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Art Spectacle International Asia | At the Circle's Center

By C. A. Xuân Mai Ardia

A leading contemporary artist from Pakistan, Aisha Khalid has developed a practice rich in symbolism, inspired by Indo-Persian traditions, the contemporary Indian Subcontinent, and even beyond. Her work, at times in the form of allegorical investigations, addresses, whether directly or indirectly, socio-political issues and notions of gender, women’s rights, conflict and spirituality, as well as ecology, encouraging to look at the world also through an Eastern lens. Her work probes into not only the dichotomies of East and West, but the myriads of realities that make up our contemporaneity, tapping into universal values we can all identify with. Her art provides a space for reflection—on the self, the world and the potential coexistence between the spiritual and the material.

Titled “At the Circle’s Center”, the exhibition is Aisha Khalid’s inaugural show at Aicon in New York, and comes just a few months after her multi-venue retrospective “I Am and I Am Not” (Karachi 2021-New Plymouth 2023) closed in New Zealand in July 2023, celebrating three decades of her career with works spanning from 1993 to the present.

“At the Circle’s Center” offers a glimpse into the artist’s diverse practice, comprising small works on paper, large-scale paintings, embroidered and pinned textiles, mixed media photo-based works and video. The show takes its title from a recent diptych of Gouaches on paper, richly painted in green, red and blue, using her signature geometric patterns and circles.

Born in 1972, Khalid experienced forced migration at a young age, from her native Sindh farmlands to urban Punjab. Like many of her fellow contemporary artists from Pakistan, she trained in the Indo-Persian miniature painting traditions of the Mughal Empire at the National College of Arts Lahore (1997), historically developed for manuscripts, to record history and illustrate poetry. The artist recalls how being born in a very traditional family, rooted in the traditions of her heritage, taught her the joys of working with her hands, mastering a variety of crafts like embroidery and stitching clothes. For her, encountering miniature at art school was fate; it inspired her for its similarity to what she had been doing at home. She loved working on a small scale, quietly by herself, listening to music, and enjoying the minute details and the meditative aspect of the practice, akin to embroidery.

Khalid tells me she did not at the time have a clear idea of what she would do with the miniature technique, nor did she think of it as a way of preserving tradition. For the artist, in fact, tradition is constantly evolving with the times. She just enjoyed the traditional form of painting, and saw it from the beginning as her chosen medium of expression. She knew she would not replicate the old paintings, the subject matter or the exact style and composition. She says that what the artists were doing in the 14th-15th centuries and even later, was very modern and contemporary for their times, therefore, what she thought she should do was to use the technique in her own contemporary style.

She started with really small, postcard-size paintings that gradually grew larger and larger. She also dropped many of the traditional characteristics of the Mughal miniatures, like the borders, and the central figurative elements. Khalid wanted to bring into her miniatures her own ideas, with complete freedom, capturing her surroundings in her own unique way.

Her early work had a more figurative style, as the figure was an essential element in the traditional miniatures. The figure in her work gradually evolved, apparently disappearing. While the actual, recognisable figure was gone, the fabric, the textile appeared, concealing the human presence behind the abstraction of a veil’s hemline, or the section of a veil in the form of the circle we are all very familiar with in her work. The figure, she explains, disappears behind the curtain or the veil, but “still today is there, but in a very abstract way, very hidden”.

The circle we see in most of her works—evolved from her early veiled female figure—is as she explains, an abstract human presence, as the veil, cut in a section, will look like that. The circles display a rippling hemline, like the one that also shows in other forms in her work. It’s the figure, who is always there, always part of the narrative. At times, the circle has been interpreted as a wound, or a bullet hole, but Khalid tells me it is ultimately the human presence, behind the veil.

Aisha Khalid’s hypnotic abstract backgrounds, which have become her signature, take inspiration from the traditional floor tiles of her childhood home, and are composed out of their checkered design, painstakingly painted in a quasi-ritualistic, repetitive fashion. The ubiquitous pattern might allude to the the realities of colonisation, migration and displacement, the latter still being a prominent issue to this day. Directly or indirectly, the artist engages with today’s social repercussions of geopolitics, conflicts and climate change.

The presence of the circular shapes in her compositions creates infinite depth, while breaking the regularity of the pattern. These interruptions generate a sense of destabilisation, hinting at the loss of a grounding force in our contemporary socio-political climate.

Fractures also appear in her photo-based works, inspired by her site-specific installation for the Lahore Biennale in 2018. The work at the biennial saw her intervention on a historical site, the Shahi Hammam, the Turkish royal baths built during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. At Aicon, one of the works is a photograph of the dome of the royal baths, split into two by a thick, blue line decorated with her signature tile-derived pattern. She says the dome is a symbol of perfection, of something complete, and the splitting into two to reveal the sky above it references the plans for a bullet train that was going to cut through the city, and through some historical sites, changing the cityscape and its history forever.

The royal baths also have broken frescoes, which she has photographed and mended in her work More Beautiful for Having Been Broken (2018), almost as if trying to heal a wound, using her signature patterns in red and gold, inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi (literally ‘golden joinery’), or mending broken porcelain with gold. In a way, Khalid preserves the memory of these frescoes, and the cultural identity they bring with them.

In addition to her large paintings, most from 2022, Aicon is also showing a number of small scale works on wasli paper from 2023 that display recognisable figurative symbols, while also incorporating her abstract tile patterning. The works on paper are titled “I am and I am not”, and are part of her ongoing series she started in 2019. “These pages are like a diary. I started writing a book on my life a couple of years ago, and at the same time I was writing I started making paintings, with the same title “I am and I am not””, she tells me. She says that one day, when she completes the book, she will have the whole series of work alongside it, because “I am a painter, I am not a writer.” These works therefore are like writing about herself in a diary, about how her life is evolving with time.

Like for the majority of her work, the title is taken from the poetry of Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sufi poet. Khalid opens up about her beliefs, telling me that she has been following Sufism for 27 years now. With a glimmer in her eyes, she tells me Sufism is all about love, a universal love. Asked to explain about the presence of symbols of violence in her work, like swords, arrows, and even guns, she tells me: “Actually I will correct, violence is not the correct word here, because that’s too harsh. You can refer it to pain, but not violence.” Sufism, she explains, is about love, but also pain—the pain that one has to endure in order to find, understand, embrace that love.

Since 2019, the artist has made work with images of animals like falcons, lions or horses, and arrows pointing at them. She explains that those animals, symbols of courage, bravery and strength, are all representations of herself, and the arrows coming towards her are the challenges, the dangers, the pain she has to confront. By extension, she refers here to the position of the individual in this world, the realities they have to face, and the fact that bravery and inner strength are necessary to overcome our difficulties. What these contrasting symbols represent are opposing forces, the same opposite winds that help you fly high, in the words of Urdu poet Iqbal. Khalid says the pain she expresses is hidden, and is not restrictive, but is very productive, in contrast to the narratives of misery often used when talking about women’s empowerment.

In her works at Aicon, those animals transform into flowers. There is the red tulip, a symbol of love, which she developed during her two years spent in The Netherlands. Also resilient, the tulip faces the arrows coming at it with courage. In one of the works, there are two tulips, a female and a male, one slowly fading, the other standing strong, weathering the storm. The artist calls this a very intimate, personal work. There is the lotus, which Khalid has often used in the past as well, a symbol of purity, of spirituality, floating in its beautiful pond, attacked by sharp, outside forces.

The artist explains how the large gouache on board dyptich I Am and I Am Not (2022) is more of a political work, referring to a garden, a peaceful, pure place of beauty and nature, which is being destructed today—forests felled, crops burnt. The beautiful blue water with the floating lotuses is an image of tranquillity, and the arrows flying over it reference not only the ecological disasters of our era, but also conflicts and wars happening around the world, and “how things change very quickly, how people living peacefully are just destructed by these things…”

Aisha Khalid’s concern and love for nature transpires in her work in many forms, sometimes more explicitly as in her video work I am and I am not – Frere Hall (2021). The artist has been interested in farming for the past four to five years, and has a farm where she spends a lot of her time growing plants and crops, planting trees and flowers, growing her own food. The video work on show at Aicon was shot in her wheat fields during the Covid lockdowns of 2021. She says: “We were in lockdown, everything was closed, the world had just stopped, the only place where I could go was my farm.” The artist longingly describes what you can sense in the video as “the feeling of when you are standing in the middle of the crop… just you and the sky.”

Khalid’s oeuvre is ripe with beautiful imagery, and her large tapestries are especially rich in such elaborate representations. In her early career, the artist used embroidery, eventually deciding to employ the elements used for making those intricate works. She started using dressmaker’s pins and needles. Some of her works use comforters—traditionally hand sewn—placed on the floor, with the sewing needles sticking out of them, threatening, uncomfortable, harmful.

She does the same with the dressmaker’s pins, creating beautiful embroidery-like designs with them on one side, while the other displays the sharp ends of the pins, like a fur that in reality can do you harm. Khalid says that “if you change the placement of the characters, that changes the whole meaning… and they become threatening… it’s about people’s relationships between each other.”

One of the tapestries on show at Aicon is a poetic rendering of the word ‘ishq’, which in Arabic means ‘love’, and in Sufism is split into two, earthly love and divine love, the latter being the real, true form of love. On one side, the work displays all its beauty, in a gold embroidery-like design against a dark background, but on the other, like the two sides of a coin, love transforms into pain. This brings us back to the main concept of Sufism: ishq, love. As Khalid tells me, it is about “love, and the pain you also have to take when you love. They are like woven together, the love and pain. You can’t make them separate. It’s not violent, it makes you liberated, it makes you grow. So the concept of Sufism is to love and to feel the pain as well, that is to be human. So these are the two sides I show when I work with tapestries…”

Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop (2023), which also takes its title from one of Rumi’s poems, is a spectacular tapestry in blue, green and grey hues, with a gold and silver embroidery-like design of a tree, birds and clouds. The work is about that tree, a symbol of nature, and how we have to protect it, how without trees there is nothing. She says matter-of-factly: “No nature, no beauty.” But this tree, Rumi’s tree, is also an invitation to courage, resilience and openness to change. What Aisha Khalid’s beautiful, intricate work belies is the challenges and the pain that pose an obstacle to the ability of letting go of the past, and accept transformation and renewal. Like the tree with strong roots, we should bend before we break, weathering the storm as best as we can, helping each other through it. It is perhaps also a message of resistance, and a warning that weathering the passing of the seasons comes not without its dangers. However, the ability to be like the tree will eventually pay off.

Khalid says I should read Rumi’s poem “I am and I am not”, because it would help me understand her work and what it is about—the apparent contrasts, the dualities, the half-gold, half-silver tree in her tapestry… So I will let Rumi’s words complete this review, and let them seep into our consciousness, perhaps encouraging a reflection on ourselves and our own existence in this world:

I’m drenched
in the flood
which has yet to come

I’m tied up
in the prison
which has yet to exist
Not having played
the game of chess
I’m already the checkmate
Not having tasted
a single cup of your wine
I’m already drunk
Not having entered
the battlefield
I’m already wounded and slain
I no longer
know the difference
between image and reality
Like the shadow
I am
I am not

(Translation: Fereydoun Kia)