Mapping Journeys

Ilona Yusuf speaks to visual artist and curator Sabah Husain

Mapping Journeys
Trained in Japan in the nineteen eighties in Japanese woodblock printing, Sabah Husain’s career spans over twenty-five years. During that time she has experimented with other mediums, beginning with paper works very early in her career, and photographic compositions over the last five years. Her work is housed in various collections in Japan, the United Kingdom and Pakistan. Her most recent exhibitions have been at Koel Gallery in Karachi, and the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC in 2015. This interview on her art practice and new work, which unfolded partly during meeting and in extended telephone conversations,  took place prior to her upcoming exhibition, ‘Mapping Journeys’, to be held in the third week of February 2016 at the Satrang Gallery in Islamabad.

 IY: The work to be shown at Satrang is a progression of the ideas in the works shown at Chaukandi in 2012, and at Koel and in Washington in 2015. ‘Mapping Journeys’ references a particular poem, Hasan Kuzagar, by Noon Meem Rashed. Incidentally, this poem has been quoted by Sheherezade Alam in her oeuvre, which is of course ceramic and clay, and therefore directly related to the material in the poem’s narrative. But Hasan Kuzagar is not just a poem about a potter. What drew you to this particular work?

The 2012 exhibition at Chaukandi was the inception of this idea, but those works were more image-based; whereas these are more text-based.

Sabah Husain's solo exhibition, October Gallery, London
Sabah Husain's solo exhibition, October Gallery, London

The decision to work with this particular poem was a conscious one. What I found interesting was that it embodies many levels of thought. One is able to work with various aspects of the poem. It’s about how one receives the images in the poem, and adds to them.

Something very important in this poem, for me, was that it is based on metaphors.  In their work both Faiz and Rashed made their own metaphors by turning existing ones on their head. What drew me to Hasan Kuzagar is its multi layered quality; new shades of meaning appear with each reading. Then there is the matter of poetic technique. Rashed was fluent in Arabic and Persian literature; and one realizes that the metre he used - although he was supposedly writing azad nazm - was derived from the Arabic.

Folios from the Bagdad Manuscripts - Medium: Installation, 2017
Folios from the Bagdad Manuscripts - Medium: Installation, 2017

What also struck me was his taking himself out of the realm of the familiar, placing his subject in Baghdad, so in a sense it could be anytime, anywhere. In terms of time itself, the last section of the poem is set a thousand years after the first, and talks about a new aspect of creativity. It refers to the cyclical nature of time - cycles of life and decay, the potter’s wheel - which derives from Hinduism, appears in Buddhist Jaataka tales, and in miniature painting where birth, life and death are treated not as separate sections but in one space. Hasan the Potter also talks about being in a whirlpool, Zair e Girdaab. I’ve used this idea in my images, such as in the boat series

Finally, the poem is an exploration of the existential existence of a person - his discovery of himself, or how a human being becomes an individual apart from the crowd.

IY: You have used poetry in your work in the past. Is it because poetry, in its abstraction and ability to express the essence of things through images, through images which are metaphors, can be closely compared to the ethic of the visual arts?

Now that there is some distance between me and the work, I can look back on it and articulate more clearly. In the 1980s, I made a series of prints on the classical music of the Subcontinent. They incorporated calligraphy, expressing energy, movement. Throughout life I’ve listened to music and read poetry. Music was with me for many years, throughout my stay in Japan. Like poetry, it’s an abstraction. You can’t illustrate it but you can use it like a nukta, a departure point from which you develop your work.

As a student, I worked briefly with the Punjabi poetry of Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu - no writing, just images, experiments with visuals.

I returned to poetry in the early nineties, when I started working with the poetry of Faiz, creating the very large work called Zard Patton Ka Ban (from the poem Intesaab), which is housed in the Bradford Museum Art Gallery.

IY: Looking at your work over the years, I see several distinct periods. There are the studies of music from the eighties, which are journeys into mood, the response of the listener, the artist. They are vivid and colorful. Then, in the nineties, there is a change, with ‘Letter’ from 1990, and more specifically Zard Patton ka Ban from 1994. These experiments in exploring the essence of a poem, relating it to events and circumstances, or using it as a springboard, have continued to date. And there is a third exploration, of form and construction, evinced in the double helix and clay vessels series of inkjet prints.

I worked extensively on the music series. They were painstaking, studied works on a very large scale, which were not easy to execute, as the prints were made using a baren.  I experimented with the way colour works, with thick and thin washes. The result was very saturated, brilliant hues, particularly in the ‘Raag Maala’ series. These works were studies in abstraction. They were exhibited in 1997 in ‘Contemporary Prints’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum,  part of an exhibition of three artists from India, one of whom was Anish Kapoor, and three from Pakistan.

The new works are more sombre.  If I had continued with music it’s possible that would have become more somber too. But in using poetry, I felt that I could work with visuals, color and form. Then at some point I felt I would just like to use language. In our culture, language was traditionally used for the sacred texts. But here, (in Rashed’s work) was a secular text, of which I wanted to use the language as a visual, exploring its depth. In Mapping Journeys, I’ve used a misraah (stanza) and repeated it, added a stanza from a different section of the same poem, or repeated a single word - in a sense deconstructing the poem, using the language, the form of the line, as a visual element. To retain the focus I’ve layered paper and washes rather than color. I’ve tried to make the text like an image - like an abstract form - to create a sense of texture and mark making. I’ve gone into the language, so to speak.

IY: How do you place photography in art? In your own work you call it a sketch, or a note. I know other artists who use the medium in a similar way. But does photography replace drawing, or aid it? Is the photographic work an art work in itself, or a departure point from which it develops?

It’s entirely up to the artist - that is, the importance of a medium is how an artist chooses to use it. Some artists use only photography. It depends on the strength of the image and for what it’s being used. I use photography and inkjet prints. I add to or delete things from my photographs. I develop an image as I want to see it. For instance, the paper boats were conscious compositions. I photographed them in different settings, then printed the photographs. I worked on those prints, and photographed them again, much as one develops a plate in printmaking.

IY: In parting - and I know this is a digression - but nevertheless I want to ask this question: at some point in our conversation, you said that although you have exhibited your work over the years, you are not prolific. This is unlike many artists of your generation and younger. Why?

One of the major reasons was that I was working, and also researching; particularly when I began working for the MA Honors Program at the NCA, in 2000. But - and here I would say that one has thought about it at length and made a conscious decision - I like to sit back and review, think and mull over and decide what I want to do with the work I make. I have shown work every two and half years. Once a series begins, the pace gains momentum. But I see no point in pursuing art in which you are unable to give time to a train of thought, and to the process by which you arrive at its completion. As in all art, it is important to actually think not only about the form the artwork will take, but the concept.