Across in the Lights exhibition, there is a painting by Zahoorul Akhlaq in another room of the National Art Gallery, Islamabad. Title A radio photo of an unidentified object, this 1973 canvas, contains light: strands of rainbow hues have turned into dark spots entering a frame in the form of a manuscript page. Akhlaq suggests that light is not always bright, bright, and white, it can also be dull, dark, and depressing.
An emotional reading and representation of the light discerned in Akhlaq’s canvas can also be found in the works of artists participating in Lumières, the exhibition organized by Zara Sajid and Stéphanie Borsa, and supported by the French Embassy in Islamabad. The show includes artists from Pakistan, France and Morocco; all women, who approach the idea of light in their works, distinct by their formats and genres as well as by their interpretations of something as common as light. The exhibition is held from December 9 to 20 at the National Art Gallery.
Light is familiar, ordinary, accessible – and ancient. After God created heaven and earth, He said “Let there be light: and there was light (Genesis 1: 3)”. During the exhibition, we experience lights of nature, stories and different connections: natural, artificial, real, virtual, political, poetic and ironic. Speaking at the inauguration, Gilles Garachon, the French charge d’affaires, commented on the gender division in terms of aggression and violence linked to men (recalling one of Susan Sontag: “… war is a game of men – murder has a gender, and it is a man “). In today’s world, where men are busy spreading darkness at noon, imposing blinding ignorance, the extremism, activism, women comment and criticize human calamities.
Light, more than a physical phenomenon, is associated with ideas of liberation, hope and salvation. Just opening our eyes in the morning gets rid of our dark demons / nightmares. Yet many remember the moment when light meets darkness, day glued to night. This threshold, this no man’s land that we wear every day with our shadows, a self that is part of us and yet so disconcerting. Marcel Duchamp described a shadow as the fourth dimension, but the existence of the shadow is a sign of the presence of light. Farida Batool, an Enlightenment participant, has done a lot of work on shadows. Most of its titles refer to shadows, some recalling the verses of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Like Awaz kay saye (2020), a video that captures the impossible scenario of sound reflection. Batool rendering the shadow of the changing foliage on earth with sparse leaves, stems and a few scraps, handles the unimaginable because the whole rectangle begins to look like the ripples of a floating body of water.
Batool, extending the term as unreal as the shadow of sound, created a VR (Chand ka saye talay) that takes you from the well-lit CAFN room to crowded houses and a corner of the sky with a moving moon. Moon also travels in another of his works. The lenticular print Chand Kay Paar spreads a full moon over all five frames. Almost the cycle of the moon, but it also makes us realize how much light affects us, accompanies us and transforms us. The power, the presence and the play of light are visible in the work of Christine Ferrer Luminous Bodies (2015): human bodies without head, holding hands and forming a circle on the gallery floor. Made of burlap with LED lights inside, these can be identified with migrants struggling to survive on the shores of the Mediterranean. It also echoes the iconic painting of Henri Matisse Dance), except that Ferrer’s bodies have no heads, resulting in corpses floating on the surface of the water or lying on the ground.
Memories of loss, of immediate and distant past (also political), can be deciphered in the art of Risham Syed. His two installations integrate different connotations, the use and observation of light. A bewildering variety of light is seen in one work, in which a dysfunctional lamp and heat meter are combined with a postcard depicting a black and white image of fire and smoke in a city. Another of his installations consists of a metallic beast, a palm tree giving off an orange glow next to a small painted surface (as casual as a Polaroid or a small photo) showing a soldier in combat gear shrouded in smoke and clouds Red / orange. His two works suggest the darkness of light; how light is a prelude to a long reigning shadow. This could be translated in political or personal terms, a clue of what one gets from the work of Genevieve Gleize. A combination of photographs placed on the gallery wall. Using the site of an old establishment in Madrid, Teotro Cervantes, it documents the play of light on stage, in the architecture and the rows of seats, all with various accents. But the set of images, installed as one (or a series), suggests a time that survives in memories – or memories in the form of photographs. Because anyway, when we take a photo, we anticipate and prepare our personal memory bank, with stored images that remind us and reconnect us to the places we visited once, perhaps for a few seconds (time needed to click on our cameras or press our smart phones).
A bit like the monumental novel by Marcel Proust In Search of Lost Time, Gleize’s work documents an abandoned place of magnificent light spreading, defining, veiling and eroding the details of the chairs, of the stage – in fact, the entire configuration of grandeur, using the language of chiaroscuro rebirth. Not only the distribution of light and dark, but also the staging of its subject, the central scene, in its structure, reminds the viewer of the work of Leonardo da Vinci The last supper, with its illusion of perspective.
The story diffused in the light, even disfigured through it, is seen in the work of Marium Agha. In her thread on fabrics, she recreates portraits from the past, such as Byron’s muse, Françoise Boucher, Thomas Gainsborough, Maurice Quentin de la Tour, Duchess de Beaufort. These images are woven with their lower parts dripping from the photo frame – literally; like the weather in The persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, melts and drips. Along with the presence or the passage of time, Agha introduces glitter on the faces of her subjects, thus transforming their heads into various creatures such as a wolf, a white rabbit, a wolverine, a horse, which, oddly enough, do not seem not out of place, because these characters’ elaborate attire is complemented by the glittering material of their altered identities, small, shiny disc-shaped pearls that reflect light.
Like Agha, another participant of the show, Safaa Erruas, chose needles to perform her art. her two Parallel paths, with metallic thread and ink on cotton paper, suggest maps of the human body as well as of the earth. Holes drilled in perpetual lines with protruding metal ends divided into two halves allude to the human diaphragm with a gap in the middle. Whatever the reading, the works of Erruas plunge into the pain of human experience, of a territory, of a body, since it surprisingly associates hair and rough vegetation on a desert plane. The white of his favorite surfaces transmits light, but it is the light of the soul to which we relate like all other artists, because being at this extraordinary exhibition we experience The Unbearable Lightness of Being – again and again.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore