Laila Rahman has studied at prestigious art institutions such as Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London, the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and the National College of Arts, Lahore, where she now teaches at the Department of Fine Arts. In 2010, she won a Fulbright Award which took her for a year to the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, United States. Her stint there ended with a solo exhibition.
Rahman’s large body of work incorporates and combines her skills both as a painter and a printmaker. In her prints, paintings and mixed media works, she uses imagery that is rich, personal and, at once, intimate and cosmological. Her art addresses issues concerning the human condition, the female form, mythology and religion and their intersection.
Marked by a strong draughtsmanship and a keen understanding of design, her artworks also have an enduring engagement with symbols and texts. In her latest works, exhibited at Koel Gallery, Karachi, in December 2018, Rahman tackled her old concerns, themes and techniques through new questions, motifs and materials.
Below are excerpts of a recent conversation with her:
Dua Abbas Rizvi. Your recent solo exhibition in Karachi, titled Meem Mashriq, Meem Maghrib, consisted of mixed media paintings and prints. Could you tell us a little about these works and what you set out to explore through them?
Laila Rahman. These works centre on the state of humankind which has been engrossing me for quite a while. The [Urdu] letter meem (ã), which I am fascinated by because of its myriad representations in calligraphy, also became central to these works. The changing and ductile form of meem fascinates me.
Meem, rendered calligraphically, can be very flowery, very decorative. In some cases, it simply becomes an arabesque and, therefore, difficult to spot. And it is, of course, a very heavy letter. In Urdu, meem is the first letter in words such as mashriq (east) and maghrib (west). Meem is also the first letter in mein (I), in Muhammad and also in majma and majlis (both meaning congregation). These are the kinds of associations I was thinking of [while creating these works]. But the constant face-off between the East and the West is really where I began these works.
Dua. The letter meem, in many ways, becomes a point of convergence for different motifs that run through this particular body of work. Because, in addition to encapsulating the eponymous mashriq and maghrib dichotomy, meem also signals the word mahtaab (the moon) which, too, is central to these works. In fact, one of your large drawings from the show is titled Mahtaab se mulaqaatain (Meetings with the moon).
Laila . Yes, as you have observed, the moon is something that has intrigued me and has become, eventually, the shape that the surfaces have taken [in my work] this time around. For me, the moon is entirely feminine while square shapes are more masculine than feminine.
In earlier works, I was fascinated by the square [but] the square always had a circle in it, referring to the moon. Everything that I have showed this time round is a circle. In many of the compositions, there are circles within circles [and this] really has to do with another thing that I have explored in my work — the form of a pomegranate.
Dua. What does a pomegranate symbolise for you?
Laila. The pomegranate, for me, has become really important to paint, draw and think about because I feel that it is nuanced and layered and complex in its formation. For me, it is also the fruit of the original sin. I really wanted to dissect it and see it almost like a diagram. So the surfaces in these works have become almost like a diagram, a map. A pomegranate is also, I think, redolent of the East, of mashriq. It appears in Persian and Mughal paintings. Tuzk-e-Babri [memoirs of the Mughal emperor Babar] onwards, one sees pomegranate trees and the pomegranate fruit represented very beautifully in our arts.
I also associate the pomegranate’s colour – like many people do – with blood. Even the seeds inside it are like beads of blood and the white skin that separates these beads is like a membrane. So, it made me think of the human body. And, from there, it really began to represent the fractured state of the East. So, in the painting titled Meem Mashriq, Meem Maghrib, the East is represented by this once beautiful pomegranate depicted at the moment of its decay. My objective in making it in this state was to ask: where do we stand today as a people? Are we our own worst enemy? [Historically], it is a difficult moment to be in. I think Islam is inevitably going to come into this conversation.
Dua. I did want to bring up religion and religious iconography with regards to your work. Something that you mentioned recently to another viewer at your open studio event has stayed with me. You mentioned how, while working on Majma I and Majma II, two of the works in this latest show, you had in mind the ornate faces of Muslim preachers that now grace the backs of many rickshaws in Pakistan. Could you talk a little about that visual connection?
