Between Light Mid-Career Retrospective | Works:1985-2020 Koel Gallery, Karachi
Curated by Zarmeene Shah
IN THIS THUNDERING SILENCE: A SPACE OF RETROSPECT On the Work of Ayessha Quraishi: 1985-2020
By Zarmeene Shah
Becoming critical: How does one begin to address the work of an artist that one has known for decades? For so long in fact that it seems almost impossible to remember the first encounter. This task is harder than it appears, harder perhaps than when one is faced with something anew, able to grasp immediately at each thought, observation and unfolding as it occurs. But what about the work that one has known in the lived spaces of homes and hearts, of friends and family, of relationships and histories – what happens when the traces of the work, and the being of the artist, have resided in one’s mind, memory and experience for decades before one has attempted to articulate the spaces that they occupy outside of these? Ideas of time and memory then, are perhaps apt routes through which to enter into the practice of Ayessha Quraishi, an artist I have known closely for well over a decade, but one whose paintings I have known for much longer. It is important to acknowledge this, in order to understand the ways in which this text plots its course of navigation as it traces the movements and trajectories of Quraishi’s practice. Perhaps more importantly, unfolding this question outwards, how does one begin to locate an artist, in the critical field of the contemporary, when the coordinates of their trajectory do not necessarily line up as cleanly as the frameworks through which we would like to trace them?
Historically, the space of critical writing has long been occupied as one that exists ‘after the fact’ – i.e. to write on/about/around the event after it has taken place. As such, one of its first claims can and has been one of an objective distance (one that also lends to it an authority). Within this practice however, one often notes a pattern, established by the narrative drive inherent to those that involve themselves in the analysis, criticism and inscription of the history of art – a tendency to assign narratives, determine trajectories and origins of the work at hand in order to locate it within the ultimate grand sequential narrative that is the global history of art (although it is really only recently that we have even begun to recognize its decentered field). In recent years however, this mode of critical practice has been rejected, and a call for the rethinking of this space of criticality heard loudly and resoundingly. For Irit Rogoff, the self-legitimizing paradigm of this outmoded practice can only be collapsed through a process of ‘theoretical unraveling’, in an era where ‘the old boundaries between making and theorising, historicizing and displaying have long been eroded.’ “Now we think of all of these practices as linked in a complex process of knowledge production instead of the earlier separation into creativity and criticism, production and application.”[i]
Rogoff then calls for a space of writing that does not find its basis in old, learned modes of existence and of knowledge, but instead acknowledges that it must unlearn the old in order to uncover the new. She refers to such a process as one of ‘unfitting’[ii] oneself. Gilles Deleuze would call it deterritorializing oneself, becoming antifascist. Perhaps it is exactly this kind of deterritorialized space from which one should approach Quraishi’s practice, if one is to come at it with any honesty, instead of an attempt to cleanly fold and file away into an undeviating and uninterrupted history of movements and ideas. Specifically in the case of an artist such as Quraishi, such an indeterminate space, free of meaning and representation (much like her work appears to be), makes possible the liberation of a painter from the subjugation of the linear narrative of art-history. This seems only fitting, for an artist who has followed none of the conventional tropes and trajectories of the ‘contemporary artist’ – she is largely self-taught with no formal art school training, nor any serious engagement with the communities that the phenomena that is the art school locates one in. Thus, while (almost resolutely) remaining at a distance from the codes and conducts of the contemporary art market, the intensity of Quraishi’s practice has not allowed her to be an outsider to the art world.
Following this logic, the mode of criticality deployed in this text should not then be understood as one that seeks to deny history, but rather as one that frees it of its tyranny, underscoring instead the relationship between its ‘symbols’[iii] and signs. “Rather than the accumulation of theoretical tools and materials, models of analysis, perspectives and positions, the work of theory is to unravel the very ground on which it stands,” and to join itself in the efforts to function within a space where “one would bring into the discussion anything that seemed important or illuminating without having to align it with the histories of the disciplines it might have been culled from.”[iv] In other words, to move freely between ideas and movements, spaces, places and times, as the work does.
Across these passages called time, the shadow of a trace: Time then, and memory. In The Logic of Sensation, writing on the paintings of Francis Bacon, Deleuze tells us that we must learn to listen more closely to what painters have to say. “In general, when artists speak of what they are doing, they have an extraordinary modesty, a severity towards themselves, and a great force. They are the first to suggest the nature of the concepts and affects that are disengaged in their work.”[v] In a conversation with Ayessha Quraishi, perhaps the first conscious and deliberated dialogue on her practice, the route that the artist took in bringing me inside of the conversations within her work, was in fact a series of memories. Three instances, to be precise: the one looming and solitary, the other two interlinked, however each as intrinsic to the understanding of what would come to be attempted, investigated and uncovered in the work over the decades to come, as the other.
The first instance: the experience of death. When she was seven, Quraishi’s father passed away, and with this she came to first question (as a child) in the abstract. She was aware that something that had been there, was no longer in its place (something greater than the physical), i.e. had been removed. Quraishi specifically uses this word, ‘removal’, versus the word ‘absence’ when speaking of that which she sought to question then, in the mind of a child, and then later, in her work as an artist. While both may seem to signal towards something similar, in fact, the word ‘absence’ indicates more broadly the lack of something without ever signaling towards its existence in the first place, while the former indicates something that had previously been, but has subsequently been withdrawn or taken away. This word then comes to signal perhaps the single most important concept within Quraishi’s oeuvre, and with it the desire for its manifestation, leading to the development of Quraishi’s technique of application, rubbing and removal, a process of giving, of taking away, and of that which remains, i.e. the residue, or the trace.
