Our time in this world can be condensed into a pool of experiences that have lead us to wherever we are in the present moment. Our lives are a string of memories that eventually define us as human beings.
It is thus a bit poetic that for most of us these memories are distant and faded mirages, morphed by subsequent influences and rose-tinted recollections of better times. Most of what we go through succumbs to the sands of time, leaving us with glimpses and highlights of tiny moments in photo albums.
Aqsa Shakil’s work looks at this fragile nature of memories and attempts to bring it into tangible form.
Recording time through nature
Shakil’s show at Koel Gallery Delineate provided us with a look at her exciting practice of recording the very passage of time on paper by exposing it to the elements, in this case wind, rain, hail and snow.
The process behind the works is what lends it its depth; she works on her pieces during rainstorms and snowstorms, effectively capturing her environment, a particular moment in a particular place, onto paper. Thus, the San Francisco hail is listed as one of her mediums.
The results are both spontaneous and unexpected, since she never knows how the precipitation might behave and how the ink might dry. She then works over these with drawings of important people and places in her life traced from photographs that have significant stories behind them.
In this way, each piece becomes the physical manifestation of memory itself, providing a glimpse of a moment imprinted onto paper. The atmosphere in the works is created by dark splotches of ink, muddled and cloudy in places, liquid and flowing in others, and chaotic and speckled in the rest, giving the works exciting varying textures.
This is in contrast with most other works depicting muted and faded representations of memory. Over here, the memories don’t just fade but are overtaken by the elements, eroded with time, and overpowered by the present, which is why the people in her works are “submerged in memory pockets: large atmospheric spaces” created by the exposure to rain and snow.
Shapes and borders
Within these works, Shakil also introduces different layers of meaning through borders, shapes and patterns that emerge from her miniature training in school.
The cropped borders in her work are her interpretation of borders used in miniature paintings. While traditional borders help contain the artwork, hers set the work free by hinting that there is more to the image that we cannot see, that the work is boundless. The border itself comprises undulating lines reminiscent of DNA strands, which the artist has used in works where she talks about family members.
The circular forms with geometric Islamic patterns are also influenced by miniature. In a way it represents timelessness, as a circle has no beginning or end, which ties in with her narratives about the past.
Inspiration from movement
Shakil’s work has emerged from her incessant travels throughout her life. “I was born in Tanzania, raised in Pakistan, and have had a taste of the Far East, Middle East and Europe” she says in her artist statement. She currently resides in San Francisco, but has lived in Tanzania, Lahore and Dallas.
As a result, her works have a sense of nostalgia, of holding onto experiences and people. While travelling with friends a few years ago, a pact for someone or the other from the group to always be creating art at any given time led the artist into a habit of constantly tracing her movements in a kind of travel journal.
“While my friends slept in the car, I decided to make something, but didn’t know what to do. So I just put the tip of the pencil on the paper and let the vibrations of the car do the work.” There are small sketches of new ideas, notes of her movements, scribbles, lyrics from songs and travel details, dates and airlines. This diary has been pulled apart and presented as a series of rough, unfinished works acting as scribbled documentations of the artist’s experiences; a lifetime diluted into a string of artworks.
Process work as art
The exhibit featured a third series of the artist’s works, which sprung from her tracings of photographs used in her main pieces of works. She said that these tracings were part of her process work, but in a way always intrigued her more than her actual final drawings, which is why she saved them. For this show she decided to layer these one on top of the other, with connections being drawn between various images in order to create a narrative. This reminds us of how different memories are layered, with certain aspects becoming obscured while other becoming more prominent, crafting our entire personalities and worldview.
The exhibition provided an evocative experience of what memory is and what it might look like in physical form. While photographs might preserve significant moment in our lives, Shakil takes them 10 steps further and captures an entire atmosphere, the dreamlike haze and vivid and surreal landscape that create the essence of a memory.
For someone who has traveled so much throughout her life, constantly being uprooted, the works come as an attempt to become more grounded and to bring order to a chaotic life.