In a 28-year practice, Aisha Khalid has not shied away from discussing the complex relationship between the East and the West, using her art to challenge certainties. Melding pattern, geometry, and spirituality she critiques mainstream narratives and unveils the true heart of her part of the world. If Orientalist books and thought confine and reduce the East, Khalid releases the nuances and extraordinariness.
Trained on quiet floors at the National College of Arts (NCA) under the tutelage of Bashir Ahmed, Khalid and her neo-miniature contemporaries have stretched an ancient form, challenging and impressing an Euro-American-centric art world. Khalid’s first and most extensive retrospective is spread across three venues, Frere Hall, Chawkandi Art Gallery (the show’s organizers) and AAN Art Space and Museum.
Karachi audiences can experience over 70 works from 1994 to 2021, where Khalid shows both darkness and glory: the lust to rule, oppression, greed, as well as the majesty and history of her land and roots. Titled I AM AND I AM NOT from Jalaluddin Rumi’s poem—a notion Khalid keeps revisiting— a sense of duality runs through the show. Curator Masuma Halai Khwaja says that most of Khalid’s works contain binaries and “a series of nuanced complexities, evolving into diptychs or two parallel surfaces on the same Wasli telling different stories.” A pentaptych from 2021 tells the miraculous story from Surah Fil in the Holy Quran: an army of elephants advances; above spread across four panels, a divine army of flocks of ‘Ababil’ form an arc in a geometric sky. Warning against arrogance and pointing to the triumph of truth, Khalid explores dualities in the painting’s palette and arrangement. This series gestures to military onslaughts or opposition, and contrastingly, a courageous symbol, whether lion, horse, rose, or falcon, sits in a halo-like oval reserved for royal miniature portraits, indifferent to the spears.
If at Frere Hall and AAN Art Space and Museum the audiences see Khalid the star, it is at Chawkandi Art Gallery (hosts of her first show) where they meet Khalid the student, the daughter and young woman coming into her own
Agriculturist, educator, mother and curator, Khalid is deeply rooted in her land’s visuals and vocabulary. Fiercely proud of her own, she says, “Yeh sub hamari apni cheezain hain” – regularly mentioning ‘our’ language, ‘our’ architecture, music and poetry. Our art. Even the tulip, a motif Khalid used to much acclaim, synonymous with European nations, has its origins in the heart of Asia: and so, for instance, it is mentioned by Mughal Empire’s founder Babur in his Baburnama.
If you look closely, global power dynamics wind through her work in a thread. The piece TWO WORLDS AS ONE gives Karachi a chance to experience Khalid’s monumental fabric works that have amazed places like Toronto, Queensland and Copenhagen. At over 15 feet and made of four layers of fabric and gold-plated steel pins, its towering form is both mystical and disturbing. A sharp fur-like surface on the inner panels, contrasts with the opposite gold and silver panel’s shimmering allure. Its twin forms alternately suggest a Persian carpet, a weapon of destruction and a glittering continent. Like an atlas, there is much to discover. It is the story of military power, colonialism’s legacy, isolation and chaos.
Over the years, Khalid has merged fabric folds with her geometry, creating concave forms alternately suggesting an optical illusion and (she has been teased) a coronavirus particle. Raised in a home with embroidery and stitching, Khalid’s command over textiles has endured the decades, even carrying her “khazana” (treasure), a collection of embroidery swatches, to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam for her post-graduation. On her way to the Netherlands, Khalid’s Umrah pilgrimage infused new meanings into her work. Her pieces began to converge at a single point: the ancient heart of Islam, Makkah. The three dimensional, YOU APPEAR IN ME, I IN YOU manoeuvres between sculpture and painting, alluding to the grand colours and minimalism of the Holy Kaaba and the power of inner truth. Works like WATER SEEKS THE THIRSTY 2020-2021 (on display at King Abdul Aziz Center, Ithra Saudi Arabia) allude to the miracle of the Zamzam Well, and notions of mercy and salvation.
Khalid has been erroneously pigeonholed as a painter of women’s subjugation. She mentions an unfortunate incident at the 2013 Moscow Biennale, where organizers mistakenly said her piece “Time and Patience” (on display at AAN Art Space and Museum) lamented the suppression of Pakistan’s women. In reality, the two-paneled work explores the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the weavers of Bengal. Unraveling roses are embroidered on a river of white muslin, the adjacent panel, dually sided in army camouflage and deep red, is patterned with shiny needles.
If at Frere Hall and AAN Art Space and Museum the audiences see Khalid the star, it is at Chawkandi Art Gallery (hosts of her first show) where they meet Khalid the student, the daughter and young woman coming into her own. Intimate and precious, her memories and earliest works are laid out for us, providing a chronology. In glass cases there are her experiments with cross-stitch, a dagger her father fashioned and gifted before his death, photographs and squirrel hair paintbrushes. Beautifully imagined, the display shows Khalid’s fierceness and research, her bond with her father, and an artist who charted a path on her terms.
That Khalid wants to share Eastern perspectives and finds inspiration in Rumi’s poetry is not without irony, since the Victorian period, Western translators have been removing Islam and Quranic references from Rumi’s verses, giving him an ambiguous non-Muslim identity. Historian Peter Frankopan says Europe fought to “control the past” when it grew into a military power. Trying to reshape history, it crafted a new story of the world, where the West rises continuously, and Asia sits like an ordinary and silent spectator, its power and sophistication conveniently forgotten. This narrative has cemented itself in imaginations and history books, washing away the reputations of places like Northern Iran as a “bridegroom of the earth,” or Babur’s pomegranate gardens and pools in Kabul. To this diminished, flawed view of the East, Khalid offers pattern, pleasure, and the perfect answer: I AM AND I AM NOT.