In this Quraishi also thus comes very close to the great preoccupation of artists and philosophers of the 20th century, manifested in the frequently appearing word ‘nothingness’, from the contemplations of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, to its use in describing the works of the early color field painters and the abstract expressionists, particularly and often in the context of the painter Mark Rothko. The art critic Robert Rosenblum would in fact describe Rothko’s paintings as “images of something near to nothingness.”[vi] This is not to say that the ‘nothingness’ implied here is in any way correspondent to the idea of emptiness – in fact perhaps the opposite. Significantly, the difference lies in that these works are not nothing, but in fact represent nothing. In attempting to explain this in relation to Rothko, Jeffery Weiss uses the story of Pierre from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, an apt parallel[vii], and one that is also fitting to the sense and application of the word if applied synonymously with Quraishi’s idea of removal. For Quraishi, the word removal is important because it signals both being and non-being. For Sartre nothingness is non-being, which is brought into being by human consciousness, and the story of Pierre exemplifies what he means by this.
In the story Sartre arrives at a café to meet Pierre, but does not find him there. He speaks of the space of the café, with all its lively activity as simply receding, from its “fullness of being,” to being a “ground” from which all other figures momentarily emerge (“is this Pierre?”) only to recede again into the background.[viii] Sartre calls the successive disappearance of these objects into the background the “original nihilation.” But Pierre is nowhere to be found, and his persistent absence fills the café - Sartre thus calls this the “double nihilation”, or the concrete nothingness (versus the abstract inexistence). Thus non-being is characterized by its opposite, i.e. being, whether made so by human consciousness as per Sartre, or the opposite (being as constituted by nothingness) as per Heidegger, for whom nothingness forms the “affirmation of beings as it is the limit imposed on all beings. Heidegger maintains that everything in this world, including ourselves, is finite, and hence nothingness constitutes the being of all that exists, and as such forms everything in the way that it is.”[ix]
And so one sees this inquiry originate in the early drawings of 1985 to 1990, almost with the childlike naiveté to which they allude – evidenced also in the tiles (Face I (1985), Grass (1986), Friend I (1985), Outer Body I and II (1985 / 1986) and so on). Here, although we see the breaking apart of the representational field, with the figures (and by these I speak to all the figures suggested, and not simply the figurative) reduced to series of intuitive, childlike lines, or doodles, reminiscent of Cy Twombly, and simultaneously of the mark-making evident in early cave paintings, the move to abstraction is not yet complete. The simple forms that would emerge as dominant elements in later works begin to appear here, still in the process of discovery: the line, the circle, the triangle, the square.
In a series of small drawings, done with a rapidograph pen in 1989, we see the disintegration (or conversely the evolution) of the face, from a more suggestive form constituted of wavering lines and shaky ovals, to its dissolution into a simple intersecting X form created by two lines, weighted in the center, and marked by a dot in the distance. The rapidograph (and its subsequent disappearance) are important markers in the early development of the artist’s language. Subsequently, a couple of years later, in what are termed the ‘early residual works’ (from 1990 – 2000), the pen would disappear entirely, as would the figures, and the development of both this conceptual line of inquiry and its related technical manifestation would become markedly evident, with (largely) no other tool hereafter being used in the laying down of color, pigment, form or line than Quraishi’s own hands, and the muslin cloths with which paint is removed, rubbed, and subsequently residually reused. Here, fittingly, we turn to the second instance in the artist’s childhood, drawn up out of memory: the encounter of the senses. This instance is actually two-fold, occurring once in early childhood, and then again when Quraishi was a teenager, but in both cases, it speaks to moments in which the artist encountered a ‘being-lost’, swept away from an embodied reality, into an encounter in which she found herself transported away from the space of immediate reality, to another, perhaps even more immediate space of the sensory. The first time, she was about 4 or 5, in a marketplace with her parents, when she saw a little boy with a bunch of colorful balloons. The second was many years later, as a young teenager on the streets, when she saw the flash of color from a woman’s glass bangles as it caught the afternoon light. In both instances, the immediacy of this sensorial experience transports the artist into a space where all else that is familiar is forgotten, and all that matters is that she follow the subject from which this overwhelming captivation seems to stem. Of course these instances would only last a few minutes, but a few minutes of forgetting one’s parents, in the context of a four year old, are significant. In both cases, Quraishi speaks not of a singular element, or form, that caught her attention, but the entirety of the encounter, the space, the light, the color, the dance of these together, caught as they are in that specific moment, that instigated the transportation – a move from this reality into another, where it is only these senses, and this almost intangible confrontation, that must be investigated and that seem to matter.
In listening to Quraishi retell this story – in her description of this engulfing encounter – Proust is suddenly invoked in my mind. In Swann’s Way (1913), one of the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or Remembrance of Things Past, (also sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time), the famous ‘episode of the madeleine’ takes place, which lays the basis upon which Proust’s discussion of memory and time are built. One afternoon, upon taking a sip of tea and a bite of a petite madeleine (a small, spongy cake) Proust is as if magically transported to another time, another place; a memory which is triggered in his unconscious mind, a memoire involontaire or involuntary memory, which arises from a long forgotten past, but carries with it the ability to cause a shift in the present and in the reality of the here and now.
“No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; […] Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”[x]
These questions seem as much at the heart of Quraishi’s practice, as their pursuit is evident in the years of her investigation. And while the sensorial experience of the child may not be connected with the memoire involontaire (we are not sure of this), or of the why, what we are sure of is the experience, of the ‘magical transportation’ to another space and place, and of the shifting of a present reality of here and now. It is perhaps this elusive sensorial invasion to which Quraishi’s work has always sought to return, to touch, and by which it yearns once again to be overwhelmed.
The Book and the Soul: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some are to be chewed and digested.”[xi] It is rare to know an artist so meticulous, so intensely focused, so highly organized and aware in every manifestation of life and work, as Ayessha Quraishi. On looking at her practice, one notices this first and foremost the methodical breakup of the periods of evolution in her work into what one may call ‘blocks’. From 1985 to 1990, the early drawings move steadily away from representation and begin the development of a language of abstraction that would come to be Quraishi’s signature. The next decade of paintings (1990 – 2000) sees the real thrust into this language – the development of thought, of medium, language and ‘speech’ become evidently mature and confident. From 2010 to the present, this language begins to vibrate and circulate, bringing with it sometimes an outside world, interpreted through the modes and means of an already present dexterity, a familiarity of language that allows it to be exploded both internally and externally. But we will come to this later. For now, the years 2000 to 2010: the decade of the journals.
For ten years, as she worked (primarily) in the field of product design, and engaged in the everyday, mundane sustainability of life, Quraishi found it difficult to immerse herself fully in her practice. And so, she worked in small books, with varied and textured papers, with sizes ranging from a little larger than a paperback, to tiny journals that fit in the palm of one’s hand. This is a significant point – the shift of scale – explored diligently over ten years in the creation of what would become the field in which so many of the ideas and understandings of (full and emptied) space, color, layering, light, texture, and the myriad other complex processes exercised in Quraishi’s work would be scrutinized, deconstructed, and disseminated.
In order to fully understand this shift, one has to keep Quraishi’s method of application and removal of paint in mind. The hand is in use here, versus the brush or the pen – and thus the body of the artist comes into play. We must imagine the difference in the gesture, as the scale on which this is enacted drastically shifts; from the broad sweeping movement of the full hand across the expanse of white paper, to the small motions at points of strategic contact where the hand must perform in a more controlled fashion, and the fingers must come into play more attentively, more vigilant in the mark that they make, in what they lift, and in what is left behind. Imagine the posture of the body as it changes from one that moves with a fluid motion in the sweeping and rubbing of the larger surface, to the one that hunches over the intimate area of the book, moving inwards towards a focused point, the mind moving with the body as it responds to the private and introverted space of the page, and the intimacy of the fold.
Although artists have historically engaged with the book (largely in the capacity of illustrations and illuminations) for centuries, the idea of the artist’s book, or rather the book as art object emerged in the 20th century. Explored and deconstructed by scores of artists from across the avant-garde, including the Futurists, Surrealists, Dadaists, artists from the Fluxus and Conceptual art movements, including names such as Ed Ruscha, Pablo Picasso, Dieter Roth, John Cage, Sol le Wit, Frida Kahlo, and many, many others, the form of the book has afforded artists with a medium capable of generating and holding divergent dialogues and concerns. Similarly, the book as form and potential has been written about by philosophers across centuries. In its simplest of imaginings and potentials, already the book (whether read textually or visually) invites us within its dialogue, and asks us to reflect upon its contents and properties. The ‘reading’ of the book thus is an experience unlike that of a work of art such a painting, in that it allows a physical and tactile, personal and individual connection with the medium, asking us to hold, handle, flip through, move and turn it. In doing so, one is allowed to connect in other ways, as one begins to note the rhythms and movements, sequences and patterns.
Quraishi’s books then perform this event of the book par excellence. Her books allows one to participate in what seems like a private act, a clandestine encounter, from within the folds of which secret conversations seem to flow in languages that we may not know, but are familiar nonetheless. All of the marks that we have seen in the larger works are present here, but now they are much closer, more personal, and somehow more saturated. All of the processes of application, rubbing, smudging, removing, marking, scarring, etching, adding, and subtracting are heightened here. Objects emerge, a piece of felt, or a pressed flower, a different texture of paper, or a symbol: the arrow, the mountain, the sun, the eye, the square (is it a window, or a dislocated unit of the grid?), all of the figures contained within the older drawings, emerging out of the field of the paintings. Here, in the journals, we see all the periods collide, collapsing inwards before exploding out again, like the radiant jewel tones that erupt out of the rich hues of the earth, a warmth so familiar to Quraishi’s work.
In his essay ‘The Double Session’, Derrida speaks of the book in the context of a discussion on the writer Stéphane Mallarmé’s play Mimique alongside Plato’s Philebus. Derrida talks at length about Plato’s conception of the book as the soul at length in regard to the imitative relationship that each has with the other, and in the context of the privilege of speech (or discourse) over writing. Plato’s notion of the book brings to the fore this privilege where the book becomes as a ‘mode or instance of discourse (logos), namely, stilled, silent, internal discourse.’[xii] Derrida infers that if Plato is able to compare the soul to the book, then this is due to the fact that both the book and the soul are already in an imitative relationship with each other, that each is already a ‘likeness’ of the other, and therefore already representative, repetitive and pictorial.
