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The Geography of Bliss

Aasim Akhtar

Sub Kahan Kuchh Lala-o-Gul Mein Numayan Ho Gayeen

Khaak Mein Kya Soortein Hon Gi Ke Pinhaan Ho Gayeen


Garden of My Heart I

If one reads between the lines, it may be said that Laila Rahman takes as her subject matter nothing less than the meaning of life in all its fragility, gravity, and wonder. Throughout the different periods of her painting and printmaking, she has pointed towards universal and personal desires, using her current suite of mixed-media paintings as a talismanic device to try to discover more quiet, more peace, and more life. In Bagh-e-Hayat, on show at Khaas Contemporary in Islamabad, painting presents itself as a philosophical enterprise—a kind of alchemy in which inert material becomes something else: a document of being, a repository of the human spirit.

There is no doubt that Rahman’s painted surfaces are sensuous, luscious, seductive and beguiling. Indeed, this is what the artist strives for—to create a living membrane of thought, an intimate space that she may describe as feeling as close as the warmth of skin. But what exactly is one to make of the images and icons that proliferate in Rahman’s paintings? What can be deduced from the symbols—some ancient and archetypal, others personal and enigmatic—in her work? Threads of understanding can be perceived beneath her quiet pauses and deflections. For Rahman, the act of painting is about making something concrete out of things—thoughts, memories, experiences—that will always be impalpable. For example, the burial of a loved one is an act signifying respect and honour. How do we hold love and loss in our hands? Sengai, the monk and sumi-e master, was once accused of wielding his brush to laugh at human frailties. He retorted, “Every stroke of my brush is the overflow of my inmost heart.”

Her quest is to create art that can heal the soul, provoke inquiry, pleasure the eye and stimulate the mind

The mixed-media works on show incorporate robust and rich drawing—the artist’s hand dragging thick sticks of graphite across the paper, feathering leaden black lines into mists of grey, creating a sense of luminosity from the white of the panels. One can see these haptically navigated drawings as a major force in the evolution of Rahman’s picture making, where discoveries about line and space, graphic symbolism, and narrative phrasing begin to gel for the artist.

Garden of Life

The works on show are both elegiac and poignant, a lamentation about life and a sorrowful benediction to the dear departed. Rahman seems to have used painting as a way to purge old sorrows as she sifts through untangled childhood memories. The recurrence of certain images, such as the fountain that has run dry, suggests a healing practice for the artist, an exorcism of sorts. Images are explored until the emotional experience is understood physically and emotionally, and the interior scar gradually heals. A lament for the lost continent of childhood evokes Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Just as Proust’s memories of youth start to flow when he tastes a madeleine dipped in linden tea, so one might conjecture the tide of childhood memories that raced in when the artist revisited the family graveyard, referred to as Bagh-e-Hayat.

Death is the absence of life. It makes its impending presence felt through our awareness of our own mortality. Thus, being mortal means to host within oneself the possibility of death, and that too by living. In Rahman’s work the static nature of birth and death, as two correlated time-bound events, bracket and punctuate the continuous nature of life. By focusing on this transitory amalgam of time and place that we call life, Rahman’s work implicitly engages questions about birth and death, and rebirth. While birth is the phenomenon that triggers the event of our inevitable death, Rahman’s work hints at the significance of life as a celebration, rather than mourning of our mortality.

While one is drawn to the beauty of Nature in her recent works, the theme of these works runs deeper than what meets the eye. The rudimentary act of drawing directly with graphite on panels takes on a new form of expressiveness in its intricate clustering and continuous energy moving densely across the surface, evoking an interior view in the network of connecting veins. Her quasi-abstract treatment of the evanescent botanical forms and the pomegranate fruit is indeed remarkable here, as is the subtle grading of tones bringing sensual volumes to life in some, and in others the shadow line blurring the space between the real and the unreal. Illuminated as if beneath the layers, we see flashes of light and colour peeking out of the surface. The soft smudging of pigment while creating a form is also at the verge of formlessness. The buried presence of thread lines heightens the traces, echoing the nature of life. The artist seems to have closely observed the miracle of the disappearing seed within the earth and the stemming of life into saplings. She remains quite taken by the sensuousness/fecundity of earth, and by its role as a witness to the cyclic enactment of death and rejuvenation. The growth of tendrils cast in stainless steel multiplies and climbs like an extension sprouting from the colour-spangled soil of the panels.

Symbols, both personal and universal, are hallmarks of Rahman’s mature work. They offer a dreambook of humanity. Many artists create their own mythologies and personal symbols, as Rahman has done.

Garden of My Heart II

Painting, then, is a way for Rahman to share a kind of emotional pantheism, a macrocosm expressed in the microcosm of her work. This sensibility is especially evident in the paintings Remember to Bury Me Below the Amaryllis and in I Will Bloom Forever in your Heart I. These works are like private devotionals, personal meditations on life and death. Compositionally, they are highly ordered and geometric.

The compositions in circles—the implied symbolism the artist associates with the feminine sensibility—can also be read as a universal symbol for, among other things, wholeness, perfection, enlightenment, timelessness and celestial unity.

Working within her private sphere of inquiry, Rahman explains how she has sought to create paintings that address a greater memory, to muse over the ephemerality of life, mortality, and the eternal resurrection. Her quest is to create art that can heal the soul, provoke inquiry, pleasure the eye and stimulate the mind. This point is worth pondering when considering her work—how the past shapes a life and finds form as she stands alone in her studio, brush in hand. For in many ways, the artist is a clandestine autobiographer, layering thoughts and secrets in her work as she crawls through thickets of memory, bores through stratified thoughts, and probes for a sense of self.

All featured artwork is by Laila Rahman.


Aasim Akhtar is an independent artist, art critic and curator. His writing is published in magazines, catalogues, and books both nationally and internationally, and his art work has been widely exhibited, notably at Whitechapel Gallery, London, as part of a commemorative show entitled, Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (2010). He was a writer-in-residence at Ledig House, USA, and Ucross Foundation, USA in 2000, and a curator-in-residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan in 2002. Among the many exhibitions he’s curated to date, An Idea of Perfection: National Exhibition of Photography is noteworthy. He is the author of two published books, Regards Croises (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1996) and The Distant Steppe (Alliance Francaise, Islamabad, 1997), and has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara. As an art instructor, he’s taught Art Appreciation and Studio Practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi, and lectured widely.   


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