top of page

Surreal Serenity: Diving into Minaa Mohsin's Dreamscapes

Hassan Tahir Latif

Our Managing Editor shares his thoughts on Surreal Serenity: Psychedelic Portraits of Dreamscapes by Minaa Mohsin that opened at O Art Space (Lahore). The show runs till 28 August 2023.

“I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth,” exclaims Blanche DuBois in a particularly memorable scene from one of my favourite plays, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Our heroine is distressed and coming to terms with the ugly realities of her existence. These lines came to me after visiting Minaa Mohsin’s show and my subsequent conversation with the artist, although the contexts of the truths created by Minaa and Blanche are vastly different.

Lirael (Acrylic on Canvas)

Surreal Serenity: Psychedelic Portraits of Dreamscapes is a solo show, in fact the artist’s first in her hometown Lahore, that opened on 18 August at O Art Space, continuing till 28 August. Comprised of a mixture of acrylic and oil on canvas works, the show is the vibrant burst of colour that I have come to associate with Minaa’s practice.

In her own words, the paintings are meant to “evoke a sense of enchantment and mystery” and the show “encourages contemplation of the infinite possibilities of existence”. This dive into the metaphysical world might be perceived as a new direction for audiences of her work, but is rooted firmly in the philosophy that has guided her practice from the outset.

Minaa Mohsin is a Pakistani-American painter. She received her BFA in painting from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2013 and MFA in painting and drawing from the Pratt Institute, New York, in 2016. Her work has been exhibited in Pakistan and the United States. In 2018 she was awarded a residency at the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts, NY, and has been a certified Golden Artist Educator for Golden Artist Colors in Pakistan since 2019. Our readers might remember her work from The Aleph Review, Vol. 6 (2022) or from our website. While others may recall her whimsical artwork that was featured on the UK edition of Mira Sethi’s collection of short stories Are You Enjoying? (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Over the years Minaa’s practice has centred around ideas of the female form in relation to the physical and emotional realms. A recent gallery show of hers held in Islamabad explored ideas of females as objects in an increasingly consumerist society, as well as a woman’s own consumerist fantasies and struggles with body positivity. Earlier works have depicted interiors adorned in a manner stereotypically associated with female spaces, with drawing room scenes and bedrooms taking centre stage. All of this is painted in the loud, bold colour palettes that have remained a stalwart feature of her studio practice.

Surreal Serenity, therefore, at first glance may seem a marked departure from this practice, but upon closer inspection is a natural evolution of it. The vibrant colour palette is there, and so is the female form. This time, though, she’s no longer confined to maximalist rooms, or pondering her place in a consumerist society, but instead she is in what is ostensibly an entirely different dimension.

Walking around the show, there is a sense of calmness that radiates from the canvases, despite their vibrant colours. It is perhaps because the figures depicted no longer seem tormented by inner dilemmas and quandaries—they are at peace. An otherworldly feeling permeates the canvases and carries you from one to the next. The female figures are either sitting or lying down in states of bliss, their serene expressions daring you to disturb the unity they have achieved with their surroundings.

Interestingly, a reference point for this show goes all the way back to over a decade ago. In 2011 as an undergraduate student, Minaa began experimenting with such female forms set against imagined worlds, inspired by the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar. The alien worlds portrayed with such painstaking detail, with an entirely new language having been developed for the purpose of the movie, stayed with her.

Nimue (Oil and Acrylic on Canvas)

“I’ve always wanted to create fictional worlds I can control, worlds that are entirely different than our own,” she told me as we sat down to converse about the show earlier this week. The sense of enchantment and mystery represented by worlds distinctly not our own has held sway over her throughout her practice. However, other projects took over and she was not able to delve into this world-building till recently. This forms a cornerstone of Minaa’s studio practice: ideas never die out; she works with them till she is exhausted and goes back to them when a new facet presents itself.

For now, she believes she has exhausted her ideas of domestic spaces and thus when the opportunity arose for this solo show, she gravitated towards her incomplete exploration of other worlds and other dimensions.

This is not a complete departure though. Elements familiar to her canvases reappear, but are juxtaposed with unfamiliar objects. The recurring female form is surrounded by bright, contrasting colours; however instead of tea trays and fried chicken breasts, this time there are sea anemones, corals and gemstones. A visit to an aquarium in Tennessee a few years ago launched her fascination with aquatic life and the seemingly alien beings that live in the vast oceans of the planet. Viewing these worlds through glass was one thing, but it was not till she encountered corals in real life while snorkelling that she truly became mesmerised by their odd shapes, their colours and their eeriness. Experiencing marine life up close provided her with the textural vocabulary she required to create her ‘otherworlds’ in Surreal Serenity.

Minaa’s imagined worlds are dreamscapes not only in the sense that they represent a physically different dimension, but also encapsulate the dreams she holds as a woman in the modern world. The female forms, and they are quite specifically female for her and not androgynous beings, are in a state of harmony with their environment. Speaking about this with her led us down a rabbit hole of metaphysical discussions—our place in the universe, unearthing deep magical energies, concepts of life and more. Minaa views this not in a spiritual or religious context, but as an answer to the simple, yet urgent, question: ‘Where does a woman find peace in this world?’

From what her show depicts, clearly not in this world, or rather, not on this plane of consciousness. To paint females in a state of bliss and not constant internal struggles, she has had to transport them to realms that are far removed from our own. That is perhaps the most powerful statement of the entire show.

Minaa’s practice has heavily focused on the interaction of females with their surroundings and in choosing to not engage them with the exterior world, but with a world of her own creation, the show becomes a commentary on the importance she places in withdrawing to an inner world, connecting with your deeper self to attain some form of bliss in a world that is constantly against you. It signifies her disillusionment with the ‘real world’ that is built on capitalist demands and expects women and female-identifying people to conform to it. However, in this imagined world, in these dreamscapes, her figures are able to tap into otherworldly energies.

Two works come to mind for this: Nyx and Twila (all pieces are entitled after women from myth and history have represented mystical powers). Nyx shows a woman sat atop a pile of what are gemstones and crystals, with her arms extended to either side, as if she is claiming the power of the stones. Similarly, Twila portrays a figure with one arm stretched out toward the strange botanical organisms on the ground and the other behind her, stretching upwards. Once again, claiming a hidden power.

Twila (Acrylic on Canvas)

Nyx (Oil and Acrylic on Canvas)

These are the truths that ought to be told, according to Minaa.

The metaphysical musings of the work brings it into the zeitgeist. There is a resurgence of interest in old magicks and cosmic energies. These conversations are now happening not within the confines of religious tenets, but on a grander scale. There has been a rise in communion with Nature, as well as an increased interest in esoteric practices that seek to heal and rejuvenate the soul. Many of these revolve around withdrawing inwards, unearthing deep truths about the self and its purpose, before engaging with the outside world. This softer, holistic way of being then becomes a path to salvation as opposed to the brutish forces of patriarchy.

Minaa’s women reflect this sentiment. The surreal dreamscapes imparting them with this inner peace signal an inwardness, reminiscent of the sort that many philosophies have encouraged over eons. Carl Jung’s quote comes to mind: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Therefore, one can imagine Minaa’s women are then perhaps not dreaming, but have awoken, fully embodied with an immutable power of their own. Where they go from here remains to be seen.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page