The title of the show “A Still Descent”, something that the artist Rabia Ajaz had conceived in the early part of this year, proved almost prescient. It was planned to open mid-March but was delayed till this week, as life, as we knew it, suddenly stopped in its tracks and became still. And Rabia’s works with solitary flowers now seem like symbols of ‘isolation’ that has since become proverbial.
They say it takes effort for a person to write, even if for themselves and yet journaling is fast becoming popular in our times and regarded as therapeutic, just as mindfulness gains traction. But it takes courage to offer your writing to the world, as you put yourself out there to be scrutinized, and thus lose autonomy on your innermost thoughts. One could argue that its just the opposite for most artists, whose prim gallery shows don’t let on, or offer even an inclination of what goes on behind the scenes-outside the sanitized white cube.
A graduate of the BNU-SVAD Rabia received an MFA with distinction from the Pratt Institute in New York. As someone I’ve known for the past few years, Rabia is probably the very first young artist in Lahore to exhibit by means of an intimate open-studio and her persistence in this mode of exhibition must be commended for not being risk-averse. And clearly, the consequent intimacy of her own studio space allows her to show the unexpected … every time.
Her very first open studio was, a homage of sorts, to the past, a home or an ancestral house with familiar associated objects and the traces of those who once inhabited that space. In her second show, I invited her to work in an old depleted house and her site-specific works brought some respite, even momentarily, to the decaying walls of a former 1950s home. In her 2019 show “Breath Entangled” Rabia made a compelling case to question the mere appearances of things and explore beyond the surfaces and imagine what lies beneath or behind closed doors and windows.
On entering the current show you are met with four lines of text on the main wall as her statement, which reads like a spoken verse leading you into Rabia’s world. Subsequently, upon viewing the images you realize that every phrase of the verse, an emotion, is in fact the title of every image.
Rabia has painted her studio walls black, almost as an anathema to the white of gallery walls, as also she has chosen to paint her collection of delicate translucent flowers at various stage of withering, on black backgrounds. The lighting is dim, seemingly to allow a focus on each flower head as if to confirm that there is beauty even after the full bloom. The end result is an experiential display, where the focused lighting makes the works shine in the dark like covetable jewels – as they become a source of light.
In the eleven works that are currently on display Rabia has chosen to paint beautiful solitary flower heads almost as portraits, in acrylics on wasli (burnished handmade paper) or canvas and every flower and every petal has been rendered in great detail. The meticulous strokes are many, painstakingly layered and you can sense their fragility and the likelihood as if they may break away with a careless touch.
In “Where is the softness” we see a marvelous cotton-flower or simbal, which appears in early springtime in the Subcontinent, as a magnificent red bloom on very tall and grand trees and at a later stage in its life exudes the softest of fluff. Another work is a flower on its head, in the process of withering away, a petal at a time titled “you love me, you love yourself”, almost as an ode to a narcissist lover. While in the final work titled “Sentenced” it appears that the flower has had its head severed – in an untimely and almost cruel manner, before the natural process of wilting could set in.
At first glance Rabia’s sensitively painted flowers reminded me of the hyper realistic botanical paper collages by artist Mary Delany from the 18th century that I had chanced upon at the British Museum. Mary was an ace embroiderer and painter who turned to collage in her 70s and was immensely prolific, producing more than 900 unique images, all of which are also on a black background.
But here the parallels ended; whereas Mary’s quest in capturing every detail of the parts of every flower in all its glory is almost like a scientific inventory of a botanist, Rabia’s works appear as symbols of deeply felt emotions. Her solitary flower heads sans leaves or stems – an analogy to rootlessness or an origin unknown. As the existential philosopher Sliogeris reminds us that a beautiful flower emerges from the turbid depth of dark soil. However, as an artist Rabia, true to her vocation, clearly remains an optimist. She seems to have captured the flowers past their prime, post-bloom as it were, while they are in the process of perishing, leaving perhaps only a whiff of their scent or a careless whisper of their existence or perhaps they are on a hiatus from life.
Rabia will proceed as artist-in-residence to the Sam and Adele Golden foundation for the arts in New York in 2021.
The show may be viewed by appointment till June 30, 2020 at the artists’s studio. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for