Turbulence in silence the art of aisha khalid
photos: aisha khalid and gandhara art
The National College of Arts, Pakistan’s premier art school, was a rare sanctuary of culture during the Ziaul Haq period. It subverted the norm, and nurtured and educated a body of men and women drawn from the furthermost reaches of the country including its urban centres. For young students such as Aisha Khalid, who were schooled in this period, NCA not only imparted an experience of dynamic awakening and self-awareness but also instilled political and social consciousness.
There was euphoria created by the tenuous democratisation in the brief civilian interlude of five and a half years in the seventies between the Ayub Khan-Yahya Khan military governments that led to a bloody war and the eventual breakup of the country. This short-lived euphoria rapidly receded into a dark period of disenfranchisement followed by the people’s struggle against the shocking abuse of liberties and human rights under Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988). This oppressive military dictator’s regime affected the lives of Pakistan’s intelligentsia and its youth profoundly. As a consequence, indoctrination to a narrow, limited version of Islam linked to an equally misdirected ‘ideology of Pakistan’ was introduced insidiously into textbooks and curricula. This resulted in the lack of the development of the spirit of political consciousness and enquiry. An entire generation of apolitical Pakistani school children grew up with a misplaced understanding of cultural history, but more significantly, with inadequate knowledge about the basic principles of citizenship, including their responsibility as effective individuals within Pakistan’s highly diverse and dynamic society.
However, the National College of Arts, Pakistan’s premier art school, was a rare sanctuary of culture in this period. NCA subverted the norm, and nurtured and educated a body of men and womendrawn from the furthermost reaches of the country including its urban centres. For young students who were schooled during the Ziaul Haq period, NCA not only imparted an experience of dynamic awakening and selfawareness but also instilled political and social consciousness. Young women such as Aisha Khalid (b.1972), brought up in the cloistered environment of the historic provincial city of Shikarpur in Sindh, joined NCA in the nineties and graduated from it in 1997 with a specialisation in miniature painting. At NCA she imbibed not just the skills inherent in her traditional practice, but also the ability to connect her art with life by contemplating on wider issues. Reflecting on her work over almost two decades, one notices three distinct periods that define her growth and stature as acontemporary artist of international repute.
The first pertains to her early works (1997-2001) and is underpinned by the rigorous training imparted in NCA’s miniature painting studio under Bashir Ahmed’s pupillage about which Virginia Whiles writes at great length in her seminal work, Art and Polemic in Pakistan. Here learning was largely based in traditional practices: the making of brushes from the single hair of a squirrel’s tail to preparing wasli or the layering of several sheets of paper to create a burnished surface to paint on; grinding and preparation of pigments in water to achieve the perfect medium; copying from printed images of historical paintings by famous ustads and endless repetition as a means of perfecting skills. But many students chose an experimental path, a subversive act in itself, encouraged by the young mentor/practitioner, Imran Qureshi. Precedents of successful miniature painters, such as Shazia Sikandar who had achieved acknowledgement in New York’s art scene, and the innovativeness of Imran Qureshi, required enduring commitment to the growth of the contemporary or neo-miniature movement, an entirely indigenous phenomenon. Aisha was central to this discourse.
In this earlier phase, two important milestones delineate the direction that she pursued. The first is the suicide of her cousin who took her life after being pressurised by her family to bear a child followed by her falling in love, co-incidentally with Imran Qureshi, her life partner. The profound emotional impact of these personal experiences became the means of intense reflection that were transformed into visual images of mystery and depth. The purdah or curtain developed into a metaphor for the sheltered yet confined life of veiled women in burqas, about which she composed countless miniature paintings, all executed with exceptional virtuosity. Concurrently, she appropriated the universal symbolism associated with the rose and the lotus flower through her reading of classical poetry, literature and folk art. At a formal level, she defined inner space by using the curtain as a device to penetrate, utilising its folds and perforations to conceal the recesses inherent to privacy, and deploying its exterior surfaces to reveal outer and surrounding spaces, all characteristics of a broader subliminal feminist debate. These images were restrained and precise as is the nature of much of her early work. But, central to the making is the abstracted representational dynamics of the female body, shifting in scale and meaning as her conceptual concerns changed. Her residency at the exclusive Rijksacademiein Amsterdam (2001-2002) enabled a crucial progression in her personal and intellectual artistic development and marks the second phase in her oeuvre. As global events post-9 /11 shook the world, Aisha was made to to contextualise her work within wider political paradigms by reconsidering, for example, the impact of colonialism and its aftermath for the third world. While still in Amsterdam she also contemplated issues of cultural hybridity between east and west, incorporating the tulip flower and its ‘bulb’ into her visual vocabulary. Hence the tulip, rose and lotus in tandem with the stylised veiled form become elements that are repeatedly used to embellish and characterise her images.
