Exploring Nostalgia

Noor Jehan Mecklai on the work by 7 Pakistani artists displayed by Karachi’s Artciti Gallery

Exploring Nostalgia
Nostalgia” is a heartfelt tribute to Pakistan by Pakistani artists living in the U.A.E. These immensely talented artists have exhibited overseas, but this is the first time they will be bringing their work to their homeland through Karachi’s online Artciti Gallery. The participating artists presenting their work in a variety of media are Bushra Malik, Humaira Hussain, Kiran Salim Shah, Masooma Rizvi, Sanaa Merchant, Shazia Jaffery and Tania Nasir.

Nowadays so many artists, with good cause, highlight socioeconomic and political issues in their work. But how happy and refreshing it was to see Artciti Gallery’s exhibition of these 7 artists whose work is full of pure beauty and innocence, love and mystery. There is no doubt that their faith in Islam is one of the springs of their inspiration, though actual Islamic imagery may not necessarily appear in their works.

Bushra Malik - 'Sufi Sahib' - 16 x 20 inches - Acrylic and Oil on Canvas

In the case of Bushra Malik’s graceful study, “My early morning escape,” however, the presence of Islam is central, with the details of the masjid and the girl’s modest dupatta. But there is love and spontaneity expressed here, too, in the obvious bond between the girl and the pigeons, and a freshness redolent of the early morning atmosphere. The picture is the result of several attempts to create a perfectly balanced pattern, and to familiarize herself with the basis of geometry and its deeper significance in Islamic art. Juxtaposing these traditional patterns with everyday life situations, along with calligraphy, entices her to compose such works.

Quite a contrast to this is Tania Nasir’s “Shaheen,” (meaning “royal white falcon”) featuring a falcon in upward flight. This bird, like the phoenix, has a long history and a variety of meanings in various cultures, and in fact they share the significance of life, death and rebirth which interestingly, mirrors exactly the Buddhist idea of samsara, a cycle from which it is very hard to escape. However, among early Europeans, the falcon was a symbol of the huntsman, and related to war. It was also associated with the German sky gods, while in Egypt it represented the rising sun. Apart from this, it is a spirit animal with many esoteric meanings, chiefly in its visionary powers and wisdom, representing also focus, speed ,precision and determination.

To the artist, this regal creature “radiates the energy to do big, to re-invent, to progress in whatever is being done.” And in her colourful rendition of it she sees red representing difficulties, green meaning victories, blue meaning peace and gold being the perspective and dreams that inspire us to reach for the stars. It is a beautiful and detailed picture, apart from the gold predominantly blue, and including flowers of every description.

Humaira Hussain is a multidisciplinary artist, and was a student of the world famous Ghulam Rasul, remembered as a “people’s painter,” and from whom, perhaps, she has inherited her love of colour. In her work she focuses on the sensual nature of art, and has mastered the presentation of nature with peace in the wilderness. There is a vibrancy, a liveliness, a sense of freedom in her paintings, and she finds something celebratory in flowers, birds and butterflies, generating energy and optimism. The transitory presence of birds and butterflies – here for a moment ,there for a moment, naturally fascinate her.

Bushra Malik - 'My early morning escape' - 39 x 47 inches - Acrylic and Oil on Canvas

In “Jubilant II” the beautiful colour combination among the variously coloured flowers is enhanced by the presence of white butterflies against the rich, black background. On the other hand, it is the black leaves and birds in her piece titled “Orenda” that enhance the colourful flower arrangement. “Nature,” she explains, “elevates the level of beauty, which moves us and evokes notes of aspiration to vibrate within us.” And one must agree that it captures and holds our hearts.

“The Quiet Storyteller” is the title given to Kiran Saleem Shah, who enjoys depicting views of the streets of Karachi in acrylics and oils, but also has a keen interest in Arabic calligraphy. In this exhibition she has presented a number of very simple and dignified compositions, in sombre colours, showing the Holy Quran. In their very simplicity they convey worlds of thought regarding this holy book. “Solitude,” for example, shows it open on a stand, surrounded by a dignified, patterned background. The colour scheme really evokes the feeling of solitude, and generally it is in solitude that one reads it.

The whirling dervish as a subject inspires a number of painters nowadays, possibly under the influence of Khusro Subzwari, who has become world famous as an artist depicting the spirituality of their dance. In her contribution to “Nostalgia,” self-taught artist Masooma Rizvi has included a number of studies of these, in their quest to find the ultimate reality, one of the 4 steps in the spiritual journey. But her most striking piece shows a dervish alone in a quiet mood, surrounded by a circle of black calligraphy and dressed in sombre brown, head bowed, with a number of Rumi hats above his head. These, Masooma explains, represent the various stages of the spiritual journey, and human beings finding their real worth in the eye of the creator, for which we must first suppress the ego and other human failings. To underline her intention, she has given a quote from Allama Iqbal’s Jawab i Shikwa, which is translated as follows. - “Your shield be wisdom, be your sword the flaming love divine, My dear dervish, do you not know that the world is yours to conquer?”

Menwhile, Sanaa Merchant’s “Flow” combines gentle lines and colours to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. To accentuate the unity of the piece, Sanaa has included a number of calligraphy-like shapes between the upper portion and the large mass below, through which creatures like butterflies flit here and there. Much of the picture’s attraction, however, is in the calmness of the textured white background, suggestive of the sky and the sea. However, with all the daily news about climate change bombarding us, one also feels a sense of foreboding seeing these forms and wondering how long they will remain as they are.

There is much foreboding also in the eyes of the subject of Shazia Jaffery’s untitled series based on playing cards. And considering the superstitions surrounding cards, and the various meanings given to them, this is hardly surprising. In the old French interpretation, spades have the quality of nobility, the heart represents the clergy, diamonds stand for vassals and merchants, and clubs for the peasant. And in medieval days, hearts represented love, clubs  the desire for knowledge, diamonds for the passionate desire for money, and spades warned of death. Yet elsewhere, the spade is interpreted as a leaf from the cosmic tree of life, while the ace of spades is regarded as the most spiritual card in the pack, symbolic of ancient mysteries. Each of Shazia’s pictures features a woman’s face in relation to one of the playing card symbols, one showing the face upside down, surrounded by a circle of alternating black and yellow spades, with a series of concentric circles within. It is an intriguing study, full of mystery,adding much to the creditable variety of presentation in this artist’s work.

But how and why does an online gallery like Artciti get off the ground? The 3 partners Muhammad Junaid, Hamid Siddiqui and Amir Shehzad wanted “to open a window for the world to peer into the country and acknowledge and appreciate the vast talent that our artists and painters possess,” says Junaid.

“We put in a lot of effort in winning the confidence of both artists and clients, and today we have close to 200,000 organic followers on Facebook, as well as a presence on Instagram and an actual gallery in Karachi’s Defence Housing Society. We have been able to change the mantra from, ‘It’s because of the galleries that artists survive’ to ‘It’s because of the artists that galleries survive.’”