“It is because the book imitates the soul or the soul imitates the book, because each is the image or the likeness of the other […] Both of these likenesses, even before resembling each other were in themselves already reproductive, imitative, and pictorial (in the representative sense of the word) in essence. The book then reproduces the logos, and the whole is organized by this relation of repetition, resemblance (homoiõsis), doubling, duplication, this sort of specular process and play of reflections where things, speech, and writing come to repeat and mirror each other.”[xiii]
Ideas of repetition and resemblance, doubling and duplication, the ‘play of reflections’, the mirror (in which I see myself doubled, there, where I am not[xiv]), are as important to the poststructuralist project, as they are to Quraishi’s work. In her work, there is always a return, a repetition, a difference – Deleuze and Derrida speak of these ideas at great length, perhaps ultimately in the context of these as spaces of potential, of in-between-ness. Derrida also refers in the ‘Double Session’ to the idea of the fold within the book, equating it to the hymen, a space folded inwards, and quickly subverts this, turning it instead to a space of openness and possibility, between and joined to the internal and the external and at the same time between the past, present and future. He speaks again of the fold, and of the relation and contact between outside and inside in speaking of Kant’s concept of the parergon. In much the same way that the fold makes contact with both internal and external, the parergon according to Derrida is that which lies on the outside of the frame and yet invades the inside of the work, comes to “brush against, rub, press against the limit of itself and intervene in the inside only to the extent that the inside is lacking.”[xv]
I am reminded here of the small works (surviving pages from old journals) from 1993-4, now seen against large white mounts, on which sometimes lines come to intersect, to “press against the limit of” the work in precise tangents and geometric forms – crisp lines that “brush against” that which lies on the inside, shattering the frame, opening up the spaces in between. Perhaps the journals then in their entirety, do something similar: they act as the mirror to the larger works, a space at once of openness and containment, here and there. Unbound by time, they seem to exist between the periods of the work, eloquently and forcefully speaking its languages, simultaneously before it does, as well as after it thinks it has forgotten them.
The Deafening Roar of Silence (Or Painting as Process and Project): In talking of the paintings, let us first return to that vision of an experience, the sensorial space of the incidents with the balloons, and the bangles – an overwhelming and intangible force, almost magical in its power. What is it about that sensation, the ‘something’ that is ‘nothing’, towards which we clamber, and which we try to touch, to hold, to claim. Quraishi talks about a space at which one comes ‘to rest’, a space that is occupied everyday and yet is free from its quotidian cycles, away from its noise and its fervor, its needs and its claims. In this space, the claims are different – they are direct, they make contact, move, spread, mark, caress, chafe, scar, stick to, fill in, heal, polish. Here the processes, the movements, gestures, the fervor, the search, all are evident, all are present. The works from 1990 – 2000 in particular harbor a specific kind of energy, one whose movements and vibrations we feel, in the circular marks of the hand as it rubs the pigment across the surface. This sense of immediacy, of urgency, is felt acutely in the abandoning of the tool (the paintbrush), almost as if in a bid to shorten the distance between what is seen and what is sensed, to touch, to scrape away, to uncover.
Perhaps particularly in this period, these questions are asked through color, through light, and through the space of the surface, in which other spaces are found. Quraishi’s paintings from this period, perhaps more than any other, possess what one may call a kind of atmosphere, a space in which one finds oneself immersed, and through which we see the glint of the sun on the desert sand, the flame of the sun before the oncoming darkness of night, the inscriptions of a language, familiar but just out of reach, the thickness of the fog and the depth of the forest, all of these are evoked, but never represented – they are present, hanging as if in mid-air, or in the air in which we find ourselves suspended. The earth, the sun, the wind, the trees, they are invoked again and again on surfaces that are scarred, engraved, inscribed, erased, and written over again and again. There is an almost obsessive attack on the surface, a desire to shift just a little bit this way, or that way, in order to arrive again at a new place, a place of sensation, rather than of the optical.
In the essay ‘Without Reminder of Residue’, Yve Lomax talks about how to describe the quality of sunlight pouring through the window of an abandoned (yet not ‘really’ empty) room. The description (“and over there a shaft of sunlight is pouring in from a window, holding dancing particles of dust in its beam and illuminating a flattened cardboard box”) it is almost instantly disqualified, because it not the light, but merely an example of that particular sunlight, then and there. Thus each example, each repetition, each reconjuring of the thing, creates the possibility of another step, from another direction, more complex in the range of language employed towards it, but never the same.
“With the example of sunlight that is before me, the very thing of sunlight is “beside itself” touching all its possibilities, and what is crucial is that not one of these possibilities is fixed and final and exhaustive of it. Can is characteristic of the example: the example shows the world not established once and for all but, rather, amid its potentia. This is what the world can be. This is what sunlight can be This is what a photograph can be.”[xvi]
In his book on the painter Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze talks about a ‘special kind of violence’[xvii], one that must acknowledge and abandon the spectacle of violence in order to arrive at what is underneath it, i.e. the sensation. “But why,” he asks us, “is it an act of vital faith to choose “the scream more than the horror,” the violence of sensation more than the violence of the spectacle?” and answers it with: “When the visual sensation confronts the invisible force that conditions it, it releases a force that is capable of vanquishing the invisible force, or even befriending it. Life screams at death, but death is no longer this all-too-visible thing that makes us faint; it is this invisible force that life detects, flushes out, and makes visible through the scream.”[xviii] The sound of this scream, and indeed the measure of this violence, can be grasped in much in the same way that Deleuze refers to ‘speed’ as the speed of nomads, or in how one understands the deafening roar of silence. This deafening silence is the roar that echoes in the weighted atmosphere Quraishi’s paintings – the violent undulations of sensation in the stillest of spaces.
In the return to painting (following the decade of the journals) in 2010, there seems to be a marked (atmospheric?) shift. First: the move away from color. The Desert Series locates itself in Fayoum, Egypt, where the artist found herself on a residency in 2011. The desert is then very much present in the works, although it is not represented as such. One is able to see its varying monochromatic undulations, the gradual tonal variations, marked by moments of shadow, of line, cutting across an expanded ‘landscape’. Perhaps, one can say that this space is marked in a different way – the focus brought to the journals translates now into a different kind of command and conviction within these works. This move away from the colored field is a continued direction in the work, ruptured every so often with bursts of color, more reminiscent of the saturated hues of the journals (but perhaps even more undiluted/raw) than of the rich but earthen tones of the earlier paintings.