At the Rijksacademie, exposure to technology provided Aisha alternate means of communication and expression. This resulted in Conversation (2002) a large-scale video projection juxtaposing two hands, one white metaphorically depicting the ‘colonial’, and the other dark-skinned, representing the ‘colonised’. Both hands are seen silently embroidering, with only the rasping sound of the needles heard, on two archetypical images of a rose that are simultaneously stitched and violently unravelled. Subsequently, Aisha has created other video installations as well as undertaken site-specific projects concurrently, along with several painting exhibitions. These have been executed in diverse locations such as the Venice Biennale in 2009, at the Mohatta Palace Museum (2010) in Karachi, the Sharjah Biennale (2011), the Moscow Biennale (2013) to name a few, and most recently at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (2014). Aisha’s interest in embroidery, textiles and sewing goes back to her early years, a practice that has constantly informed her work. The making of objects such as the Artist Books titled Page to Page and particularly Name Class Suiject has been highly acclaimed. They also won her the Alice Award in 2010. In this manner, she has boldly extended the limits of her work, going beyond the ‘page’ intentionally and investing greater relevance and allegiance to contemporaneity.
Since 2008, her concern with the female body has been overtaken by other concerns, including the creation of intricate and detailed patterns with grids and geometric shapes, vortexes repeated in multiples of essential forms such as the circle and square with a palette saturated in intensely rich colour. Their intensity is further evident in repetitious practice of a meditative quality, which is enhanced by creating illusionary space referred to by Salima Hashmi as a meeting between minimalism and Escher.2
Subsequently, she entered the third and what she believes is the most inspired phase of her career. In this phase she appears to be enthralled by elements and themes consequent to a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimensions of Islamic art. In 2011, she was a finalist for the prestigious Jameel Prize for contemporary work inspired by traditional Islamic art, craft and design. Conceptually, the path she chooses to follow is rooted in a growing affinity with Sufi philosophy and mysticism, predominantly the poetry of Rumi. This affinity manifested in the titles of several paintings and objects such as, The Container and the Contained and the enigmatic If you are everywhere you are nowhere, if you are somewhere you are everywhere. Three iconic examples are outstanding in this regard and demonstrate the powerful and authoritative expression that is demonstrated in projects that reveal themselves to be progressively ambitious. In Yourself of Yourself (2013) two identical garments in black and red fabric are placed side by side as if engaged in conversation with each other. Aisha herself refers to them as ‘spiritual metaphors’, where beauty and pain coexist in a harmonious state in which both the inner and the outer core are not only synonymous but also visible. In the black one, the intricate design of paisleys is made by meticulously inserting identical gold-plated dressmaker’s pins through the transfer pattern on the surface, which viewed from a distance looks like embroidery in which the inside of the garment is simultaneously visible. In the other (red) garment, the process is reversed, revealing a fringe or a fuzzy surface on the outer surface. The Kashmiri Shawl installed at the Sharjah Biennale in 2011 contains similar semiotics that simultaneously depict beauty and death, as if alluding to the beauty of the Kashmir valley that is also steeped in bloodshed. Finally, for Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum’s opening in 2014, Aisha created a large vertical textile, using the same process, titled Your Way begins on the other Side that was suspended from a height, and hovered above the heads of viewers.
Aisha’s entire body of work is indeed formidable, and exceed several hundred. And yet, she is also an unusually family-oriented person, equally zealous about cooking and managing her home; but in the privacy of her studio she is a remarkably focused and dedicated individual who enjoys the process of making. She executes her work with precision and passion.
1. Whiles, Virginia. 2010. Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting. London: Tauris Academic Studies.
2. Hashmi, Salima (ed). 2015. The Eye Still Seeks: Contemporary Pakistani Art, India: Penguin.
Professor Naazish Ata-Ullah is an artist, art educator, curator, writer and human rights activist. She lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan. She retired in 2010 as Principal from National College of Arts, Lahore and NCA Rawalpindi Campus. The Republic of France awarded her the title of Knight in the Order of Arts and Literature, for services to art and culture. At present she is a Senior Fellow at the School of Visual Art and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
Leading Image : Yourself of yourself . Steel pins on fabric. Variable. 2013
photos: aisha khalid and gandhara art The National College of Arts, Pakistan’s premier art school, was a rare sanctuary of culture during the Ziaul Haq period. It subverted the norm, and nurtured and educated a body of men and women drawn from the furthermost reaches of the country including its urban centres. For young students…