Cold Canvas


In her recent show at Chawkandi Art, Sumaiya Durrani appears to be attempting to open a dialogue with the viewer. Her theme: how men perceive women. These personal impressions are catalogued in a postmodernist vocabulary, executed with the help of mechanical techniques combining photography with offset printing.

Sumaiya has limited herself to black and white with an occasional touch of sepia. Ironically, black and white are also the standard colours of the traditional veil – burqa – which has today become a symbol of the Pakistani womans suppression.

Sumaiyas women are, however, far from shrouded: they are in the nude. Silhouetted against an unadorned surface, the work is in a style that evokes shadow puppetry. This effect is further enhanced by the shallow picture plane. The nudes are not in repose. They preen and stretch; mimicking fashion models, but the message remains ambiguous; are they celebrating their sexuality or are they mere puppets on a string?

In Sumaiyas work, textures and patterns take the place of allegorical motifs and also help build up the pictures layer by layer. Lace, which has long been touted in the west as the quintessentially feminine fabric, is depicted as a confining web. In her work lace symbolises all those porcelain beauties who are acquired by men almost like trophies on the basis of their physical attributes – not unlike a butterfly pinned to the luxuriant velvet of a collectors box. These women, Sumaiya seems to say, are victims of both mans proprietary rights and his predatory instincts.

Empty cameo frames haunt and mystify the viewer. Has the woman who once enjoyed the exalted position of adorning these frames fallen from grace or rebelled?

Op art designs of checkered squares, meandering waves and stripes are projected on the human faces and figures of the compositions. Perhaps this is an expression of the psychological turmoil of women who live not by the freedom that is their birthright, but by the manipulative laws of a society dominated by men.

Geometrical elements were introduced in the constructivist and futurist art of Europe in this century to protest against the dehumanising effects of war. Bauhaus evolved these elements into a new vocabulary of design for an industrial age. Does Sumaiya with her frequent use of these elements want to convey the changing role of women in contemporary developed nations? Robbed of her natural role as a child-bearer and homemaker, the pendulum has swung to the extreme; she is now looked upon as an asset both in the boardroom and on the factory floor.

It is easier to analyse Sumaiyas work than to relate to it. The mechanical monotony of her compositions is like printed messages – cold and remote, devoid of nuances created by hand. Neither are they enriched by any indigenous references that should have come naturally to an artist rooted in her culture. After all is her social Comment not inspired by the men and women that surround her?

Feminist painters like Cindy Sherman and Nancy Spero may champion urgent and relevant issues in their postmodernist expression but they cannot communicate their message as effectively as the haunting images of Frida Kahlo. This is perhaps because Frida treats her bodies like humans and not motifs – and is not afraid to let the pain shine through their eyes. It is easier to relate to work that is more subjective.

Sumaiya is a gifted painter with an inquiring intellect. From her NCA days she has grown from an emotive colourist to the creator of foreboding black monochromes. The underlying strength of her paintings is her conceptual approach enhanced by a sharp intuition. The analytical content has, however, begun to dominate her work, as the artist herself confesses: “I have given up colour because it came easily.” In this body of work, a hands-off effect has been consciously created through printing and photo- graphic techniques. But what Sumaiya Durrani seems to overlook is that by controlling each step, the painting may become a postmodernist statement, but it can also get divorced from the intuitive process – the very soul of creativity.