Laila. I think that came about because of the endless delays [while moving through] traffic in Lahore. I began to amuse myself by noting how many rickshaws have the faces of these religious leaders repeated in absolutely symmetrical patterns. You will have the main person, or two main people, in the largest circle(s), then the lesser ranked beings in smaller circles below them, and then even lesser ranked clerics arrayed like a string of pearls at the bottom. What struck me was that they were always symmetrical. What is happening on the left [of the poster] is happening on the right too.
Dua. I cannot help but be reminded of medieval Christian compositional schemes of angels and saints when I see these posters.
Laila. Absolutely, the halos become these circles today — the halos behind those angels of Giotto, for instance…
So, Majma I and Majma II were my nod towards these visual congregations that we are constantly being bombarded with — attend this, and hear that, and remember these words of wisdom, and so on. It is a visual overload.
But the fact is that symmetry and pattern underlie absolutely everything in the East — whether it is a mosaic floor, tile-work on the walls or frescos right up to the ceiling. Even the ceiling is [sometimes] honeycombed with beautiful shapes. In some cases, there is a body of water, like the pool at the Alhambra [palace in Granada], that reflects and multiplies all that complexity.
I have also been observing our fruit and vegetable vendors. They arrange their products, daily, in this gentle sweep upwards — with vegetables on one side and fruits on the other. Green and purple vegetables are punctuated by little bunches of red radishes which look like full stops [in a text or a composition]. Your average vegetable vendor knows intuitively [how important] the full stop, or nukta, is. He knows colour relationships intuitively and he knows exactly where to stretch for whichever product you have asked for; they are never in a jumble; here, too, there is always a symmetry.
Dua. It is all a system. There is a method to it…
Dua. Growing up, you spent time in different regions of Pakistan and studied and lived for some years in England after your graduation from Lahore. How much has travel informed your work? Would you say that having to travel so much was an advantage? Or was it a disadvantage?
Laila. Well, my father was from [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province] – from Mardan – and my mother is from Lahore. My sisters and I went to school in Lahore so it made sense for my parents to have some kind of a base here. The way our family worked was that all holidays were spent in Mardan. So my childhood was set in a pattern — schooling here, vacationing there.
But, being half-Pakhtun and half-Punjabi, I have always felt that I have to defend Punjab in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Punjab. My painting Ze/Mein really shows the two halves of me. Half of the text [in it] is in Pashto and half in Urdu. [The former represents my] Pukhtun half [through writings about] places that I have known all my life and have associations with. [The latter represents my] Lahori half. I felt that I really needed to put this down somewhere as a kind of marker for myself.
Dua. This also comes across in other works such as Do raastay, aik dil… (that translates as ‘two paths, one heart’)…
Laila. Yes, Do raastay, aik dil shows Pashto and Urdu alphabets superimposed on each other as a photo-etching. The placement of some of the letters is meant to almost fool the viewer into thinking, ‘Oh, is this a word I am reading?’ Of course, it is not a word. It is just two different letters from two different alphabets sitting on top of each other, creating an unfamiliar shape.
Dua. Works like Ze/Mein also feature a kind of vortex — formed first by metal spikes protruding from the surface and then by paint and graphite expanding that circular movement outwards. It brings to mind The Second Coming, [a poem by W B] Yeats. Looking at this work, and several others from your latest show, it really does feel as if, to quote Yeats, “the centre cannot hold”. There is a thread of apocalyptic imagery going through these works…
Laila. Your use of the word ‘apocalyptic’ is quite apposite because one of my earlier solos, at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi, was titled Apocalypse. It dealt with religion, magic and superstition. [It also dealt with] how we observe certain rituals and how they become central to our identification with a certain part of the world.
