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Hyperallergic | Aisha Khalid Examines Women's Roles and Spirituality Through Textiles and Geometry

By Nageen Shaikh

KARACHI, Pakistan — Painting in the manner of Mughal miniatures proliferated in the late 20th-century Pakistani art school curricula. Like a few other young artists emerging in Lahore, Aisha Khalid specialized in painting these traditional miniatures. The style called for an imitation of historical works from manuscripts or independent folios by integrating handmade materials and techniques that had been passed down generationally in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Khalid’s inventive early compositions in the 1990s fueled the contemporary “neo-miniature” art movement in Pakistan that revitalized traditional Mughal painting, but with edgier contemporary aesthetics. Now, the artist’s first-ever retrospective, the multi-venue I AM AND I AM NOT, traverses her three-decade-long career and connects her early paintings of traditional clothing and floral motifs with recent works combining textiles, sculptural elements, videos, and geometric abstraction. 

The curatorial approach has been to divide and display over 70 works in the chosen venues that suit their larger contexts. The earliest works are at Chawkandi, one of the city’s oldest art galleries. Here, viewers can see the beginning of an oeuvre that scrutinizes personal, social, and cultural issues such as prescribed societal norms associated with the female gender (for instance, women not actively participating in the public sphere in some parts of the country). Displayed under soft, warm lighting, small- to moderate-sized preliminary paintings, and some drawings, depict walls and curtains signifying privacy as well as coerced indoor confinement. The delicately painted boundaries contain female figures donning flowing garments, such as the burqa and chadar, that often embody cultural and religious values, while subtly painted lotuses symbolize simplicity and regrowth. Many drawings imitate subjects from Mughal miniatures, too. In the center of the gallery, a glass table displays clippings of early positive critical reception to Khalid’s works.

Often, the artist merged these shadowy figures, especially the lower edges of their outfits, with repetitive shapes recalling patterns in Mughal artworks inspired by Islamic mysticism. The designs are especially prominent in “Birth of Venus” (1994) and multiple works titled “Captive” (1999 and 2000). The pieces serve as testament to the lives of many South Asian women living within the stifling confines of their homes, as her titles sometimes allude to mythical goddesses of love and beauty from Western art historical discourse. Khalid’s sensitive visual lexicon requires cultural insight that is often lacking in many viewers who are unfamiliar with her cultural context.

The artist’s most recent paintings, sculptural installations, and videos, accompanied by some smaller early works, breathe life into Frere Hall’s Sadequain art gallery. (Ironically, the building was a town hall under the colonial British in the first half of the 20th century and was selected as a fitting venue for Khalid’s works that weave in postcolonial themes.) The nuanced handling of delicate motifs in the artist’s early works has almost disappeared at this point; here, the paint strokes are bolder and the works seem more personal than ever. Over the last decade, the semi-geometric warped backdrops have progressed into dense, impenetrable abstract compositions open to interpretations, as seen in “You Appear in Me and I in You” (2015) and multiple paintings titled “At the Circle’s Center” (2017). Diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs titled “I Am and I Am Not” (2019, 2020, 2021) borrow their title from Jalal ud Din Rumi’s mystic poetry, and birds, flowers, and animals from Mughal miniatures appear. This time, the imagery is reimagined with swords and arrows painted over tessellated backgrounds. The objects may indicate the spiritual transformation Khalid has observed in herself over the course of her practice, but it’s not visually evident; viewers will have to take the artist’s word for it.