The modern age makes it almost inevitable that any connection to our own sprit and soul is interrupted, let alone any tie to the divine or the concept of religious spirituality. The idea of Islam or any other religion is finding the divine within reach, as close as one is to oneself, inside our body and soul. A sense of irony beckons, as today our cellphones and laptops remain closer to us than anything else, we are constantly connected to the artifice, something which does not exist and yet we take great gratification from it. Our eyes fixated on screens as our fingers scroll down or type diligently, we are fed with large bursts of information being thrown at us at supersonic speed. Sometimes this information is in parallel to our inner voice, at times it is louder than it and sometimes both quarrel trying to find their place in this ever-expanding cosmos. The world is fast evolving and sometimes so fast that we must adapt to it at the expense of our own inner peace. Sayeda M. Habib’s exhibit, ‘Dance of Dualities’ at the Canvas Gallery shows a body of work which makes one engage in a dialogue with our conscience and stops us in our tracks to question our intentions and even at times helps to find our way to them before the noise of this world interrupted it.
As Habib says herself, her art as one finds it through viewing this exhibit is a response to the inquiry of what the heart desires as human beings and what is expected of humans from the world in all its glory and ‘robotic-ness’ and how to switch off the latter allowing oneself to delve into one’s true self. Through her oeuvre, the artist is presenting the notion of traditionalism, spirituality and its renewed role in our world and on the converse, the role of commercialism, technology, information and communication in the great big cosmos. Being fortunate enough to have gotten a one on one tour with the artist herself, I was enthralled with the vastness of her subject and the various methods she has explored to communicate this to the viewer. For someone who is keen to record the themes and interpretations of art, I was filling up pages of the artist’s words till I realized that any interpretation would have to be made on the basis of the experience of viewing these works and allowing them to talk to me. Habib had mentioned to me, that, to this day, throughout her artistic practice, her works of art continue to inform her. One can then only imagine how many times I would interpret her words and the meanings behind this body of work to write this piece.
In the artist’s mind, the works of art which depict traditional Islamic designs are sacred and peaceful, and just like a sacred place, this art form is open to receive and provides a connection to the divine. Habib borrows symbols and geometrical patterns from traditional Islamic art which she reformats and restructures within much of her work, most of which is done to bring the viewer into a place of peace and meditation. However, just as this is done, strips of text taken from newspaper print are woven within the sacred imagery, though familiar, it does not leave the viewer with the least bit of comfort, on the contrary, the viewer is forced to read the phrases pasted and much of them reflect conflict, controversy and judgement. However, by doing so Habib forces viewers like myself to pause, reflect and feel – to immerse oneself in the thought that often one’s inner voice however strong it may be, does get lost within the noise of our world today and even something as sacred as religion and spirituality is not without this banter. It is to be noted that the newspaper print weaved through is done so using both Urdu and English print which adds to the confusion and reiterates the fact that the noise of the world takes form irrespective of any language and ethnicity.
Geometrical patterns in Islamic art reflects the universality and uniformity, as one can see its patterns from anywhere and they will be the same, this alludes to the idea that one can start reading the Quran from anywhere, and it would make sense. Thus highlighting the ease of religion, available to all those who may seek to be blessed with its divine teachings. In Habib’s works, the La Dance series, each geometrical shape is held together in perfect symmetry in the center, the center is opaque and deplete of the busyness of the newspaper print. The center, much like our center – our soul – is pure though as it grows it is marred by the noise of the world, similarly the pattern fades on the sides. Also highlighting that it is through not only our heart that the center of our soul is made but also by choosing to escape worldly activity to find our internal compass or our ‘markaz’ as the artist aptly said, that one is able to align with our original intentions.
The ‘La Dance’ series, intricately painted in geometrical patterns prevalent in Islamic art has various elements, motifs and symbols within it such as the 6 point star, the 8 point star and the 12 point star – showing above all the versality of each pattern but also the uniformity and consistency of the whole image at a macro level. Newspaper print, both Urdu and English is cut, weaved and pasted in strips and as one draws closer to the center one can see less of it, however, in the periphery of the center, these geometrical elements fade out and allow the words on the print to strike. One does not expect a painting so peaceful to be convoluted by words like ‘the electronic crime art’, ‘corruption’, ‘manipulation’ etc. But then again, this the true working of the world, not everything can be left in its pure and pristine state.
In her series titled ‘Logos and Logo’, Habib explores the contrast between the commercial interpretation of the work ‘logo’ and reference to the Greek word ‘Logos’ which means reason or logic. In these works, motifs and symbols are used in the same manner as they usually appear in artistic versions of the Quran, hand painted and intricate, however the irony here is that even within these spiritual symbols there is an unwelcome interruption of newspaper print and text. The pieces titled as ‘Logos’ is a clever play on words and various connotations while one can notice that within these series of works, the center is used to place the newspaper text, starkly in contrast to the La Dance series where the center was kept pure and rid of this invasion. Recurrent themes in the artist’s works are representative of the presence of dualities in everything, in our life, in our thoughts and even our art which we produce as a response to what we observe around us.
