One is unable to decide or determine between the seductive and the spiritual while in front of Nazia Ejaz’s surfaces. Paintings made in oil and gold leaf were recently displayed in her solo exhibition ‘Scriptures of Love’ at Canvas Gallery, Karachi (November 16-25, 2021). This body of work marks a shift in the aesthetics of the artist, who acquired her BFA from the National College of Arts (1992), before earning her post graduate degrees from the Slade School of Art, London (1996) and the University of South Australia, Adelaide (2016).
The luminosity of her surfaces – whether impasto of golden paint, coats of green colour or layers of blue pigment – is the first aspect that a viewer notices in front of her canvases. Images bathed in glowing hues lead to another realm, to a subliminal sojourn. Nazia Ejaz in her works seems to be exploring eastern philosophy, elements of religion and the essence of Sufism. She also does this by reading on the same subjects some books by theorists such as Shahab Ahmed (the late author of What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic and Before Orthodoxy) and Keith Critchlow (the celebrated author of Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach) along with several others.
Ejaz approaches these concepts through the language of an image-maker: a person who translates and transforms ideas into shapes, forms and colours, hence expanding their impact, understanding and beauty. At her Canvas exhibition, Nazia Ejaz displayed large, almost abstract-looking paintings, along with an installation of 80 small canvases, with repeated drawings of a single rose. Both large and small works have a personal and private context, but the artist manages to bring intimate connection in the domain of public. For an outsider, these paintings are accumulations of identifiable visuals, recognisable but unreadable texts, shapes and areas of bright colours.
But to the artist, her work germinates from some specific experience.
A major one was losing her father early this year. The death of a parent, especially the remaining one, is the reminder of one’s own mortality. It also makes a person see the world through the lens of perpetual grief. And it is about the worthlessness of an individual’s possessions – material as well as mental/emotional. One can bring everything to a living person, but only flowers and prayers after he/she leaves this world. Nazia Ejaz in her installation ‘A Million Farewells’ refers to her father’s passing away. Especially as fifty of these canvases have a rose, drawn mostly in black paint against backgrounds of different hues, or script that reminds of the page of a diary or a personal (handwritten) letter. This installation, and another work titled ‘Shadow of the Moon’ (a set of 5 panels), in a sense recall the custom of leaving roses on a loved one’s grave.
Nazia Ejaz offered flowers to her father, but if one is not aware of this emotional side, her combination of many canvases can be about any other relation, love, loss or grief. In the same lieu one can comprehend her paintings based on interwoven Arabic letters. In a Muslim society, one bids farewell to a person through offering prayers, reciting sacred verses and repeating holy words. Ejaz is interested in the iconography of Islamic art, but the inclusion of calligraphic element in her art could be a residue of witnessing death in the family and rituals attached to it.
Death, according to Islamic belief, is the soul leaving the body (matter) and levitating to Heaven. One can equate this with the ideology of Abstract Expressionism. The American artists like Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and others claimed their art to be an act of the sublime: transcending familiar reality (matter) to a higher plane. A subliminal or spiritual experience, in which our self leaves our surroundings for a friction of second, before returning to our senses. Much like our dreams, when our soul travels to far away, unknown, and unbelievable arenas, outside of our static body.
In that sense, Nazia Ejaz’s return to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism does not have a personal aspect only, it is a way of investigating a vocabulary that can relate to spiritual themes. Scared geometry, numerical and letters, and connotation of colours (including gold) have been ingredients of Islamic art, which, refraining from the tangible – and hence ephemeral – seeks to represent eternity. Ejaz, examining two different and distant sources, creates a diction that describes her way of looking at reality: physical, metaphysical and sensory. At her solo exhibition, the painting called ‘Leaves of Gold’ reminds one of Mark Rothko’s stock imagery. It is a way of paying homage to the artist who strived for a spiritual encounter through his pigments and surfaces.
The link between matter (of art marking) and a higher experience is a continuous question for artists. For example, pictures of saints and holy figures on the stained-glass windows in cathedrals were revered due to the identification of scared content, but also because of light that illuminated these pious characters. The luminosity added another coat to religious content. Much the same is seen in the works of Renaissance painters, with figures enveloped in glazes, which make them bright, brilliant and ever-present. Nazia Ejaz draws her inspiration from the Renaissance, but instead of replicating the past imagery, she invests in the brilliance of colour while producing paintings of almost abstract nature.
One feels that light (emanating from the glazed surfaces) and colours are the main concerns for the artist. For her, “Colour is like music. It is a deaf man’s music!”
Ejaz strives to compose her colours like notations of great music (she is the youngest daughter of Madam Noor Jehan, the Melody Queen!). In addition to that, she incorporates traces of calligraphy to denote some specific aspects of our shared history. For instance, the large-scale shape of the Arabic number five, impressively inscribed on two of her canvases, originates from the Muslim notion of five pure personages, comprising the family and descendants of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
There are keys, clues and patches to pick and comprehend the entirety of Nazia Ejaz’s imagery – apparently formal, and yet rooted in our cultural practices. For instance, the golden stripes on a deep blue rectangle in ‘Songlines’ for an ordinary spectator could be bands of paint in a sequence, but when in conversation with the artist and her reminiscences of performing Umrah, it unfolds another dimension. After knowing this devotional visit, one starts decoding the streaks of gilded paint on a dark background as the lines of gold script on the drape of Ka’bah.
Ejaz, for her part, refrains from any such, direct interpretation, because her work has the potential of being viewed through multiple, diverse perspectives. For example, we find a set of three paintings, all about script, all about traditional geometry, and yet liberated from the limits of immediate descriptions. These paintings, including ‘Shadow Dancing’ and ‘Variation of Variables’ indicate a new way for the artist in her search for a perfect voice. The melody of her art does not depend on parental references, nor on her readings on Islamic philosophy, but on an amalgamation of the past and the present, of East and West. It is cold-pressed to the extent that what we get eventually is the purity of paint, and the pleasure of pushing boundaries of all sorts.