Rameesha Azeem’s Unforgettable Show, ‘My World Afloat’
Edgy, modern, morbid and provocative – Rameesha Azeem’s solo exhibition, ‘My World Afloat’ raises questions about our mortality, our colonized mindsets, and distorted priorities. Esteemed art critic Quddus Mirza reviews the show for Libas Now.
Painters – despite what age they are – always remain kids. Fascinated with colours, shades, tones and textures; wanting to play, smear their hands, smocks and studios with this pasty liquid we call paint. Although each shade excites an artist, red has a specifically strong effect – not dissimilar to a bull up against the matador waving a red piece of fabric in the ring.
Painters – despite what age they are – always remain kids
This attachment to red, not only in artists or animals, but in the general public (brides wear red on their wedding in the South Asia) is explained by Paul Auster in his novel Oracle Nights, “We excreted autumn and winter colours, but running invisibly through our veins, the very stuff that kept us alive, was the crimson of a mad artist – a red as brilliant as fresh paint”.
That brilliant, enchanting and luxurious red covered the canvases of Rameesha Azeem in her recent exhibition, ‘My World Afloat’, at Haam Gallery, Lahore. She displayed paintings, drawings, three dimensional pieces, and a video installation – all different in terms of scale, technique and history – but also interlinked, because all alluded to body – its presence, its residue, its segments.
A brilliant, enchanting and luxurious red covered the canvases of Rameesha Azeem in her latest exhibition, ‘My World Afloat’
Coming back to Auster’s red, or let’s say Azeem’s red, one becomes aware of not only the strong and vivid hue managed by Rameesha Azeem, but the way she applied the paint. Instead of filling a space, demarcating an area, or throwing a bucket, she added colours in a rhythmic, sensitive and sensuous manner. Layers of pink, crimson, scarlet, orange, burgundy (all from the family of red) were managed in a spontaneous, rather organic scheme. Looking at her large canvases, one discerns the absence of a plan, as she approached the act of art-making being a jump into a void, a journey into the unknown, a passage into pleasure.
Layers of pink, crimson, scarlet, orange, burgundy (all from the family of red) were managed in a spontaneous, rather organic scheme
Red in the canvases of Azeem could be more than the pigment produced by art manufacturing companies. It may be about bleeding, beauty (roses are red), fire, passion, dusk, flesh, and much more. However, some of her paintings denoted body, like red disks on several canvases were enlarged views of human cells, or two pelvises daubed in this hue.
But even if one did not identify a link with the body in seemingly abstract imagery, their constructions and composition suggested an inner turmoil. I was reminded of the great Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s novel Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire) – how a natural phenomenon can be combined with another one, like in Azeem’s paintings, in which waves, winds, desert, waters were blended with emotion.
The body was not merely represented as a neutral entity in Azeem’s art, but she investigated and hence unpacked concepts about gender, race, and other differences. In her sets of drawings Rameesha Azeem depicted parts of the human body – bones – but her course of evolving her imagery is intriguing, thus interesting.
She dips parts of the body – portions of neck, knees, feet, and several other areas – in latex and casts them as sculpture pieces, and then produces sensitive and detailed drawings of these ‘objects’, removed from human anatomy, yet echoing it. During this course of translation of a translation they acquire an appearance of abstraction.
Seeing the precisely and delicately rendered drawings of Rameesha Azeem, a viewer is intrigued about their origin in human anatomy, yet these works denote a far more complex visual. In a sense, all art is a form of fossilization. A fossil is a segment of the body that is detached in time and when it appears in front of us, it reconnects us to its original epoch.
An artist creates works in the timeless intimacy of the studio, but when these are displayed at a gallery, these metamorphose into a memory – a segment of recorded hours spent in the studio. A fossil. Also because fossils, of plants and animals and sea life, were once living species, growing, moving, but once these are preserved in an archaic rock, these are fixed. Much like a painting, or a sculpture, or a drawing, which is ‘alive’ in an artist’s studio, subject to change, cut, cropped, covered, reincarnated; but as soon it reaches the gallery it is fossilized in catalogue, price list and art history.
There is another form of fossilization that appears in one remarkable sculpture of Rameesha Azeem’s. When we die, our flesh will be consumed by insects, our hair will disintegrate, coffins will perish – notwithstanding our class, cast, positions, accumulations. Everything except our bones, skulls, and teeth.
‘Unity Pyramid’ is a remarkable sculpture by Rameesha Azeem where she has built a pyramid-like structure composed of 3-D printed dentures in varying colours
Not morbid, but the work of Rameesha Azeem invoked that eternal existence. She mapped bones like contortions, she played with blood like pigment, and she also picked an object of lasting life (if not eternity) such as our dentures. She erected a pyramid like structure composed of dentures in different shades. The artist, in making of the 3-D print in raisin, contacted sources around the Subcontinent and Europe, so each denture is of a different individual, actually making this work a unique archive of human dental variations across communities and continents.
Each denture is of a different individual, making this work a unique archive of human dental variations across continents
In this artwork Azeem also probed the issues of racial demarcation, hence segregation. Her Unity Pyramid is built with four tiers of dentures, varying in their colours – grey, beige, pink, yellow – apparently denoting the hierarchy of classes. But interestingly in her pyramid of teeth, the dark-skinned portion is on top, since the artist is interested in Hegel’s theory of Lordship and bondage, envisaging that slaves can turn into masters. It can refer to the decolonizing of mind.
But interestingly in Azeem’s pyramid of teeth, the dark-skinned portion is on top, envisaging, like Hegel, that slaves can turn into masters. It can refer to the decolonizing of mind
In its core, it offers another message – perhaps not intended by the artist – that we segregate children of Adam on the basis of their pigmentation, and thus we associate communities when we see dentures printed in different hues (complexions) but forgetting that no matter if it’s a black man from Africa, a pale person of China, a fair skinned from Italy, a blond from Sweden, a brownish individual from India, all of them will survive through their teeth – of a uniform colour, the dirty-whitish! Diminishing and destroying colour segregation, supremacy and hierarchy.
Yet Rameesha Azeem made her dentures in decorative and diverse colours, perhaps alluding to how industrial manufacturing has taken over from the age-old debates of postcolonial discourse. Now it does not matter if the denture is made by a man from Africa, Middle East, Scandinavia, Far East, India, China, Peru, because the variation of colour is not ethnic but industrial. In reality, several dentures of western personages are fabricated in South Asia.
The impact of industry on human identity was also expounded in One Drop Every 30 Minutes, the most ambitious work of Rameesha Azeem. A large (15×8 feet) shisham sheet of wood with mother of pearl inlay welcomed visitors at the entrance of the gallery. The title records the time it takes for workers to fix the mother of pearl into the sheet of wood. It also connotes a doctor’s prescription of taking medicine on a certain schedule.
One Drop Every 30 Minutes, the most ambitious work of Rameesha Azeem, is named thus to record the time it takes for workers to fix the mother of pearl into the large (15×8 feet) sheet of wood
Despite its organization, execution, and imposing scale, this work conveyed a sense of intimacy, particularly with the presence of tear-like drops that, due to their material, shift their shade, sheen and reflection. The physicality of the wooden background, with its alternating hue and texture, complements the illusion of rain, of tears falling from the sky, bringing to mind a line by Pablo Neruda: “In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?” Tears, perhaps?