Second: Different materials enter the work, as if a vision that had been turned only inwards had now suddenly looked up and become aware of what was around it. Timber, used tape, old x-ray film, discarded photo albums, and significantly, like the mirror of the journal, the aluminum paper/foil, a surface that is able to reflect, and thereby hold within it many spaces all at once, echoing what Michel Foucault describes as the heterotopia.[xix] The photograph (and the projection, with its own world of possibilities and meanings) enters the realm of mediums. Looking out, looking up, the artist employs a different conceptual material in the series Sky Frames shown at the Karachi and Istanbul biennials (2017 and 2019 respectively): the billboards, or the frayed hoarding, through which lens ideas of opacity, translucency and transparency, and of positive and negative, of full and empty, of removal and nothingness are questioned in a different way.
The square recurs but now closer to the grid, even in the works on paper, resolutely moving to break through and out of the limits of the surface on which it is held, shattering the frame, and exploding its space of potentiality. Another medium, i.e. words enter the realm of language, ironically after breaking out of the book. Titles of exhibitions begin to allude, as do the works, but to an abstracted space, only as representational as those visions which we might ourselves attach to the works – however they clearly appear, occupying a space from which they had withheld themselves before. All That Is, Is Held / Letters From An Underground Vein Read / Open Presence.
And although this space too vibrates with the rumble of a thundering silence, its energy has shifted. With the sustained sense of repetition, a meditative stillness enters the work, versus the violence of sensation in the works of the nineties. At once, there is containment and rupture, movement and stillness, chance and certainty. Most of all perhaps, there is continuity, and expansion – the growth of a language that persists in its multiplicity, and that endures in its pursuit. Listen to artists, Deleuze says.
“Underneath the skin of languages opens a book, with unbound pages of light, written in transparent ink. This cannot be translated in form or formlessness, but surely as its residue.”[xx]
[i] Irit Rogoff, ‘What is a Theorist’ in Was ist ein Kunstler, ed. Katharyna Sykora, Berlin, 2003
[iii] French philosopher Gilles Deleuze tells us that the symbol is “an intensive compound that vibrates and expands, that has no meaning, but makes us whirl about until we harness the maximum of possible forces in every direction, each of which receives a new meaning by entering into relation with the others.” In Cliff Stagoll, ‘Events’, The Deleuze Dictionary, ed. Adrian Parr, Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 134.
[xiv] Refer to Foucault’s commentary on the mirror as heterotopia: Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias’, translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité no. 5, 1984
[xv] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Parergon’, The Truth In Painting, translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 56.
[xvi] Yve Lomax, ‘Without Remainder or Residue: Example, Making Use, Transposition,’ Transpositions: Aesthetico-Epistemic Operators in Artistic Research, Ed. Michael Schwab, Leuven University Press. (2018)
[xvii] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, p. xxix
[xix] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias’, translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité no. 5, 1984
[xx] Ayessha Quraishi, text accompanying the series Letters from an Underground Vein Read, 2012, as appearing on the artist’s website. Last accessed 20 December 2019, https://www.ayessha.com/2012--letters-from-an.html
1985 - 2020 | Early Drawings and Residual Works
Left: 1997.6, Oil on paper, 55 x 68 cm, 1997 . Right: 1997.5, Oil on paper, 55 x 68 cm, 1997.
MAGIC OF THINGS PAST Quddus Mirza
“Art is cold, life is warm.”1 Margaret Atwood
I recall an interview with one of the greatest writers of Urdu literature, Intizaar Hussain. On a question, or rather a criticism about The Castle that nothing happens in the entire novel and the protagonist takes so long to reach his destination; Hussain admired this very fact, the ‘un-action’ in that novel by Franz Kafka.
Somehow the paintings of Ayessha Quraishi, particularly from 1985 to 2000, also hardly suggest action; action, if we bring to mind the monumental canvases of Abstract Expressionism, described as ‘action painting’ by Harold Rosenberg. In contrast to those canvases (let’s say by Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Clifford Still, Franz Kline, Adolf Gottlieb), which envelope, overpower, and mesmerize the viewer, besides overshadowing the maker; the art of Quraishi is private, poised and poetic. Compared to huge fields of large planes of colour or battlegrounds of brush strokes from all directions, and merging, confronting, cancelling and controlling each other, Quraishi’s surfaces are quiet. Nothings happen there.
Nothings? Perhaps not. Because you need to look carefully, listen attentively, touch softly and stand closely for the works to unfold in your presence. The common custom is to see art, especially an abstract canvas removed from the personality of the painter. But the character, behaviour and outlook of a person contribute towards shaping his/her art practice, as well as their position (physical, political and cultural) in today’s world.
As the world is a globe, on which everything is bound to slip, slide and spread, likewise ideas, inventions, products, practices, fashions etc., originating from one point disseminate to other parts of the planet. So is the case with styles and movements of art. At present, no community can survive solely, and without the information, interaction – even the intervention of others. Each region and society, on receiving an outside influence, modifies and transforms it, often resulting in an alteration of original entity. Artists also perform the same job, when they adapt something new: they assimilate and appropriate till these alien features are identified with them.
Ayessha Quraishi has appropriated the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism in her vocabulary. In the world of art and culture, boundaries are not as strictly drawn or visible as in the realm of national politics. Thus, whatever is created, tested and tried anywhere in the world, belongs to everyone – who decides it to be important enough for further usage.
Quraishi has created a particular language to express a landscape of her personal world. Yet it is linked with a number of art practices in our surroundings, some of which were not recognized as art, initially. Tapestry to start with. Her surfaces remind one of traditional textiles, due to their texture as well as their chromatic order. Colour, when it comes out in the form of paint, is usually not associated with any cultural/economic connection. It is just a shade from the long list provided by the manufacturer. But historically colours always have a cultural, social and religious significance. Royal Blue, Lapis Lazuli, Saffron, not only signify certain shades on colour chart, but also denote a long history of trade, power and privilege.
