Open Presence, an exhibition of Ayessha Quraishi’s artwork, was held at Koel Gallery Karachi from the 1st to the 17th of September 2016. The exhibition offered a rare opportunity to experience the work of one of Pakistan’s most original and reclusive artists.
The moment is simultaneously present throughout Ayessha Quraishi’s work – as if it were a gathering together of all time into an eternity that is Open Presence. In Quraishi’s art this openness makes its presence felt rather than known. In bypassing the limited reasoning of the analytical mind and connecting to pure consciousness, the making of meaning itself becomes a continuous, dynamic process, an open ended dialogue between the contemplated and the contemplator.
The sculpture occupying “the form of the last shadow” embraces an evocative ambiguity of form commensurate with its title. If a shadow can be said to have form this form would necessarily be fluid, as time is fluid, and indeed the wave-like contours are suggestive of movement yet at the same time they embody a graceful balance as if someone were holding a yoga pose. As in Quraishi’s paintings the surface is alive, tactile, porous – it becomes an invocation of that largest, all-enveloping organ of our body containing all of our senses, the skin, as well as earth which is the skin of the planet we inhabit.
Surface and texture are also exquisitely rendered in the series of ten paintings
Surface and texture are also exquisitely rendered in the series of ten paintings titled “touching blind, inside out”. True to their names, these paintings are a kind of living osmosis: they breathe through a subtle wordless braille mirroring how we breathe and communicate wordlessly, through our skin.
The series of paintings titled “in the absolute presence of a distant light” sees Quraishi revisiting the monochromatic tones that have been characteristic of her recent work. The eye travels along microtonal gradations and delicate gestural markings. These somber yet luminous pieces have a strong horizontal linearity which could be seen as the “distance”of a horizon but their beauty lies in being resistant to a reductive interpretation. The “light” represented here comes from within as well as from a distant glimmer.
In stark juxtaposition to the monochrome series the two paintings titled “and of skies it is said ‘there are seven’ ” and “skin rituals over a flesh weakness” jolt one’s senses awake. In the former the energy is entirely vertical, leading the eye to dizzying heights. There is a velocity here, suggestive of flight. With its eye popping blues and reds “skin rituals over a flesh weakness” feels seismographic and tectonic in its intensity.
In foregoing recognisable form, these paintings return us to the elements, to our senses and to our primordial being
The series titled ‘looking through the ancient sepia into future florescence, many a self-portrait emerged’ is a testament to Quraishi’s continuous experimentation with hybrid digital forms of art. In this series, digital prints are overlaid with a translucent paper that serves as a membrane. Viewed through this sepia veil the pieces acquire an intriguing patina and mystery which is deepened by her radical statement to term these works “self portraits” when they are deliberately devoid of any figurative content. This, then is the self that escapes the limited boundary of personhood and leaps into its primal constituent elements of light, color and line.
Colour comes to the fore in the large paintings titled “an exaltation”. These have been termed by the artist as “works in progress”, however if one is encountering Quraishi’s work for the first time they would appear to be finished paintings. As someone who has known the artist’s work for nearly two decades and has been mesmerized with her early work; in particular the art journals which constitute a seemingly infinite number of chromatic and linear explorations on a small scale; it has been refreshing to note that where most artists would be content with variations on a theme of a winning formula, Quraishi is continually pushing the boundaries of her visual vocabulary. As soon as one thinks she has “settled” into a particular style she surprises with a change of scale, chromatics, and mediums. She is continually challenging herself as an artist and reinventing her art.
My personal favorite of all the paintings in the show, the title painting “open presence, where everything touches everything” is a masterpiece. One gets a strong sense of vibrant movement, reminiscent in its intensity of the most primal creative forces. There is concentration and expansion here. I was reminded of that other marvelous creation by the Argentine master, Julio Cortazar. In his book From The Observatory, written on site in Jaipur in the 1970s, disparate natural phenomena such as stars and eels are strung together in an inspired stream of consciousness. This painting speaks to me in a similar fashion, in ways both cosmic and visceral. The right side of the painting is an expansive flow of light lines touched by a single fiery red streak that flames like a wound of passion or a meteor across the infinite sky of consciousness. This is balanced by the dark, deeply sedimented gravitas of the left side of the canvas. The simultaneous tension and attraction between light and dark nodes in this painting creates an incredible electricity.
To merely call these works “abstract art “does not do them justice. In foregoing recognizable form they return us to the elements, to our senses and to our primordial being. In this way they embody both timelessness and instantaneity. At the same time there is a deep and thoughtful engagement with line, form and color that is the hallmark of a mature artist’s unstinting attention to the smallest detail. There are no sloppy strokes here, yet at the same time when Quraishi makes a bold gesture it is with the same one-pointed focus that a yogini would apply to her meditation or a tightrope walker would hold while crossing a razor thin wire from which a fall would entail certain death.
When words end there is only bliss. We need only to open our doors of perception to be in Open Presence.
Sophia Naz is an Asian-American author and artist born in Karachi in1964. Her writing has been anthologized worldwide, in both print and online journals