A Case For Provocation


SUMAYA DURRANI`S WORKS IN PROGRESS VII AT THE Chawkandi Art Gallery have travelled a great distance from her 1986 exhibition in Lahore. She hardly knows where to make the connections, except that being a thoughtful and passionate painter; Sumayas images reflect her intellectual concerns and emotional journeys.

Witness her paintings of 86, the aggressive energy employed in tackling massive surfaces, the flamboyant response to material and colour. The spontaneity of the work, as it evolved from one painting to another, gave an uninhibited and vibrant truthfulness to the series. The painter was always well aware of the intellectual parameters which defined her apparently constrained expression. It was a watchful, serious eye that revelled in the act of this assemblage. Her six years at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the US (where she specialized in both painting and jewellery design) had provided her both the required skills and a familiarity with the tools of inquiry.

Sumaya was relentless and energetic in her pursuit of a statement that would encompass thought and feeling. She has also always been painfully aware of the transitory nature of solutions hence “Works in Progress”.

Her consequent shows in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad have all been strongly defined by their adherence to this sense of awareness. Her work of the 90s changed dramatically parallel to personal decisions and career directions. The smaller works she had done in her second solo exhibit in Lahore at lndesign in 1988 are playful and sharply coloured. The vitality was gathered into layered gestured and diminutive images. Somewhat naive, somewhat evasive.

All this changed. Gender in Sumayas work moved from a sub specific into a crucial element in the 90s. Her blithe self-awareness of the 80s changed into a more purposeful, radical investigation of the woman. Her witty anecdotes seemed to have a biting edge. The unravelling of visual association is one constant that has been there all the while in her painting. The other has been a questioning of the whole premise of the practice of painting.

In 1992 Sumaya had shows at the Nairang Gallery in Lahore and the Rohtas Gallery in Islamabad. The works on paper fell into major categories. One series was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment on the institution of marriage and the configurations of the entity of woman.

As with all Sumayas work, these statements were so much part of the formal fabric of the painting, that to separate form from content is counter-productive and unnecessary.

The second series was her response to the Gulf War, as she experienced it in Ankara, Turkey. She was teaching for a year at the Bilent University and witnessed the carnage from a different perspective. The rage, the sorrow and the injustice of it all was submerged into dark, shadowy images of doors leading nowhere, the graphite grating ones visual sensibilities. The savagery of it all was somehow manifest in those sharp, brittle, tense layers of marks. Yet she found a way of resolving the feeling in a cerebral manner, so that these works were a step forward in the personal vocabulary.

The 1993 show at Chawkandi makes the discourse on women a central concern. Sumaya insists that these works are deliberately “unpainterly”. The evidence of the mark and gesture has been obliterated and the recourse is the off-set litho press. That she has gone to great lengths to remove any overt signs of her interaction with the actual surface of the works implies that the intellect reigns. There is a physical detachment from the making of these objects on a certain level. Her aspiration not withstanding Sumayas visual sensual past is very much present in these complex works. She acknowledges not only this but other images from the past.

Delighting in a variety of visual references, from op-art (manifest in Colin David`s paintings of the 70s) to historical stereo-types of the nude, the surface vibrates with lyrical interactions. lt is as though there is a tussle abroad, with the artist as both referee and protagonist. Sumaya takes up the cudgels on behalf of women, re-invents signs and images, demanding a double-take from the viewer. There is a soft visual stroking here, accompanied by a cerebral nick of the razorblade. The unsuspecting viewer is confronted by the works which are obstinate about being categorized. They evade your grasp just as you are about to understand what they are all about. Because in fact, they are about a lot things. They are about women looking at men looking at women. They are about camouflage and counter-camouflage. They are about male-female manipulations, and about the convenience of labels and the comfort of easily readable signs. They are about the seductiveness of rhythm and pattern and what lurks beneath those layers. The layers defy being lifted and meanings mutate.

That Sumaya resents her work being possessed as an object is very clear. Her energy is turned towards the viewer, demanding that he or she be made vulnerable.

The works do not offer the cosiness of falling into a series. The painter works hard to de-link each work, the viewer starts afresh each time. Here is the female, nude and accessibly framed approachable. The layers of lace, fabric, pattern, inviting visual recollections. Once you are on the threshold you become aware of the impossibility of taking them at face-value. You begin to understand as you move from one work to the next – so in spite of the artist, the works give up their meanings, not in unison, but in the context they create together.

One is hardly conscious of the fact that there is no colour here. The varied blacks, velvety, tonal and luxuriant, revel in the absence of colour.

Sumaya Durrani is the consummate designer. She destabilizes the frame and challenges her own expertise. The solutions emerge from the brink. She ridicules intuition and the answers come up pristine.

Many of these works are about the practice of painting and its dialectic. Sumaya quotes from Hal Foster in her brochure as a plea for a shift in looking and evaluating art, the artist as a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.

lt may surprise the artist that some of the viewers may choose to ignore the post-modern and will be reading beyond her carefully constructed frame-works. The darker, threatening, more open-ended of her works are most convincing of both her intuition and her and our ultimate vulnerability.