A great deal of art and culture coming out of Pakistan is wrapped in politics and political concerns. The Wardha Shabbir’s first solo exhibition in London, — which opened at the Grosvenor Gallery in collaboration with Karachi’s Canvas Gallery — could be contextualised along the same lines was my first thought when I read the title of the show. However, that is not the case.
The 2018 Jameel Prize nominee’s work began as an exploration of pathways — literal paths that the artist frequented to and fro from work — as well as her state of mind just before making any decision. It also reflects a moment of contemplation that summarises the various reasons and consequences behind any action. This trajectory best explains the title of the exhibition, In A Free State.
From the 15 artworks on display, it is obvious that Shabbir’s concerns are primarily formal. The paintings are visually pleasing; the colours are bright and attractive, while the main motif in the artist’s oeuvre thus far is foliage and leaves. There are few things more pleasing to the human eye than nature and greenery and the artist’s work encompasses this to her advantage. Based in the city of Lahore, gardens are constant features of her surroundings, hence their recurrence in her practice.
The paintings ‘A Reference Point’ and ‘Map of Mind’ are almost literal visual interpretations of her thought processes. The former, a painting of a hybrid silhouette composed of a combination of shapes resembling a trapezium and rectangle, is painted almost to the brim with leaves. The hybrid shape, according to Shabbir, is derived from an actual map of Lahore, before the city was developed and expanded to its current shape and size. Needless to say, the city plays a significant role in her work.
The second artwork is a simplified representation of her route from her accommodation to the Grosvenor Gallery in London. The map of her journey is represented by a manicured hedge that may or may not serve as a boundary wall against a flat blue surface.
‘A Scripture Of Time’ is a captivating sculpture composed of resin and real leaves. Shaped-like pipes, sea green in colour, encasing tiny leaves found around the city of Lahore, the piece seems architectural yet delicate owing to its materiality. It also has a daunting and dangerous feel to it, not least because of the way it is installed at the gallery: 10 cylindrical pieces poke out of the wall at a downward angle, like flat-edged spikes.
Shabbir says all her work is meant to be flowing and organic and, with this piece in particular, she has reimagined pardakht or the strokes that compose a miniature painting, treating the wall as her canvas/vasli. While the idea is novel, it unfortunately doesn’t come across as such. Pardakht are soft tiny marks that are built upon layer by layer to lend a feeling of rendering to illuminations in the genre of miniature painting. ‘A Scripture of Time’ seems too rigid and unyielding to resemble pardakht.
The artworks, particularly in this exhibition, as well as works by any number of Pakistani artists begs the question: why do so many contemporary Pakistani artists find it necessary to reference miniature painting in their work? Why do we feel that miniature is the only means of adding value to our contemporary practice? Arguably, Shabbir is trained in miniature painting, but besides the use of gouache, which can easily be replaced by any other medium; there is absolutely nothing to tie her work to miniature painting. Therefore, the need to force miniature references is unnecessary. Shabbir’s work is notable in its use of colour, real leaves and utilising material such as resin. And that is sufficient.
“In A Free State” was displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in London from September 27 to October 18, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019