Review | Letters From An Underground Vein Read
44 shades of grey
Q u d d u s M i r z a
The News | Encore | 9th December 2012
After a hibernation of 14 years, Ayessha Quraishi is showing her art again. Her last solo exhibition was held in 1998 at the Indus Gallery in Karachi; her recent work was shown at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from Nov 29-Dec 8, 2012. The exhibition, titled ‘Letters from an Underground Vein Read’ comprised 44 art pieces, mostly in oil and acrylic on paper or timber. Apart from one, all her works were executed in black, white and different shades of grey.
One is not aware of the reason behind this long absence but, knowing Ayessha Quraishi, this is nothing unexpected. Quraishi is not keen on maintaining a public persona of a painter; nor is she interested in displaying her work regularly or marketing it. For her, art making is a private act, a sort of meditation and the most suitable idiom is the abstract. The surfaces, rendered with various kinds of tones and textures and devoid of any readable imagery, require a certain level of concentration — by the maker as well as the viewer. Gazing at her paintings with their layers of paint and a variety of visual effects, the viewer is bound to share the experience of the painter and whatever she aims to transmit through her work.
Yet, the artist’s decision to become invisible (just like the non-existent figures in her canvases) in the art world is an important step. Considering the trend of repeated shows by certain artists in multiple galleries, Quraishi’s approach appears unusual. She may have produced significant works in the past but, in our circumstances, an artist has to perform and exhibit continuously, irrespective of quality and just to meet the pressure of art galleries and the market. It is the quantity that ensures an artist’s status in the closely constructed world of art.
At the Koel Gallery, Ayessha Quraishi has put up works created with minimal aesthetics. Sweeps of black paint, areas of white, and coats of thin colours is all that her imagery is about. Often, the black and white portions are composed within single works while several paintings are variations in different dark hues. In some works, only a slight mark was used to complete the visual. Despite the diversity of pictorial elements, by and large, the works are created in an expressionistic manner, leaving strokes of brush, drips of paint and lines made by the moving hand/arm intact.
However, unlike the general practice, these do not seem hurriedly applied marks; these contain the artist’s subtle, sensitive and delayed touch. In fact, the work rather than denoting some sort of ‘expression’ reveals a sense of meditation and reflection — on the space, colour and form. These art pieces appear simple but turn complex when a spectator sets his gaze and concentrates on the detail.
It might be that the experience of meditation is the real content that the artist desires to convey to her audience. The slowness, softness and smoothness of life is perhaps her actual intention.
The aspect of quietness and meditation was visible when the artist bent, quietly unfolded and rolled out her long scroll containing a sequence of similar kind of visuals on the opening day of her exhibition. For the visitors, it was like looking at a film reel displaying section after section and finishing before the last episode/frame. However, unlike a film which has a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, the long scroll of Quraishi consisted of almost identical images, mainly because those were interconnected; the whole piece was conceived and treated as a uniform work.
The work of Quraishi has another connection with the world of cinema; it is her chromatic choice that links it with the realm of the celluloid. If one examines the history of cinema (even in that brief span of almost a hundred years), the film has gone through many stages: from silent movies to black & white cinema to coloured motion pictures to the now digitally made movies. Whatever the developments we have already seen or envisage for the future, there is still a romance attached with the black & white cinema (in photography, too, b&w prints are aesthetically rated higher than the colour or digital photographs).
This approach is equally preferred in other areas of cultural and artistic expression; thus any work in monochromatic tones is regarded as sophisticated. Arguably, the association of a single colour with the idea of sophistication was based upon the assumption that one could excel at a time when not many means were available (an observation that may be true for films but not in relation to visual arts where black and white are just like other pigments that are easily available). So, a work of art in black and white is considered challenging because the artist has deliberately avoided embellishing it with other shades.
One needs to realize that instead of colours, there may be other elements, formal and conceptual, which could fulfill the absence of various hues. In the case of Quraishi, a range of textures and tension between thick and thin application of paint served to satiate the eyes — much like the Chinese watercolour paintings which capture the sensation of a scene with their innumerable tones of grey. One must admire Ayessha Quraishi’s choice for having shunned a wider palette (even though there were a few exceptions in the exhibition) but, likewise, she has forsaken the trap of concepts, meanings and content, and taken her art to a brave new world of sensation and sensuousness.