The black rectangles in this latest body of work are really a reference to the Kaaba. I almost titled [the painting as] Meem Mashriq, Meem Maghrib, Praying West, with all its connotations and with the pun intended. We want to be like the West – just now we are speaking in a language of the West – and, geographically, we pray facing the Kaaba [which is also to the west from us]. Whether it is Lahore or Mardan or Karachi, we are physically, actually, praying while facing the West.
But in the paintings Ze/Mein and Meem Mashriq, Meem Maghrib, the medium took over. Once I had made the black rectangles, the spikes jutting from them became people, standing in rows for prayer, for worship. They also took on another aspect – of something that is cold, hard, menacing and industrial, something that has to do with being emotionless – whereas, even in its putrefied state, the pomegranate, representing the East, remains beautiful and emotive. The crux of the matter is that I will still opt for the East. This is home.
Dua. You mentioned, in an earlier conversation we had, that while you worked on some of the paintings and drawings in your last series, your mother sat in your studio and read to you from a book. This struck me as a very interesting, soothing and deeply symbolic ritual. How much of art-making is ritualistic to you? What are some of the rituals that you, as an artist, perform while working or while preparing yourself to work?
Laila. I perform the ritual of cleaning my studio, top to bottom, and organising it so that I know exactly where every last pencil or stump of graphite is. While I am physically getting the space organised, I am doing the same brain-wise: I am clearing a mental space in which I can sit and think. That really is a necessary ritual. It is a cleansing, a purification, a getting-ready.
There are days when I do not go into the studio but I know it is waiting there for me and that is a huge comfort. Just like my mother reading to me was a huge comfort because it was a kind of soothing background sound. She was reading from The Moon: Myth and Image by Jules Cashford, a book that my sister gave to me.
As I worked on this latest series, my mother read to me about various myths from across the world and how they are all impacted by the moon. The images that have spun out of just this one orb are tremendous.
Dua. And your mother reading it becomes doubly meaningful because the moon evokes maternity and femininity so to have your mother’s voice…
Laila. Yes, I think that really was important because I needed that closeness.
Dua. It just struck me as very beautiful because a lot of art-making now is propelled by such an ugly sense of competition that we, as artists, do not make time for these little moments that should be bringing us closer to our thoughts, to others and to the universe. I remember reading, in a book by Janet Kaplan, that Spanish painter Remedios Varo once bought a strange-looking plant which was said to produce egg-shaped fruit. She placed it on her terrace in the moonlight. Then she arranged her paint tubes around the plant, believing that the combination of plant energy, moonlight and paint would be propitious for her work in the studio the following day.
Laila. There is a scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo and Juliet which shows a friar collecting herbs by the light of the full moon. They could only be picked or harvested at that point in the lunar cycle.
The cycle of the moon, the cycle of women’s bodies and the cyclical nature of things — leading into a spiral: these are all connected for me. As a woman, I find it important to see things grow. I do some form of gardening every now and then and it brings me great peace and joy. Or I occasionally cook, or put things right, or think of ways leftover food or cloth or even a piece of wood can be reused. I hate waste of any kind. I think these are all ways in which we fulfil something within ourselves.
The fate of women is that we have to juggle [many things] but I think that makes us stronger and wiser and, therefore, we are complex and nuanced — like a pomegranate and unlike the masculine apple.
Dua. Constantly making and revising inventories, lists…
Laila. Absolutely. List-making is secondary nature [to me]. It is instinctive. I have a pencil and paper always at hand for the myriad things that need to be done. To make a home is something that I enjoy doing. It gives me a lot of satisfaction and pleasure to do this. It is an ongoing commitment — to the people whom you live with and whom you love and to whom you are committed and, therefore, you are looking after them.
This looking-after has got that same spiral, cyclical quality. I am reminded of grandmothers who were in our homes when we were children and how, when we would gather there for holidays, meals and rooms would be ready. It did not happen by magic. It happened because those women exerted themselves to make sure that everything was in place. That is a legacy that I am now beginning to understand and treasure.
The author is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore.
This article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.