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Maps of Memory

Quddus Mirza

Dr Iram Zia Raja is the Dean and Professor of Design at the National College of Arts. She has worked extensively on the subject of art education in South Asia, especially Lahore, and has presented her research in various seminars and conferences. Her doctoral thesis titled “From Craft to Art and Design: Changing Patterns of Art Education (Art Education: From the Mayo School of Art to the National College of Arts” has contributed to seminal research on the topic of post-colonial art and design education in Pakistan.  As a practitioner of Design in textiles and metals, she has had a number of solo exhibitions at leading art galleries, both inside and outside Pakistan. Her work deals with the presence of tradition and its contemporary possibilities. She investigates motifs, patterns and symbols from the ‘decorative’ arts of the past, and contextualises and reinterprets them with a contemporary sensibility. Her work is distinct for the innovative use of geometry, the unusual chromatic compositions, and the emphasis on detail that has been translated across several mediums.

Today everyone consults maps. When visiting a foreign city, or an unfamiliar neighbourhood, one taps on the Google Map App to find the right location. Before this facility, a stranger used to ask others for the correct address, and often ended up in areas far from his/her desired destination. Yet the folly often provided a new, unexpected and exciting result, hence if you followed a map or not, you did arrive somewhere, probably enriched by the experience.

Iram Zia Raja has created a distinct language, almost one and half decades old, distinct for its vibrancy, fluidity, depth, and complexity—and poetry

But maps do not just signify geographical trajectories. Made with rocks, metal, vellum, parchment, paper, these include cartographies of cultural practices. What we see on the façade of a Mughal monument, around a Ming Dynasty utensil, woven in carpets from Iran and Central Asia, are the outlines of the aesthetic geography of a society, and how the borders of religion, race, language and convention were blurred by the hands of a stone carver, a potter, a weaver. If one scans the creative practices—whether in functional objects or in decorative items, one realises that no society was landlocked. Images, materials, techniques, artisans, and consumers travelled from one place to other, in order to infuse new elements in the cultural practices of a people or a period.

Mapping Memories (2013); silk and metallic thread on silk fabric

This has been a distinct feature of the art of the Islamic world. The faith, emanating from the Arabian Peninsula, reached to distant locations; to North Africa, Middle and Central Asia, and the Far East, hence creating an amalgamation of regional traditions and histories to extend the characteristics of Islamic art. The Mughal miniature, which today is considered and perceived as a mark of identity in Pakistan, was the product of exchanges and encounters between communities and regions. This indigenous art indigenous art form emerged in India from Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdu Samad, two Persian painters who accompanied the Emperor Humayun on his voyage to India, and stayed. Later, the art of miniature absorbed formal aspects, imagery and subjects from the European paintings brought by the ambassadors, Jesuits preachers, traders, and travellers. The same has been the case in the other creative products, such as calligraphy, textile, pottery, architecture.

A Past Perfect (2014-2015); silk and metallic thread on silk fabric

Iram Zia Raja, in her work, seeks these threads, tangled in time, but widely visible in our culture. Her imagery reflects an intelligent and intuitive exploration of traditional practices in the region, in fact the entire Muslim world. Dr Raja was trained as a textile designer from the National College of Arts Lahore and has been teaching at the institution in the capacity of the Dean of Design Department. Her contributions in promoting a sense of originality in the field of design—that relates to present times yet responds to a long tradition of pattern making in the Subcontinent—are substantial and duly acknowledged. Inspired by her research and inquiry, Raja has been producing works of highly personal and unique quality in the area of fibre and textile art.

Textile, generally, is linked with women, because historically and culturally women have been weaving, embroidering, and stitching (even buttons on the shirts of their male family members!). From the Andes plains to the plateaus of Central Asia, and in regions of India, Africa, and other parts of the world, women are the makers of quilts, shawls, spreads, runners, wearables, etc. Realising—and revising these circumstances—today, the textile is acknowledged and regarded as a parallel and potent form of art making, previously exiled from the discourse of art history. Hence Faith Ringgold, Mrinalini Mukherjee, and a few other international artists brought techniques, materials, aesthetics associated with craft or with women into the domain of mainstream art.