Likewise, the preference for some colours in one region has more than technical and formal factors. For example, the Impressionist painter’s use of bright and strong colour was a response to Southern Europe’s light in which every hue is saturated. So it was necessary to paint with vivid and pure colour in order to capture the outside reality (which was, in fact, the Mediterranean atmosphere); a legacy that continued into mainstream western art, no matter if it was practiced in Europe or on the shore of North America. Compared to those vivid colours – actually an aftermath of longer summer days, in the other parts of the world, specifically in South Asia – the light is dusty and diffused. It is bleached and blurred. With the strong sun and dust in the air, colours are toned down. They don’t turn muddy but they become tamed.
In her work, Ayessha Quraishi employs that palette which echoes dyes of fabrics, colours from natural substances, but surprisingly these are paint produced in far off countries. Her dense embers, deep greens, dark blues, dull yellows and diffused browns map a familiar world of a painter who is a woman, a woman from this part, a person who prefers to speak in intimae tone because she is making an important comment, and not trying to convince world around her about her power or position. The tone of these works is significant because, chromatic order is constructed in such a scheme, that the work reminds of manuscripts. Pages that have witnessed history. However, by no account do these paintings refer to nostalgia or recall surfaces of antique objects. On the other hand, they invite and encourage a spectator to become a reader, to come close, and decipher a script, not from a known language, but a contract between the maker and the viewer, renewed on each contact.
Works created from 1993 to 1998, particularly, appear as documents of an internal chronicle. As one is unable to name a certain hue applied in her surfaces, one cannot fully comprehend (the first stage of controlling) the meaning of these pieces. Like notes of music, these shades evolve into a synthesis which is supported by a few lines of letters, another page on the notebook, scribbling like marks, spots and stains as if on an ancient paper.
What to read from these meticulously manufactured paintings? During the mid-nineties, I, a few other Pakistani artists, and Ayessha were part of an artists’ residency in the South of France. Here was the first time that I came to know the person whose art I have been admiring for years. She spoke softly, moved calmly, and Time was her companion instead of her master. Her environment was her comfort instead of a challenge. There I realized the depth in her work was one aspect of her personality. I can imagine her putting a layer of paint, as if offering a prayer (in repose), and not committing a crime (in a hurry). Her works from 1985 to 2000 disclose that state of harmony.
However, the harmony does not mean simplicity in these works, because Quraishi constructs a complex set of images. Her paintings of 2000 offer a sort of hieroglyphic marking, suggesting the presence of body parts, elementary human figures, other structures, which due to their presence in lines – often arbitrary and broken – suggest a script. Through these works, the artist is not fleeing from meaning, but perhaps aiming to communicate with viewers in a language that does not become out-dated or alien, confirming Giorgio Morandi: “I believe that nothing is more abstract, more unreal than what we actually see. We know all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it”2. The stick-like human being inscribed on the walls of prehistoric caves is not far from a similar kind of human figure in the works on paper by Quraishi. By linking her imagery to prehistory, Quraishi perhaps reaffirms the primordial vocabulary of art indicated by Henry Geldzahler, “Paintings lead to paintings; words never do…. Words can point, direct the attention of the audience to certain paintings of the past or very recent past, but they can never be the substitutes for looking at the works of art”3. Thus, we trace triangles, arrows, rectangles and squares in these paintings layered with thin and thick coats of paint, echoing a surface altered through the course of years, if not centuries.
Arguably the most prominent aspect of this body of works is that it seems to be executed without the presence of the painter. A paradox. But a reality. The artist arrived at a stage, which is like a master musician who plays his instrument as if the sound is emanating from the instrument, without the command of the person holding it. Great musicians make their instrument sing. Quraishi appears to be doing the same. Marks, dabs, scratches and smudges seem to be residue of natural process/phenomenon. Without the human touch.
One could read the subtext in the abstract compositions of Ayessha Quraishi, as she is defying the loaded role and regulation of an abstract painter. So: not masculine, not overpowering size, not aggressive splashes of paint, not commanding scale, and not a confrontation between maker and work. She, in her unassuming manner, offers a substitute to what is considered to be a dominating aesthetics. Her choice of colour, from earthen palette to prehistoric hues extends the definition and dimension of an art form.
More than commenting on the history of art, or stylistic divisions, the art of Quraishi is an entity that does not require an outside reference or validation. She stands alone in the narrative of Pakistani art. From an earlier stage of her creative life she has decided to move away from political, gender, identity, violence or any other ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’, available for pictorial consumption. Her choice to be obscure, independent, intimate and intense is a sign of great clarity and immense courage. In her works from the period of a decade and half, and even before and after, Ayessha Quraishi is pushing towards a language that may appear private from one point, yet it encompasses public consciousness. Her small works on paper, can easily match with huge drawings of animals on the walls of caves, marks which were created for a particular time and for a specific group, but that keep on enchanting the human race for centuries, due to the magic and mystery in those lines, shapes and forms.
Magic entraps the gaze of someone present, transposes him to another hemisphere through a single amulet, some objects, a few words, and so is a combination of lines and inscriptions powerful enough to alter someone’s destination/destiny. Quraishi has found the essence of that magic, so with sensitive marks, basic shapes and subtle textures, a viewer is transferred to a realm of one’s private Idaho, through that self-addressed envelope, we call the art of Ayessha Quraishi.