Whilst walking me through her works, she informs me of the unique process with which she makes her paints. She uses natural stones found in the bowels of the earth such as malagite and grinds them with her hands. It is fascinating to know that her process is as organic as the message she seeks to pass on to the viewer – it is a method which takes hours of her time and energy but she does this as it mimics a meditative and therapeutic process and emulates the traditional process used by a practitioner centuries ago whilst creating works of art. It is this moment when she tells me, that traditional art requires the work to be approached as a form of prayer”, hence the idea of “worships, not works”. This statement touches me as any kind of connection to one’s inner self, any means of worship is coined these days as being devious, having lost its true spiritual meaning, we do not even equate art to be an act of worship and the comparison of the same was a concept unique to me. In her artist’s statement, Habib refers to great traditions being born from creative processes, consciousness and inspiration and it is exactly this which is mirrored in her process.. Habib studied at the Slade School’s programme for many years and then went on to pursue her studies in Islamic Art at the Prince School of Traditional Arts open programme. ‘Dance of Dualities’ is her fourth solo show at the Canvas Gallery, while the last three namely Stories from the Womb, Chalo, Fractured Narratives revolved around themes taken from ancient miniature painting, literature, religious spirituality, national patriotism or the lack thereof, the role of nature versus nurture, mythology and most importantly her surroundings, be it the city of Karachi or the human psyche. In her works, Syeda has perpetually sought to explore themes of antiquity versus contemporary and in doing so allows a viewer to think into deeper darker parts of oneself and also those that bring him or her enlightenment. She has also exhibited in over eight group exhibitions mostly at the Momart Gallery and Grandeur Art Gallery in Karachi, while she was the recipient of the first prize for the Sindh Artists Exhibition at the Arts Council of Pakistan in Karachi. Her work has been critiqued and written about by renowned art critics such as Marjorie Hussain and Quddus Mirza.
The series titled as ‘Mantra’ at the exhibition consisted of three large pieces painted using acrylic paints in colors such as yellow, orange, indigos and teal, used often to depict earthy natural elements like the sun, the moon, air, gas and space. The depiction of the same brings the viewer to the basic theme she has keenly developed throughout all her works present within this gallery space which is the contrast between the natural cosmos and the artificial, represented here by the newspaper print laid out around the circles painted within these works. Habib draws her inspiration from so many styles of work such as Thanka painting, originating in Tibet, a Buddhist art form which is also a kind of prayer, salute or meditation and her work takes so many forms that it is truly visible that the artist invests all her energy in her thought or process and then allows for her art to speak to her during and after production. The premise and research behind her work is somehow linked to religion and religious spiritualism which she explores, contrasting it with today’s contemporary world. A piece which depicts this afterthought, a realization the artist had after production is seen in ‘Echo of Infinity’ which after it was made, the artist realized its uncanny resemblance to the Kaaba.
Two of my favorite works needed separate mention, the first one being the piece titled, ‘Book of Love’, in which traditional motifs are painted but within them, newspaper print is weaved upside down in the center inside the motif and outside it, it is in the correct orientation – hence showing that any instruction manual of love would not make much sense, that love is irrational when it is explained and that love and logic are not always in agreement. As a millennial, I’d say that this interpretation of love is most true and relatable. The other piece which immediately brought me peace while viewing as much as I’d imagine it brought to Habib herself while making it was the installation titled ‘Oceans of Infinity’, showing that the world is never static, it is constantly moving and evolving. This piece is hinged on three core beliefs from the mystical dimension of Islam: the first, Nakal meaning imitation, the second, Aqal meaning intellect and the third Kashf, meaning the unveiling – all Sufi beliefs. The discs show the atmosphere of outer space, its gases, its formations, constellations and stars, suspended down by string show that they are created and guided by the hands of the divine which is portrayed by paintbrushes hung right above each disc. The thought behind it is unique and complex, yet simple enough to be interpreted.
The entire body of work shown at Habib’s exhibition at the Canvas Gallery titled ‘Dance of Dualities’ took the artist 20 months to create, a magnificent feat considering the several art forms and processes it includes. This shows that her work cannot be compartmentalized into any one genre, or any geographical proximity, she is informed by the spirit and soul itself and the complexities therein our lives. For every viewer, there is an element of relatability to her works at some level, perhaps not if in the complex meanings then surely in the simplest dualities, which have been addressed seamlessly in this body of exemplary works, exhibited at the Canvas Gallery.
Shanal is a lawyer by profession and works in the development sector for a corporation in Karachi. Aside from her main endeavors, she takes keen interest in art, culture and art history and has more recently started to work on critiques. After having spent most of her life in Europe, Shanal seeks to uncover the world of art through her writing in Pakistan.