In the Beginning There Was Text I (2013-2015); silk and metallic thread on silk fabric

Recognising this, Iram Zia Raja, has been producing her art, in a vocabulary that travels between the functional and the aesthetic, between the traditional and the modern, between the  expressive and the calculated. In that aspect, she is the heir of Muslim image-makers, who, by using geometry, made innovations in their designs as well as in their calligraphies. In her works on fabric, Raja incorporates conventional motifs in a range of tones: gold, silver and bronze, other hues from the spectrum. In these compositions, the history of geometric design is reinterpreted through manipulating basic shapes, though not replicating the past (and perfect) forms. In her work, fragments of sacred geometry appear and are modified; hence the elementary diagrams of circle, cube, rectangle, triangle, and hexagon are combined, composed and constructed to create contemporary designs.

In fact, her imagery is not limited to the craft of making, because it recognises the fabric of a society that breathes in multiple times and in many traditions at the same moment. Zia has recognised this aspect, and her tapestry panels reflect the change in relationships between the local and the foreign, the original and the imported, the old and the new. Her visuals comprise segments of Kufic script, motifs from the sacred manuscripts, elements of Mughal gardens, and patterns from the historical garments, yet she prefers a contemporary view of tradition.    

In her woven works, Raja deals with the history of design with a greater ease and openness; and more in the tone of a person who is playing with the form to satiate a personal vision, she deconstructs elements and shapes, and joins them with a great level of freedom. Hence she fabricates a particular pictorial vocabulary, which has its distant link with tradition, yet is distinct for its innovative features. In an interview with Art Now Pakistan Dr Raja explains her position on the question of tradition and innovation: “In my view and understanding, tradition is the continuity through which we know ourselves. Here I would like to quote my favourite example of the priest king statue from Indus Valley Civilisation.  He is wearing a shawl that has a trefoil motif carved on it. Today’s Ajrak has the same motif. This is the power of tradition: an unbroken lineage of over 5000 years. One cannot overlook this power of tradition and its influence of innovation. So I have this conviction of purpose in accepting tradition as my teacher and for every artist and designer out there I feel it is very important; almost a lifeline to stay connected to your roots and feel for them and work on them—innovation will follow. It has to follow.  That's how the building blocks of innovation will be created.”

Thousand and One Desires - Diptych (2015); silk and metallic thread on silk

Actually her work illustrates her words, because a different interpretation of tradition indicates diverse possibilities, which are open to a creative mind. Her works portray the way she has continued her inquiry into Islamic geometry on a formal as well as conceptual level. In any case, in the art of Islam, form is not delinked from the content. The act of putting a mark, shape, letter is not merely an aesthetic excursion, but a serious sojourn towards connecting the transient world with the eternal. The genesis of some works lies in patterns that our mothers, grandmother and great grandmothers have been creating in fabric—an authentic, ancient, and functional medium. 

Along with geometry, the presence of script and the uncanny usage of colours distinguish her work. Section of Kufic letters merge with Mughal motifs, to create a language that is rooted in our cultural past, but like any work of literature, it is penned in a vocabulary formed centuries ago, and yet appears unique, new, and private. Iram Zia Raja has created a distinct language, almost one and half decades old, distinct for its vibrancy, fluidity, depth, and complexity—and poetry. Her composition comprises motifs, text, and textures, yet every segment of the imagery is joined in a perfect order—like parts of a machine or components of a car engine.

Meanings and Motifs (2014 -2015); silk and metallic thread on silk fabric

The most remarkable quality of her work is that she deconstructs traditional forms, patterns and texts to create new combinations. Forms rooted in the past, but belonging to contemporary sensibility. The unusual and creative composition of colours, shapes, and textures reveals the artist’s position, because regardless of using motifs and scripts from the past, or employing functional or decorative examples, what she has created out of a cultural legacy is unmistakably Iram Zia Raja!

All artwork is courtesy of the artist, Dr Iram Zia Raja.


Quddus Mirza is an artist, art critic and independent curator. He is the former Head of Fine Arts Department of the National College of Arts, and currently a Professor in the School of Visual Art and Design at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. Mirza has shown extensively in numerous important group shows, along with several one-person exhibitions, held in Pakistan and the UK. He has also curated a number of exhibitions in Pakistan, UK and India. Mirza is an art critic with a regular weekly column appearing in Pakistan’s major newspaper, The News, and regular column on art Letter from Pakistan in Art India as well as contributing to other publications like DawnHeraldHimalDepartLibasContemporary and Flash Art.

He is the co-author of the book ‘50 Years of Visual Arts’ in Pakistan and has written essays on Pakistani art in different international catalogues and other publications. He is also the editor of online magazine Art Now Pakistan


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