Noor Jehan Mecklai finds a celebration of femininity and motherhood in artist Sadaf Naeem's work

Mystique, motherhood, love of nature - these things and more you will find in Sadaf Naeem’s most recent show, at Karachi’s Chawkandi Art Gallery, a collection of floral pieces rendered in oil on canvas and acrylic on canvas. Of course, she has from time to time produced beautiful works on other themes, such as portraits of women from various ages, past and present.

She introduces the relationship between space and illusion. For example, lace curtains and silhouettes (especially of women) are recurring features in her paintings, while she uses the definite and indefinite presence of female figures and objects to examine the private lives of women and the space they inhabit in Pakistani society. A 2001 graduate of NCA, she has taught at the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design and Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore. A full-time artist, this versatile lady is coordinator and member of Studio RM Residency, and is active in projects such as art programmes at Central Model School, Sheikhupura, and the stained glass workshop at Hamza Foundation, Lahore. Apart from all this, her work has been exhibited in India, Sri Lanka, London and Korea, as well as in Lahore, Karachi and other places in Pakistan.


“Surrounded,” as mentioned earlier, is based on the natural beauty of flowers, with fascinating textures and patterns enhancing the effect. This exhibition is also, however, a celebration of motherhood, besides embracing feminism to a certain degree, while eschewing conflict. In Sadaf’s works, motherhood embraces the ideas of inspiration and power simultaneously. The feminine colours speak of the transition from womanhood to motherhood and celebrate the duality with its struggles and wonders alike.

Throughout history, flowers have been a symbol of life, growth, fertility and renewal.   They are harbingers of spring and a new life after winter. A bouquet is a symbol of love and goodwill towards another, thus producing happiness on both sides, and elevating the mood through their mood. In fact, a variety of bright and bold colours combined is a message of celebration. In general, yellow, peach, warm pinks and subtle greens are nurturing colours. Reds, oranges and hot pinks are sensuous and passionate, whilst blues, greens and purples are calming and relaxing. Purple and its hues are extremely spiritual, giving power to the third eye chakra, which is the seat of intuition.


Meanwhile, as to the pictures themselves, a number of Sadaf’s pieces emphasise the circular shape, which is interesting, since circles commonly represent unity, wholeness, and infinity. “Enclosed” is one such example. Here we see a calm and verdant display of nature, with some plants in their natural form and others finely textured. The red inner circle adds character, and little touches of red here and there have their own charm. The famous writer Daniel Defoe once wrote, “The soul is placed in the body, and it is like a rough diamond. It must be polished within, or the lustre of the soul will never appear.” Though quite different from the repetitive diamond pattern in this picture, his words set us thinking, as do the diamond, triangle and similar motifs that form a construction of other, more complex symbolic designs occuring in every era, culture, religion and esoteric sect. The diamond shape itself contains a kind of wisdom that transcends the banalities of our everyday realm. For example, among the peoples of North America, Canada and Mexico, the combination of diamond and triangle shapes symbolise the butterfly, which in turn represents immortality.

‘Garden of White Seeds’ features primarily another charming circle, set against a most attractive background - the product of skillful brushwork mostly in shades of green, merging with a border of grey and brown below. The said garden features tiny plants, each with seven white seeds attached, while above is a cluster of small red roses – certainly a feminine emblem in keeping with Sadaf’s intentions. These flowers, like ice plants, are said to possess a spiral shape and in ancient art date back at least to the Neolithic age. Seeds, on the other hand, possess many meanings – one of them being the karmic seeds that we plant within our subconscious.
In Sadaf's works, motherhood embraces the ideas of inspiration and power simultaneously

As to the charming piece titled ‘Connection,’ this, too, features a garden whose shape depends on a red inner circle, an important symbol, often used to represent heaven and earth, or spiritual and material.  Circles are commonly regarded as spiritual, because they are unending, thus eternal. Within the circle is a single white flower, no doubt representing purity and directing the eye upwards to the spiritual world, where a pure white cloud carries our higher aspirations. These three things – the cloud, the white floral border, the single white flower – present a pleasing air of unity to the piece, whilst the artist is also alluding to the link that the soil has with the environment that envelops it.

In contrast, rather than featuring circles, the Mughal royal gardens are distinctly square, many featuring the chahar bagh as an aesthetic rule;  and in the case of the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, said to be a taste of heaven on earth, and redolent of the sanctity of nature, featuring fountains and waterways rather than flowers. The 13th-century invasion of Persia by the Mongols, however, led to a highly ornate garden structure, with tree peonies, chrysanthemums and other gorgeous flora.

In the ‘Foliage’ series of three compositions, the most attractive, which is ‘Foliage 3,’ somehow seems to follow the idea of the Mongols in Persia. Sadaf has added colourful flowers as well as foliage, though they lack the splendid dignity of form and colour seen in the chrysanthemums and tree peonies. (To see the latter, and other forms of peony at their best, go to Hasedera, in Nara Prefecture, Japan, a huge temple complex where peonies of all varieties have been cultivated for hundreds of years). The startling hot pink in ‘Foliage 3’ at first takes a while to accept, though the artist’s skillful composition more than mitigates this. To the artist herself, this colour represents both joy and pain as a part of the celebration of the feminine from womanhood to motherhood. The curtain of dark green leaves enhances the symmetry of the picture, with its classical flowers as mentioned previously, contrasting with the delicate white blossoms in the pond, where dark grey shadows add character to the whole composition.

'Overlay 2'

'Garden of white seeds'

As to the charming piece titled 'Connection,' this, too, features a garden whose shape depends on a red inner circle

If we look at ‘Overlay 2,’ we see Sadaf’s ‘womanhood to motherhood’ idea clearly illustrated. A young mother behind a curtain holds her young child in a loving and gentle embrace. The curtain emphasises the mystery of womanhood and the softness of motherhood. She is simply dressed, her clothing a much lighter shade of the hot pink upper border, adding unity to the composition. But it is the texture of this piece that gives it life and movement, especially with the second curtain, ruffled by the breeze, while beside them a dull green plant – a link with nature – displays its huge leaves.

‘Existence,’ with its two large floral forms, is a study of opposites and contrasts. The orange flower, somehow resembling the Iceland poppy, with its stimulating colour brings to mind the emotional and physical reactions we may experience when faced with certain circumstances. Orange is also believed to give emotional strength in difficult times. In warmer climates, pomegranates are plentiful and oranges also abound, which is why their flowers are so often used in wedding bouquets as a symbol of fertility. Blue, on the other hand, is important in almost every culture. After all, with the blue skies above, and so much of the earth’s surface covered in water, we may say that we are living on the ‘blue planet.’ This colour is generally held to have a calming influence and also to symbolize fidelity, faith and eternity.

Artists have paid homage to nature since time began. And it is amazing how they find so many ways in which to embellish their works, their minds so often enriched by nature herself.