Completing the Picture

Farman Ali examines a US-based Pakistani artist’s work and how it invites us to question how we express ourselves on social media

Completing the Picture
We are often told that the exponential growth of social media has two aspects. On the one hand, it helps  in connectivity, education, information, awareness and building communities. But at the same time it has also posed serious challenges to society and its risks range from bullying to hacking, addictions, scams, glamourizing the deplorable, etc. We are everyday exposed to people sharing exaggerated, unsubstantiated information and doctored images on social media - creating confusion and chaos in society.

A US-based Pakistani visual artist has depicted these issues in her artwork by turning incomplete images into a complete picture and expression - homing in on the invisible in our social media selves.

The artworks by Anum Zahid Rafeh are currently on display at the Alhamra Art Center, Bernardsville, New Jersey, USA. The exhibition, titled “The Complete Picture”, features a collection of eight paintings and twelve drawings done in acrylics, oil on canvas and mixed media.

'Arizona Sunset'

The artist has been working as a director and curator at the Alhamra Art Centre since 2017 after moving to the US from Pakistan. She has since curated several shows and events to promote art, diverse cultures, and interfaith dialogue at the center. This is the first time that she is showcasing her work in the US. She uses her creative skills to combine different fields of community engagement - all with an artist’s perspective.

She takes imperfect cellphone photographs of a meal, a landscape, an instance, or a memory captured in a moment and turns them into mixed media paintings.

Moreover, she questions the authenticity of experiences which are often shared on social media as a means for social connection. By tracing bold, expressive lines on top of or copied from captured visual images, and adding in some spontaneous marks of vibrant colours, she highlights the contrast between inner and outer expression.


“This is then what becomes a complete picture; a complete experience,” she explains.

Painterly expression combined with photography completes the picture by representing the artist’s experience of a moment as she has done in ‘Arizona Sunset’, ‘Boston Commons’, ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Cathedral on 5th Avenue’, ‘Empire State’, ‘Fall’, the riotous autumn colours in ‘Hunza Valley’ and the crumbling heritage of Rawalpindi in ‘Inner City’.

Using acrylic and oil on canvas, Ms Rafeh has depicted the lifestyle, cultural heritage, and road signboards, narrow alleys, waste thrown on street corners and entangled electricity wires (a common scene in Pakistan) in her works, which include the titles ‘Overhead Wiring’, ‘Street Corner’, ‘Plant’, ‘Streetside Enroute’, ‘AirBnB’, ‘Bookshelf’, ‘Cigar Rolling’, ‘Crosswalk’, ‘Food’, ‘Groceries’, ‘Living Room Mess’.

'Cathedral on 5th Avenue'

“Drawing allows for honest interaction between the artist and the surface showing with it a complete thought process – intentional and unintentional – making for a complete picture. Gestural drawings on brightly painted canvas convert a random a photographed moment into a spontaneous painting,” she says.

Ms Rafeh is inspired by innovation resulting in original outcomes through her expertise in visual aesthetics, drawing, painting, idea generation, visual literacy, illustration, portraiture, and curation. She has also experimented with several creative media including design, teaching and performing arts to find the most natural channel for expression.

This insight has led her to explore the relationship between the visible and the invisible.

“I like using art as my toolkit to dig deeper and investigate the ideas of our status quo,” says Ms Rafeh who received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts with distinction from the National College of Arts, Lahore – Pakistan’s oldest and most prestigious art institute, in 2014.

“While creating art, I see what is absent by looking at what is present. One cannot exist without the other. There is a lot that is missing in the visible and likewise present in the invisible.”

Ms Rafeh has the experiences of a Pakistani who is very much a global citizen - having lived in Europe, Asia and the US. “The disposition that makes us all the same is that we are all inherently sentient.” she says.

A bold, vibrant colour palette, imperfect spontaneous painterly strokes and words define her art.

The exhibit, which will be on display until the 25th of May, prompts the viewers to contemplate on and juxtapose their own experiences with those of the artist’s; and above all, to think about the gaps and silences within the representation of our social media selves.

Alhamra Art Center, NJ, comprises a gallery and educational center where art and calligraphy classes, workshops, literary events and talks are held. Ms Rafeh focuses on the local East Coast community, looking to provide a platform for intercultural understanding as well as to promote young upcoming artists.