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Virago Press, London: 2008
Quoted in Karen Wilken, Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings, Interviews (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2007)
Geldzahler, Henry. Making It New. Thames and Hudson. London: 1994
Quddus Mirza is an artist, art critic and independent curator. He is currently Head of the Fine Art Department at the National College of Arts Lahore, where he received his BFA, before acquiring an MA from the Royal College of Art, London. Mirza has shown extensively in numerous group and solo exhibitions in Pakistan and the UK. He is the co-author of the book 50 Years of Visual Art in Pakistan and has written extensively on Pakistani art for various national and international catalogues, magazines, newspapers and other publications. He is also the editor of the online magazine Art Now Pakistan.
2000 - 2010 | Art Journals
Left to Right: Art Journals, 1,2,4,3,5 & 6
INTIMACY Maha Malik
Underneath the skin of languages opens a book, with unbound pages of light, with vocabularies in transparent ink. This cannot be translated in form or formlessness, but surely as its residue.
(Quraishi, 2013) * Ayessha Quraishi’s practice may be understood in terms of a formal, contemplative art aesthetic. Her works on paper are non-discursive in the first instance, and they suggest the meditative, as subject matter. The artist mediates with her hands directly. Moving oils on paper, she seems to render the very experience of objectless states. ‘You create an armature for silence, a holding place, for emptiness to be.’
Quraishi seems to instill in her works a rich sense of stillness, a way of being in the depths where there appears no thing, and not void, but a place of living and expressive matter, light. Her compositions use the formal apparatus of color, line, and texture, rhythmically finessed to the point paint yields its own luster. It illuminates the environment at hand.
2003.5,6, Journal 3, page 5 & 6,
Oil on paper, 9 x 20 cm, 2003
2003. 7,8, Journal 3, page 7 & 8, Oil on paper, 9 x 20 cm, 2003
The power of such privation may be sourced in a series of small diaries, art journals covered in dull gold. The artist has maintained these journals as reference for over two decades. They carry the same gestural activity as her larger works on paper and on timber, except for their slight format. Each book opens to jeweled color and to graphite markings in the manner of a naïve art. The tone begins to feel elemental, as though something sacred were being worked out, formulated. The cosmos (and the idea of a cosmos), rendered in miniature. Quraishi’s journals assume the status of art object; they function as spiritual instrument. And in the realm of the mundane, in the realm of process, they serve as source material for other imaginings. In one instance or outflow, the artist has photographed selected pages from her diaries, digitally reworking them for print. These are then scaled and manually addressed with oils, as per her practice. The contemporary distinction between digital image and painting, with all its biases in tow, becomes radically blurred in such work.
Light 3, oil on digital print, photo rag 308gsm, 60 x 198 cm, 2013
In how many ways may one source yield itself? The question is raised here as both creative challenge and as ethical value. Quraishi explores the relationship between solitary utterance and proliferation of meaning in a dynamic field. And, as per her prior thematics, this technique suggests a particular kind of personal aesthetics. Emptying out, as the work of praise in art.
Koel Gallery - 2013 Maha Malik is a freelance writer based in Karachi.
2010 - 2020 | Contemporary Works
Left: Untitled, oil on paper, 71 x 51 cm, 2019.
Centre: Memory traces 1 & 2, 48 x 32 cm each, 2019.
Right: Stillness between two thoughts, Oil on paper, 56 x 42 cm, 2019.
THINKING WITH TWO HANDS Aasim Akhtar
Whoever follows a painter along with his/her pictures in an alternatingly intimate and then distanced manner is naturally also interested in how the relationship between the painter and his/her oeuvre develops. In other words: What connection can be made between the painter and each one of the pictures individually. The seemingly simple platitude that the painting cannot ‘exist’ without the painter is not at all apparent in hundreds of thousands of examples when we scrutinise the art market, for there we observe an endless number of pictures without painters as if they were created automatically by the zeitgeist or the reigning fashion of the times; as if they were created without the arduous detour that cuts through the individuality of a creator; as if those names that can be found as signatures are simply fictitious, mystified by an industry which holds copyrights to all such innovations. Looking for the connection between the painter and the painting means asking: How is the painter present in his/her pictures?
There are art historians, literary critics and musicologists who, revolted by all the trivial legends surrounding the image of the artist as a lone creative spirit, bluntly argue against any further concern for the person of the painter, poet and/or composer, and instead ask us to concentrate on the work itself and comprehend its structure. As right as it may be to demystify art history, it sounds wrong, on the other hand, to dehumanise it and purge the creator of the picture. To be interested in how the painter expresses himself in his images, and which impulses, drives and pleasures materialise in the work is not an outgrowth of disreputable art psychology.
What impressed me during the years I had no concrete interaction with Ayessha Quraishi or when I was sporadically confronted with pictures, was the resoluteness with which she seemed to be following her path. In institutions such as schools, academies and artistic societies, this resoluteness is most often looked down upon as obstinacy. Of course, it was never quite that simple. While Ayessha strove to free her painting of any mimetic content and while she had been interested in philosophical questions including the dialectics of space, she couldn’t make nature disappear altogether and declare it non-existent. And while she well understood how to purge her painting of any narrative elements, she did not delude herself into believing that she had reached a quasi-pure or absolute form of painting. On the contrary, her most abstract pictures unexpectedly shifted towards a sensuality that emanated from blues, grays and earth tones provoking associations with a world beyond the picture.
To Ayessha the artistic process is no act of psychic liberation whose energy one should be able to sense in each individual picture. This, by the way, is not just an aesthetic question but also a matter of chosen life path, to recall the connection between the painter and his/her work. What she is striving for today, and this on pictures whose large format automatically makes it more difficult to achieve, is the easy gesture that becomes form – without any existential drama. What happens either on canvas or on paper should rather reflect the curiosity which the painter feels towards her world. The painter doesn’t paint to subjectively prove herself, but rather because something interests her objectively in her paintings because she wants to find out how things that she dismisses from her disposition will dispose to fit together on the surface. Ayessha thus regards her pictures not as a depot of the frames of mind she has experienced herself but rather as a laboratory, testing their potential frames of form. In other words, her artistic subjectivity unfolds by letting things in their objectivity become colour and form.
