Text | Shanzay Subzwari
Visuals | Courtesy Canvas Gallery
A myriad of colours welcomed the audience as they stepped into Canvas Gallery recently. Reds, blues, greens and yellows infused into one another as they came together to paint portraits of female forms in various poses; some reclining, some hanging from the ceiling, some in dramatic poses. Some returned the viewer’s gaze intrepidly. With a cursory look at the space it was evident that the artist’s concerns veer around the female form, its struggles and its implications.
The artist is t, a visual practitioner from Islamabad, Pakistan who holds a BFA from Boston University. With work ranging from large-scale oil paintings to mixed media installations, Qayum’s work has been exhibited both locally and internationally, including the U.S., the U.K and Japan. The show title ‘We Are All Mad Here’ is an allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Lewis Carroll’s famous and well-loved series based on a little girl and her unusual adventures and experiences in an unknown land. Qayum equates Alice’s experiences to those of women in Pakistan, for whom life can sometimes feel a bit surreal and bizarre.
Seyhr’s body of work consists of three major elements: a mini-series inspired by circuses, a culturally appropriated reinterpretation of Renaissance art, and paintings combining the female form with typically South Asian Islamic architecture- while retaining a feel of theoretical and visual unity. Interestingly, her works were accompanied by sculptural elements that conversed with her canvases to reinforce and complement her ideas. Qayum’s work consists of pieces where the female form is seen combined with the architectural structure of a minaret as seen in South Asian Islamic culture. Whether these women were wearing the minarets on their heads or were struggling under their weight wasn’t clear at first. According to Qayum, the minaret symbolizes ‘cultural’ religion in South Asia; certain expectations and traditions prevalent here that are more cultural but are enforced through the guise of religion. She feels women are ‘haram-shamed’ and as a result, ‘disinclined to research and analyze scripture itself’. The resulting passivity with which the women hold up the domes in her work comes from ‘The rationale … that those expectations and the weight of South Asian (Pakistani) society’s collective, often pedantic interpretation of Islam, is …a weight that you have to carry’. The sculpture relating to the monochromatic painting of the same theme served as its mirror. It consisted of a woman created out of wiremesh, perhaps crushed between the dome she held up and its bottom structure.
Suspended, so that there was movement in an otherwise visually heavy image, Qayum created a wire mesh in the bottom half of the structure in order to disrupt its the solidity; again, commentary on the impermanence/fluidity of our interpretation of religion. Interestingly, however the artist kept her argument ambiguous, as it is a debate into itself whether the issue Seyhr brings to light is one faced by all women or only a select few in society. Some seemingly accept it with resignation and indifference, some aren’t affected at all, and some are avid partakers in spreading such viewpoints, wholly accepting them with zeal. When looked at from a different light, perhaps the woman in the sculpture was carrying the minaret to her head like a crown, and not a burden. Qayum’s circus themed paintings brought with them colour, movement and fluidity, plastered against interesting, striking patterns. In various trapeze and acrobatic poses, women were seen in front of interesting backdrops with balloons, checkered floors and circus animals. Accompanying these canvases was a chain in midair with a suspended elephant oil painting on a canvas plastered on a metal orb. By displaying it as a sculpture, the artist inverted the preciousness of the oil painting by scrunching it up, to reinforce the randomness and bizarreness of life as a woman in Pakistan. Qayum stated regarding this series, ‘life over here is sometimes really bizarre and borderline surreal – you sometimes feel that you’re at a circus and having to perform a bunch of random stunts’- not unlike what Alice had to go through in her journey in Wonderland. Nearby was seen a larger-than-life colour pencil drawing of a Venetian mask, scrunched and plastered onto an orb and placed on the floor. Stemming from her study experience in Venice where masks are a part of the Venetians’ historical identity and a tourist’s delight, the idea of this guise interested Qayum. She stated, ‘the fact that it’s just this mask on the paper with nothing around it is meant to emphasize the size of the image and by extension, the purpose of the mask: to conceal or switch identities, and to perform certain roles/parts. This again reinforces the entire circus theme… this was on the floor and in the corner to create the impression of an ‘identity’ so to speak that’s been discarded.’ The work in ‘We Are All Mad Here’ was a comment on how interwoven ones’ sense of self as a woman in Pakistan is with the expectations tied with South Asian society’s cultural brand of Islam. Qayum’s art practice provided an interesting take on what it means to ‘flit between liberal and conservative societies’, while focusing on how female identity in Pakistan is informed by society’s collective interpretation of Islamic scripture and doctrine.