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Textiles as Identity

Diane Bilimoria

Editor's note: As the final piece in my series on the diffusion of Pakistani art, and in keeping with my earlier interview of Pakistani curators, I asked Diane Bilimoria to write about the exhibit at Grosvenor Gallery in London entitled Patterns of the Past: Weaving Heritage in ‘Pakistani’ Art, curated by Zehra Jumabhoy. This show was held at the Grosvenor Gallery: 11 September 2021-1 October 2021.

Mehvash Amin

When Zehra Jumabhoy said she was curating another show, albeit on a much smaller scale than the last one I had seen, it was rather exciting. Her first show, The Progressive Revolution: A Modern Art for a New India, in NYC back in 2018 was a mind blower! Sure enough, this too was a special one.

Curator Zehra Jumabhoy with Liaqat Rasul's work

Jumabhoy is a UK-based art historian, curator and writer specialising in modern and contemporary South Asian Art history. She has completed her doctorate and lectured for the famous Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is currently lecturing on the MA program in Asian Art Histories at Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and will be joining Bristol University as a lecturer in the History of Art department in January 2022. Her hard work and true talent at curating once again shines through in this smaller exhibit, called Patterns of the Past: Weaving Heritage in contemporary ‘Pakistani’ art at the Grosvenor Gallery, London. The display was the result of an annual collaboration between London’s Grosvenor Gallery and Canvas Gallery in Karachi.

Patterns of the Past contained works by just five artists—Adeela Suleman, Bushra Waqas Khan, David Alesworth, Liaqat Rasul and Ruby Chishti—and it aimed to bring together contemporary artists who use textiles to explore ideas of home, heritage, nation and identity. The show truly gives a completely different aspect to the traditional concept of ‘Pakistani art’ as well as to conventional ideas of textiles. As Jumabhoy says “The artists in this show were invited to draw on the variegated legacies of textiles in South Asia; to trace how the history of the Subcontinent’s textiles is tied to politics, culture, identity and the British Empire. It is a history that interweaves ideas of conviviality with violence.” This is in evidence in the excellent works produced by the five artists, tailored especially for the exhibition.

Bushra Waqas Khan's Black Tulip (left); A Well-Loved Slice of Leftovers (centre); Sub Rosa (right)

For me, Adeela Suleman’s Memory May be a Paradise 2 was truly the highlight of the show! Composed of appliqued Jamawar and banarsi cloth, it merged hand-done and machine-made embroidery. A huge tapestry, it depicted aspects of the Hindu Epic, The Mahabharata: namely, the fearsome battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. This large work was inspired by a Pahari miniature by Manaku of Guler’s The Nightmare Dream of the King: The Fearsome Aftermath of the Battle of Kurukshetra, ca. 1740, from the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, the heat of battle is portrayed via the tumbling, contorted bodies of the protagonists against a dark red background. Suleman’s work enlarges upon this theme through the use of brocade, embroidery and deep pink textiles. The colours and the detail are truly engrossing—but unlike Manaku’s version, the scene Suleman depicts is more hopeful: a tree of life sprouts in the middle of her embroidered battle. Adeela resides and works in Karachi. Having exhibited in many notable museums all over the world, including various Biennales, she is truly a success story and we were lucky to see her works in London.

Less known as an artist was London-based Liaqat Rasul, who describes himself as a “gay Welsh dyslexic Pakistani male”. Rasul studied fashion design and had his own women’s wear brand running successfully for ten years. His graduation collection was even snapped up by Liberty’s in Regent Street in 1999. He finally decided to explore his other talent: making collages with found objects, used paper and other materials (including glitter). His first stand-alone exhibition being in 2019 in London, where he exhibited eight works, Rasul says he wanted to “go big” and he sure did in this show. Present is a beautiful and thoughtfully put together collage incorporating wool thread, corrugated cardboard, circles from a hole punch, Sellotape, graph paper and something unexpectedly delicate: a dish cloth. As Rasul says: “I don’t make judgements about material, if something is scruffy or rejected I find a home for it in my work”. Visit the show and see what else you can spot in his work!

Installation View: Liaqat Rasul (left), Adeela Suleman (centre) and David Alesworth (right)

Over the past 22 years, Ruby Chishti’s works have ended up in various establishments across the world, including The National Museum of Qatar in Doha; the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi and Asia Society in New York. A Pakistani-American living in New York, she established herself with her audio-visual installations and fabric installations. The beauty that is displayed at Grosvenor also has an eerie side. A Thousand Flowers: Lost and Preserved II is made with recycled ceremonial clothing, foam board, thread, glue and wool: upon closer inspection of this striking wall-hanging you will see the heads of small misshapen women, whose faces are turned away from viewers; their hair carefully plaited. They are like misshapen dolls recalling childhood playtimes. Chishti says: “I refigure women’s ceremonial clothing from my collection with scraps of discarded fashion garments from thrift shops in Brooklyn to create alternative narratives that bring into focus my critique of patriarchy and exclusion”.

Close-up of Ruby Chishti's A Thousand Flowers-Lost and Preserved

Meanwhile, Bushra Waqas Khan is a graduate printmaker turned artist, combining her printmaking talent with textile arts has produced yet another high point in the show. Bushra has been shortlisted for the 2021 Jameel Art Prize, and her work was simultaneously on display at the V&A Museum, London. The dolls’ dresses on mannequins were captivating and on closer inspection each of the dresses were truly mesmerising.

She says, “I graduated as a printmaker and have been working with the patterns of ‘affidavit’ paper from Pakistan, also known as stamp paper or ‘oath’ paper. This piece of paper resonates with the lives of many in society, as it binds people to a contract, a proof of belonging, perhaps even of ‘ownership’. It often depicts national emblems such as the crescent and the star, with other repetitive motifs. Hidden away as a treasure in safekeeping, its value increases with time, often becoming an heirloom. The miniature dresses appear to be carved from this paper yet are actually fabric, constructed by using the patterns from the stamp.”

Next to Khan’s minute dresses were David Alesworth’s embroidered black roses. Alesworth’s claim to ‘Pakistani-ness’ is one of choice: he was a pivotal member of the 1990s Karachi Pop movement, but he also belongs to the Royal Society of British Sculptors. These works reflect his hybrid legacy: referencing both the prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s botanical paintings that used to hang on the living-room walls of his childhood home in England as well as the rose name after his horticulturalist grandfather (F.W. Alesworth), the embroidery itself is a riff on the markets of Karachi. In fact, the subtle black stitches have been made by the very same Karachi embroiderers who decorate wedding ensembles.

Photo credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London, and Canvas Gallery, Karachi.


Diane Bilimoria, Mumbai-born and bred, moved to the UK in her teens and is now a property asset manager by day. She is very interested in Indian and Pakistani art, and has been immersed in the London art world via her best friends who are major collectors, gallerists, critics and curators. She enjoys travel and has written about it as well as art, culture and food for the online publication, My Good Life.


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