Examining frames of reference

Marjorie Husain writes in Daily Dawn’s Gallery (20th May, ’06) about Sumaya Durrani, TIP design faculty artist in residence.

sumaya durrani.jpg Visiting Sumaya Durrani at the Textile Institute of Pakistan, about 40 kms out of Karachi where she is currently artist in residence, was an invigorating experience. Before viewing the work intended for exhibition at the Chawkandi Art, we crossed the campus into the large studio that holds an incredible body of work under process. The canvases that lined the walls, 8x 4 feet, and 8×8 in size still awaited considerable work, but were linked by a sequence of historic portraits and exotic plant life and birds; all described in beautiful colour. ‘Where will you hang these?” I asked, but Sumaya had no answer to that. She calculates it will take perhaps a year to finish the entire work and only then will begin to think about the subsequent process. Visions of the National Contemporary Art Gallery in Islamabad flashed through my mind as that venue is perhaps the only one large enough to hang the work. Leaving the gallery, we made our way to her home studio where her recent work was in the process of drying before being framed.

The recent work for exhibition she has titled: IBN-E- MARYAM. As always with the artist’s work, it is extremely interesting, full of profound thought and innovation. There are references to an historic period of art, when according to the artist, people were beginning to question `the system’, perhaps for the first time. It was in time in the world of restoration, new eras. With this in mind, Sumaya appropriated two images from 16th century masterpieces by Hans Holbein. The beautiful, eternal images are of a mother and child, taken from a painted group, and another portraying a wistful looking beauty, juxtaposed with a 14th century chalice from Islamic history. The images of a classic age have been transposed into a contemporary setting, using techniques both contemporary and others dating back to the renaissance era.

“It is the concept of the work that is important, this is what I am stressing inspired by my grandfather, Shamsul Ulema Tajur Najeeb Abadi’s poetry. Sumaya quoted:


‘Na dil badla, na dil ki aarzoo badli,

na woh badle,

main kaisay aitbare inqalabe aasman karloonɉ۪


My heart doesn’t change, nor the heart’s desires, nor he. How can I believe in a transformation that reaches the skies… (with apologies for my translation)The French had a simpler version, `the more things change, the more they remain the same.’Earnestly describing her work the artist explains: “The structural and conceptual format concerns the repetition of image with a shift of palette that refers to the tension between constants and variables; between permanence and change, between eternal and perennial, between the sacred and the secular. It looks at the nature of reality and it also examines the nature of change.”“Change is perceived as that which renews or allows new perceptions of the same Reality. The different colour mounts imply that different frames of reference offer different perceptions of reality yet the constants are essential – change must not devalue the constants or distort their functions – change should offer new perspectives and offer fresh possibilities.”With the passage of time, the artist appears to tell us, man has increasingly behaved as though he believed himself to be in charge of providence, becoming increasingly estranged from the world of the spirit. ‘His critical apparatus failed to register the subtle realities.’

Currently the artist is engaged in research on an alternative Islamic Art Educational system, “amidst conditions of modernity”, and her work in art and research appear linked, reflecting the artist’s convictions. There is no single interpretation of her work and those who come to terms with its texture and complexity may find it initiates a dialogue with them.

The artist procured a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Michigan in ’84 and a Master’s in Jewellery Making, Design and Metal work in ’86. Joining the National College of Arts, Lahore, as a lecturer in ’88, Sumaya initiated a two-month workshop on environmental sculpture, which was the first of its kind in the country and a great success with her students. Her husband’s posting to Turkey led to a two-year tenure in the department of Design, Bilkent University, as assistant professor, and she took the opportunity to study printmaking.

Returning to Karachi, for some years Sumaya held the post of Director/Designer of a custom made jewellery establishment and produced unique and delicate jewelry. But designing and handcrafting jewellery was never for her, a commercial enterprise. She undertook just a few private commissions and since most of her work was hand crafted, made few pieces in the space of a year.

Talking of her student days in the States, Sumaya recalled her teacher, Ted Ramsay’s fascination at her method of drawing. “He would make the class watch me draw as in minutes I would start on a sheet and spread over and add more sheets as I could not fit the figure into a single sheet of paper.” Now she says, she lacks that force, yet her drawing skills in the present collection are very strong. The current body of work begins with exquisite facsimiles of her chosen images using a charcoal pencil. Then follows the process of off-set printing, after which are added diverse symbolic devices differing in each composition. Working in oils, the artist creates brush strokes visible to the eyes that actively bring her into the work. Then in the style of the masters of the renaissance, the layers of glaze that link the ground and the image are added.

Sumaya Durrani is adept in the use of media and technique which she uses to articulate conceptual and spiritual concerns. By presenting differing versions of a single image the artist address alternative points of view.