-funded two year program. This experience was a groundbreaker for her practice.
A new world responded differently to her work and there was harsh critique that discredited her work of all artistic attributes, saying that it was “nothing but beautiful…” Khalid observed that people in the west had escaped from beauty. It was a dream platform since people came from the all over Europe for the open studios at Rijksakademie. Yet it was a paradox for Khalid since the traditionalists here (in Pakistan) thought that she was capturing the authenticity of miniature, while there (in the west) it was perceived as stuck in tradition. I ask her about the transition to video and site-specific work: “My tutors told me to break my practice again and again but I never forced myself upon it. The work itself realized its need for video as a medium and I totally enjoyed it.” She refers to her first double-channel video, Conversation, in which two roses are embroidered and unembroidered side by side.
9/11 changed the entire stance of the history of our region. “I was abroad and the concerned authorities at Rijksakademie decided that I should return to Pakistan for the time being. And the need for the Dermiaan ‘artist workshop’ (2001) occurred upon my return.” There was an urgency to find a balance and share opinions. “We were a group of a few artists, namely Salima Hashmi, Imran Qureshi, Sammia Ahmed Vine, Risham Syed, Sophie Ernst, (who managed it online then), Quddus Mirza and myself.” The works were exhibited at Rohtas. And subsequently the same works created international dialogue. Devi Art Foundation took Khalid’s work and the process of making works together under one umbrella was reformative in itself.
It was a new world when Khalid returned to Rijksakademie. “Suddenly they understood everything that I talked about from the burqas (cloaks/veils) and patterns to beards etc,. I didn’t have to introduce Pakistan anymore. Before that no one knew anything about it.” The response to her latest works was overwhelming. Although tangibly speaking her work didn’t acquire much change, but viewing the masterpieces and autobiographies of the greatest schools of miniature painting was ethereal. A naturalistic diary of her own accounts and the realization that it was happening in an order led to the work ‘birth of Venus’. The environment was playing the narrative; where a work which began with a lotus would end with a blue rose which she saw in Holland. It happened like an untainted diary.
The camouflage, overlapping and intertwining in Khalid’s practice has happened repetitively for different purposes and changed its interpretation depending on the time and space. It has been like a secret dialogue inside a weave, her affiliation with textile as an art form is deep-set and intelligent. Somewhere while discussing the formal aspects of her work I’d asked Khalid about what inspired her about Yayoi Kusama’s work (as it was mentioned in one of the detailed reviews that I read) and the answer was enjoyably candid: “I have never said that I was inspired by her work – it is totally different from what I do, they just wrote it because they wanted to write it – and they can write it!”
One enters the compact rectangular studio space (upstairs) to be greeted by a wood and glass book shelf encompassing a major part of the studio wall. There’s art knowledge stacked in heaps and as I go through it Khalid comments that all her important books are in her room and this is all the art literature. Tolstoy, Bano Qudsia and Sufism and mysticism are a few of her most sought-after reads.
Each furniture piece in the studio has been exclusively designed keeping in mind form and function. Khalid excitedly shares its making. “The last time I went to Rijksakademie I shared the shortcomings of the regular miniature-work table with the on-campus carpenter and how I wanted to adjust the table as per my requirements. He then, after careful designing, crafted the ideal (completely adjustable) piece of furniture for me. She has also designed herself a chair for the customized table “the floor cushion had started affecting my back and we have to sit for the longest of stretches while working, this chair is totally apt for work” the movable/ adjustable LED light lamp with lights branching on two levels constructed with water pipes is any artists dream. Placed in the middle of both work stations (her husbands and hers) she mentions how it can cater to both of them at the same time.
The couple has another bigger studio space in another locality in Lahore. That space is utilized for bigger works and it has another metal easel/table. Khalid mentions that she wants as many artists as possible to benefit from her furniture designs. People have have already ordered her designs.
Khalid enjoys a disciplined 9 am – 3 pm work routine for the mornings. And then a one hour nap is critical for survival through the day. “I work whenever I can in the day”. So much artistic exuberance in one household, how do her kids (two sons) react, I ask her as it crosses my mind and she mentions how her older son tells her, “Mom why aren’t you working!!” when he sees her less busy than usual. They’ve been so used to seeing their parents work at home that coincidently they’ve become important motivators. She mentions how she played chess with her father and now her older son beats her in it which makes her happy.
The budgerigars mimic our conversation and it is also occasionally interrupted by her husband for domestic and other queries, who is in the vicinity leading his own life – in his home. There’s some mention of her passport between them and I ask about her very recent trip and the side effects of such rapid travelling. “Generally we are making work… and it is work-work and work. I’ve come to realize travel as the destination of work…it would get seriously boring without it…it is the much awaited point of rest.” She’ll be going to Toronto to be a part of an exhibit at the Agha Khan Museum of Islamic Art which is an outstanding endeavor; she will be doing a site-specific work there and although she has thought about it, it holds its course after the site visit.
During our chitter-chatter Khalid naturally asks Qureshi to confirm events, people and dates, which makes me ask her the obvious question about the communion of two artists – her CV is stacked with initiatives and shows between them. “We have worked side by side in the same studio…it is precious and important to have a partner who understands your concerns. And we have grown working together as two completely different individuals, we are uncompromising on our own beliefs and probably that is why it has worked so well.”
The last notes of our conversation are assertive confessions on how she believes people from NCA are much better than the world over. “We have more knowledge, prowess and discipline than anyone I’ve met. People would be surprised when I talked about Botticelli and say: how do you know!
It’s almost time to say goodbye and downstairs in the sitting room as we look Yue Minjun’s work placed next to Adeel uz Zafar’s work in the raised square corner space adorned with great works of art right across us, Khalid mentions how Minjuns’s work communicates to her on all levels, “it can share something with me on a sad or a happy day, whatever I am feeling, it always has something new to say.” I stare at the huge, hollow smile-type expression and finger pointing towards the enormous head with clouds in the background and agree with Khalid. I can keep looking at the work and probably there will never be an end.
During the chores and communication in the time span the couple have managed to book the 10 pm show to the Bollywood film Queen; we chat on about how it’s supposed to be a great movie and they are excited about watching it.
It’s time to leave them in their beautiful world…
All photos courtesy of the artist.
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.