EXHIBITION: THE ILLUSTRATED WORDArchive
In Ayesha Jatoi’s latest series of paintings, The Observer, there are no pictures. This may seem strange to some — a painting without images. But for others more familiar with the history of art or of contemporary art practices, this decision to remove all representations might seem typical of the conceptual, ironic quality of much of recent art.
One can turn back to the earlier 20th century to find artworks filled with text, including those by Dadaists that explored the visual quality of text. Artists in Europe and the United States in the ’60s investigated text as a visual form. Lawrence Wiener is an exemplary artist in this kind of practice. Or one can look to the end of the century to find works by Barbara Kruger who used words to explore the expected social roles of women, among other topics. And in current trends artists continue to rely on words as an image. For them, a word represents something else in the same manner as a picture. These varied artists and movements have influenced Jatoi in the development of her art.
Even as there are so many examples of “word art” from the last century in the West, the analysis of text as a visual form has a much longer history in the East. Several cultures could be cited, but the Islamic civilisation is important to consider when reviewing Jatoi’s work. She studied miniature painting at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore. The department teaches students about the techniques of painting found in Islamic empires. The manuscript was an important site for the development of painting. It was here that artisans working for Muslim emperors developed their skills and experimented. It was here that new kinds of texts emerged. Calligraphy is a highly stylised kind of writing that could flourish because of the presence of the manuscript in the Islamic world. As such, Jatoi’s inspirations and influences come from the local context as well.
In Ayesha Jatoi’s latest body of work, words serve as images
Her astute joining of the local and global could be found in pitch black and glistening white images filled with text. In the work ‘Europeans’ the viewer will find words describing the layout of a Mughal or Persian manuscript painting. As a student at the NCA, Jatoi might have had to make a copy of this historical image. Here and now, the artist has divided the space of her work according to how different elements are composed in the older painting. Within the compartmentalised scene, Jatoi writes about what she sees there. Humour comes into play: in one section she writes, “9 Grim Men” and in another, “More Grim Men.” One can imagine a group of males clumped together with serious expressions on their faces.
Instead of illustrating, the artist represents the historical manuscript painting. She analyses the previous work. By utilsing text for this representation, she emphasises the manuscript and the important roles that these documents played as records of court life centuries ago. The viewer is left to read the painting in which a story seems to emerge about a heroine who saves a home from intrusion or a scene that is ripe with tension. In her work, and in the historical manuscripts she references, text might help illustrate the picture instead of the other way around.
The use and significance of text as a tool of representation is present in historical Islamic manuscripts as well as in modern art of the West and global contemporary art. Her analytical, rather than mechanical, approach to copying the historical work is a decidedly contemporary method of making art, yet still steeped in the past when the written word was a significant aspect of where the painting could be found.
“The Observer” was displayed at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from August 24 to September 4, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017