Artist Sara Riaz Khan is a symmetrically beautiful woman. Standing at her solo show in sari and short bob, she speaks in a clear, tranquil voice; so when you see her paintings, you are struck by the pandemonium. All around us the walls are lined with massive canvases, splattered, peeled, scrawled and packed. It is a joyous muddle, and it is painted to music.
The show held recently, titled “Songs of Spring” at Karachi’s Chawkandi gallery, had the artist looking for the thread that ties “all of us together.” She chose something that she felt everyone could relate to, and picked sounds from Japan, South Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of nature and spring. So Vivaldi, Ustad Rashid Khan, Beethoven and the Japanese folk song Sakura, among others, jostle to guide her brush. The results are sumptuous. When I meet her she tells me about “sleeping colours”: the ones blanketed by other colours. She works intuitively building the layers of her paintings. The works have a primitive, rapid movement, and she revels in her technique. Khan’s colours are happy, the kind that a child could easily name – sometimes a little too easily – but the works have a presence. And often, they even have a certain ferociousness. Her markings are strong and quick, there is a violence to them. The surfaces are thunderstorms and cloudy seas: there’s frantic energy here, an angry power there.
The surfaces are thunderstorms and cloudy seas: there’s frantic energy here, an angry power there
Some pieces in “Songs of Spring” like Beethoven II have the cloudy veils and dabs of Impressionism. The ones based on the Japanese Sakura (celebrating spring and cherry blossoms) even evokes Monet’s lilies. Deciding not to research the musical traditions, she learnt later that a blue and purple painting was based on music composed specifically for the evening. That these were painted to Shiv Kumar Sharma’s Raag Malhar, or Vivaldi’s concertos is more a private connection and less a literal one. The argumentative gesso and paint strokes are evocative of the peeling walls of our cities, the markings of forgotten civilisations, or even a garden seen through sleepy eyes – and Khan deliberately keeps her canvases loose.
One of the most effective was influenced by the Raag Durbari of Ustad Rashid Khan. The work has the opulence of a Russian palace. Beams of interrupted light form marks in amethyst and yellow, the painting glows like a jewel in translucent veils. I enjoyed the intimacy of “Songs of Spring” – in the entire series you can see Khan’s arm swish across the canvas, her hands scratching and flicking paint. Like the Action painters, you watch her in the act of painting. In a poem she wrote for the show she says “the happening” is done; she calls them “negotiations”, and we are privy to them.
Khan set herself a challenge: “Working with unfamiliar sounds required a different kind of effort and this was the most valuable point for me; stretching out of a musical comfort zone.” But the challenge, though interesting, isn’t such a big one for her. Her dazzling paintings, with their rich terrain, are monsters she has grappled with and conquered. Her “negotiations” with gesso and paint are friendly and successful, but could be pushed further. Plus, every good relationship could use some spicing up. It would be interesting if she set herself a new challenge: adding another participant to her tea party with colour and canvas. Fans of her work would love to see her experimenting with unfamiliar textures and adding alien surfaces to her plane, similar to the way artists like Meher Afroz experiment with materials. Khan could add other voices to her negotiation in her own joyful spontaneous way. It would make for a great conversation.
Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi based writer and artist