A few years ago, Ayessha painted oil paintings that looked like sand. Not because of the colour tones from yellow through ochre to rust, but rather through a special treatment of the oil paint. During the last few years, her pictures have obtained a strong tactile-haptic moment which could lead the viewer to take a step which is always frowned upon in galleries and museums. “Are you looking with your hands?", the child is asked when it wants to touch the works it is only allowed to see. The haptic-tactile moment addresses something in people which tends to become lost after reaching a certain age and maturity: the fact that perception also has a sensuous quality, that grasping something can indeed be taken literally.
When one views Ayessha Quraishi’s work done during the last two decades, it proves to be delicate, transparent configuration of colour and interlaced lines: seemingly chaotic formal inventions drawn forth from a fluid process in which various forces, gestural energies and subtle gradations of colour influence one another. But these works can also be read as a school of unlearning: the unlearning of perceptual uncertainties that allow themselves to be converted into a supposedly objectifiable possibility for representing reality. What occurs beyond the bounds of individual consciousness is extremely doubtful, and the filter of subjectivity distorts what the senses convey. Thus it is possible to understand the paintings of Ayessha as a phenomenological approximation of things that remain fleeting in their time-bound lack of contour. The fine adjustments with regard to colour, the subtle, almost microcosmic joy in varying colouration was, right from the start, an essential parameter in the art of Ayessha Quraishi. It can be an almost ‘tropical’ mixture of delicate shades of yellow, green and orange, or a cocktail of poisonous variations of red and violet which, upon being viewed, summon up brief associations with the poured paintings of Hermann Nitsch and Gerhard Richter.
2012.1, Oil on paper, 56 x 56 cm, 2012
For its part, a monochromatic suite of paintings overlays various hues from the artist’s familiar repertoire with a Kounellis-like black, thereby summoning up a menacing atmosphere of dark clouding – not only of a territory, but possibly of consciousness. These are fascinating, tenebrous works demonstrating the aesthetic breadth of the artist, who seeks beauty not only in harmonic proportion and exultant perfection of colour but also in the moldering. Just as once, the poet Charles Baudelaire celebrated a rotten carcass in The Flowers of Evil – “full of hot poisons, exuding loathsome vapors” – so can Ayessha derive an artistic-added value from what has been thoughtlessly strewn on the ground, from inferior material, from dried puddles of paint, from the curled surfaces of pieces of paper. The Journals are skeletal structures, sometimes brightened by extremely sporadic punctuation of colour. Pigment is distributed in them that recall to mind the cracked surface of a rural house wall. The breath of the archaic seems to waft through these works, which are no longer compositional ends in themselves but psychological-geographical investigative works on a cultural landscape that continues to saturate self-awareness – so near yet simultaneously so far. It is the terrain upon which the reconstructors of prehistory operate, from archaeology to psychoanalysis. Here painting is scarcely able to depend on the naiveté of sense perception, on pure representations of nature.
Inasmuch as Ayessha disrupts temporal contexts, cancels the relationship between the signifier and the signified, and pursues reflective, sensual, imagined, material and situational impulses, she gives artistic treatment to a conglomerate of perceptual processes. Her painterly ‘automatism,’ as the moving force of self-forgetfulness, bears witness to an awareness of an implicit knowledge: not a detached act of memory but a state of having entered into the world. In the process of painting, Ayessha herself does not produce any fixed instances of signification but instead creates new, loose, rhizomes. Impelled forward by transparent forces – not only by the tickle of euphoria, the pleasure of irritation, but also by the refreshment of the absurd.
The elusiveness of the painting material, and Ayessha’s abstract hints, which more resemble a familiar glimpse than a memorised quotation, lead to a shift in perception. Analogously to the layers of colour, time is superimposed. The artist accentuates this process in the lithographic series. She applies the idea of modern diagnostic radiology to the method of the oldest printing technique. The title demonstrates a certain desire to reveal structural essence in order to visualise it in contemporary terms. This fusion between androgynous physiognomy and the reminiscence of bones results in the manifestation of a ruin of a body – the shadow of a subject. Ayessha’s disembodiments function both as a signifier and a mystic lack of person or form. This manner of dissolution demonstrates a logic that suggests a presence of absence. The artist develops prostheses of an organism, which we perceive as a whole, although it is presented as a fragmented singularity. This subtractive method is not only a phenomenological act but also a critical examination of the representations of corporeality and sensuousness in the history of art. Virtuosity and intensity in the artistic process and the composed deliberation and planning of the image engage in an exciting interplay with Ayessha. The result of her artistic process is unpredictable, since the coincidental plays a decisive role as an incalculable factor. The processes of the physical mixing and repulsion of the paint volumes determine the aesthetic effect and the visual appeal of the painterly textures of her works. Yet, on the horizon of individual experience, which opens to those who encounter Ayessha’s purely abstract colour compositions, the rigidity lessens, a shift takes place – a mental drift. In general, drift refers to a gradual deviation, a dynamic change, but also a flow or a current. The term is also applicable to a core aspect of human perception, which not only selects – consciously or unconsciously – and evaluates things, but which can move or drift along its own conceptual boundaries, in all their variants, perspectives and divergences.
Aasim Akhtar is an independent artist, art critic and curator. His writing is published in magazines, catalogues and books both nationally and internationally. His art work has been widely exhibited, including Whitechapel Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition, 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 Art Museum in Japan in 2002. Among many exhibitions 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 recently finished writing Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara. He teaches Art Appreciation and Studio Practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi.