as the ink moves across letters
seeping into the brown of my body
scriptures in flesh
from charcoal black eyes to my breasts
my arms my fingers my thighs
the lines walk over my skin
smooth and warm
quietly touching my body's edge
as they float into the waiting abyss
from undeciphered fates, a poem and voice work by saba hasan (2015)
on the verge of utopias / essay by Rahul Bhattacharya
Many of us remember a world, a visual culture of saturated colours, shiny flattened surfaces and the disappearance of the imprints of process and labour. It was a time when the aesthetics of the plasma screen began to take over our imaginations of the 'beautiful'. In those years a few magicians and witches not easily seen were at work, were busy experimenting, brewing up a language for 'beauty' which would go deeper, create moments of pause, and bring texture back to our imagination. Time, labour and process were central to these alchemists' explorations. Today, as we try to reclaim the analogue, the matte, the touch, these artists are becoming visible and increasingly important in opening up directions to the future. For these members of the post-1950s generation, a 'reconstruction' of analogue art forms is not just an act of cultural archaeology or ritual nostalgia. These directions in taste and cultural archaeology position a vanguard act, which not only trades on the medium specificity of a post-conceptual revisitation of modernism (the 'language of the mark, gesture and surface'), but is equally receptive to signifiers taken from contemporary culture and alternative traditions of image/object-making.
Through much of this Saba Hasan was deeply engaged with the medium of painting, exploring/examining the possibility of art which is conceptual and deeply mediumatic. This brew, which sowed the seeds of post digital, post-conceptual art through the old media, suggests that its practitioners have been re-fashioning and re-defining the medium with some of its earlier histories and aspirations in mind. Today, embedded in her practice we find the modernist understanding of medium, style, form and surface being revisited, but through layers of post-modern theory and criticism. As a painter, Hasan has been keeper of a deep understanding of the analogue as an aesthetic value. In her work there is a constant engagement with art through experiential attempts to imagine emotion and observation in painterly form. In doing so, she has held up the suggestion that media can carry a new vocabulary which is hybrid, grungy and visceral; imprinting within their 'forms' narratives of the 'personal' and the 'universal'. At the same time, much of Hasan's painting captured journey, in which she was trying her best not to make paintings at all. Over the years she has made heavily layered, dense textured works combining plaster, paint, text, found and natural objects. These objects float between the semantics of 'painting' and 'mural', robust and fragile. This tension between medium and materiality marks the artist's discomfort with catalogues, binding her engagement with life and practice. Yet, her painting has became her mode of discovering a language for political abstraction and of exploring relationships between texts and art making.
The way late capitalism has shaped our common sense, it has ensured that we are privy to the uncertainty of all abstract ideals. Now such concepts rendered in art are not constant through time but rather changeable, across various media, and thus ambiguous. "Love," a word of all circumferences and no center, containing innumerable, even diametrically opposed forms and gestures, thereby lacks a pivot upon which a reader can fasten understanding. Yet ultimately, the wisdom that places materiality on top of the social hierarchy also ensures these abstractions are forgotten; flattened out as a consumable symbol or quote. The universal abstractions possible are being negated by the materiality of globalisation. At this juncture, abstract thought is one of the few political positions left. For Saba the choice of abstraction as a mode of language becomes an extension of her persona. The complexity of her intellectual and political heritage that she seeks to communicate cannot become a periodic narrative. These have shaped her imagination of the truth and the possible versions of it. There is a deeply Kantian element in her imagination of beauty and the picturesque. This could tell us that the notion of truth and the ideology of ethics are very important to her. Even as she holds on to the Kantian1 notion of an absolute truth and a slightly nostalgic relationship with ethics, she knows it is all extremely fractured. These fractures are violent, painful, yet they open up a complex world of interrelated perspectives, leading the imagination to a world where the coexistence of multiple truths within an ethical framework is possible.
The realising, imagining and articulating of such understandings of universalism2 has been a slow and strong process. In part it has come as a response to the politics of nationalistic and religious identity that is spreading across the civilisational common sense, but it also comes from the 'coming of age' of a thinker who has been assimilating various multi-cultural dialogues and expanding her sense of horizon. There is also a story of Kashmir, memories, snow, Urdu disappearances, and a deep desire to communicate its layers to a world in which the artist lives, travels, engages her contemporaneity with.3 And communication is just a point of initiation; in the process of conceiving and producing the desire to engage becomes very strong. This has always stopped Saba's work from lapsing into the past of its own inspiration, and pushing itself into a struggle within the politics of contemporaneity. This tension marks the aesthetics and experience of Hasan's practice over many years now.
Her paintings (what one could call pictorial objects) mark an artist who uses the flat surface of a 'painting' as a take off point, transforming it sculpturally. They stand between being paintings/murals/objects and sometimes we find objects embedded within them. Calligraphy has been embedded with text; embedded, burnt and weathered, turning the mind towards deserted/violated snowy landscapes, poetic memories of a past. For Hasan, the idea of a post modern Islamic liberal space is very important; she is appalled by the internal censorship within Islam, and the conflicts between Islamic and Muslim identities. The gradual silencing of an Islamic cultural identity within a straitjacketed Muslim identity seems to be the common goal of right-wing fundamentalism and neoliberal market forces. With the passing years the silencing of this culture has come to a point where all that remains is pure silence. This silencing is not just a story from a distant snowy landscape, but it is the story of the world of Islamic culture itself. The utopian, sufi, universal, socialist voices that have marked a rich heritage stemming from Islamic thought have been brutally suppressed, from Libya to Indonesia. Hasan's 'book sculptures' initiate a dialogue within this zone of silence; through the iconology of display she uses these assemblages, creating her sections for the Museum of Erasures. This is her defiance, the constant reclaiming of a larger Islamic cosmopolitan heritage. This rich heritage has unfolded in beautiful lands of snow, rocks, sand and distance. They interweave with her early memories and nature. Time and process have become central to Hasan's imagination and practice.
Over the last few years, Hasan has been exploring possibilities of language and medium. Having spent many years in Delhi, feeling the constrictions of globalised politics brought to her door step and plasma screens Hasan began to understand that a similar narrative of constriction, censorship, violence is suppressing/violating free thought all around us. The agents of this suppression are a surprisingly wide range of allies: we find late capitalism, identity politics and religious fundamentalism working hand in hand towards this marginalisation. Creating pockets of pause and contemplation has become important as we seek to hold our ground and nurse our imaginations of our futures. Maybe, our personal memories and histories and our sharing of these become the ground on which we can hold our own. Moreover, for Saba her experiences of the personal are what enable her to distance herself from the reactive and aggressive activism that surrounds us, seeking to defend free thought but duplicating the same patterns and modes of repression and argument.
This seems to have pushed Hasan into making and producing more culture, more art, and becoming more direct and personal in marking her political position. For a long part of her life Hasan has been writing poetry, and her association with literature runs deep. As an artist matures, one often sees a coming together of practices and engagements that were brewing separately. This is possible through an expansion of the notion of what art is and the desire to explore the horizons of what art can be, not just from the point of view of mediumistic acceptance, but also from the understanding of expression and the expressions art can contain. As her visual practice moves towards a complete silencing of text, sound the 'oral' becomes very important to the artist. Poetry comes as sound composition and readings. Our encounters with these compositions are always intimate. Also, burnt text, burnt paintings show that burning as a technique and experience is a way of destroying as well as transforming. Yet Hasan has been deeply engaged with the idea of peace, and bringing in sound allows her a direction towards new beginnings. Her 'books' are empty or unreadable; after a point the silence becomes haunting, silent stories of the forgotten, words do return but in the form of poetry captured as sound. Her books might be empty of text, but they are not empty of signifiers. But instead of using the books as a medium, in the context of an 'artist's book', she has began to develop them into sculpture, embedding them with the signifiers she would embed in her paintings. Even the acts of burning, overlaying, weathering, destroying remain as artistic strategies. Yes, the text has gone missing but it comes back as sound, guiding us towards new transformations.
Almost like 'unlinked watermarks', to quote Saba, her works push the viewer in much the same way as the process of their making pushes the artist's horizons. They are a bit unexpected. It is the manner in which her works sit between art and objecthood that creates a silent tension and at the same time a point of entry into the domain of 'pause'. One can sense that these works carry a voice, a controlled, composed breaking of silence, yet they are about silence itself. A silence that is necessary for conversation. Femininity, exposure, identity, memory are central to these works, without them the works would have never been made; yet the works are all about transgressing them, and trying to create a zone where they become irrelevant and we can finally breathe. She creates beautiful objects and experiences, making you want to own them, keep them, yet makes them in a manner that challenges our 'cabinet of curiosities'. At every point these works resist narration; the artist's refusal to flatten into confirmative entity enters the work itself. This could lead us to the way Hasan seeks to practise a relationship between ethics, aesthetics and politics. Her relationship to Kantian aesthetics sits awkwardly with her relationship to feminist and postcolonial thought. Her only way out is to be in a constant process of eclectic interweaving, of the various meanings she finds.
What has been a continuous evolution is Hasan's need to push the boundaries of universalism. Universalism for a personal and deeply political position, at one level informed by a range of thinkers like Tagore, Pushkin, Hafiz or Lorca, at another by the value system of her family, which she has grown up with. Together these shape a philosophy wherein the personal, the cosmopolitan and the natural become foundational. Nature comes back, offering her moments of pause, reflection and a reconnection with beauty. Being within Nature also leads to a certain 'letting go', and in her works this letting go becomes a part of artistic actions. In her journey to discover her post colonialities and intersectionality, Hasan understands that (possibly) nature, time and process in moments of pause are the only magical brew which can enable us to enter a world where the machismo of modernist judgment is suspended. Another of the ways in which modernism has overflowed into our times is through the spectacle.4 In this cacophony of opinions and positions, a critique of American modernism and its belief in the surety of logic needs to emerge, which can only happen with the suspension of our anthropocentric worldview. It is through the constant creation and glorification of the spectacular that capitalism and fundamentalism have evolved and dominated contemporary society.
An old book, tattered, its pages fluttering in the breeze. A hand carrying a cheap plastic lighter slowly sets it on fire. The book catches fire on a patch of green grass, the breeze strokes the fire and flickering flame is slowly engulfed by deep dark ash, an 'event' is captured by a shaky hand, the shake seeming to mimic the fire's flutter. There is a silent violence carried in this work, evoking memories of Kosovo, Bosnia, Syria, Palestine, Nigeria, Kashmir and other such post-holocaust holocausts of our times. The pain and fear coming through from the burning book, the flicking fire, the shaky hand are not particular to any culture, and at the same time deeply connected to so many, through both abstract associations and a deeper semantic connection. These very shaky hands and the fire flicker, make the work deeply personal and intimate, giving us a window into what a post-Kantian picturesque can be. When the video ends, showing us a small heap of ash slowly falling asleep on the green grass, all is not lost, the pain and fear give way to the possibility of a future, of this ash making the grass more fertile; to possibilities of wildflowers.
With notions like 'war as theatre' we are moving to subliminal spaces within the imagination of the 'spectacle'. Against this, Hasan positions an encounter with the intimate. Personally she loves the intimate, and has been exploring the 'intimate' as an aesthetic/political strategy. The formal aesthetics of this 'intimate' is informed by her journey in discovering a language of analogue aesthetics, refusing to draw differences in terms of media, yet constantly refusing the formal aesthetics of the plasma screen. As she moves into more digital works, like sound or video, we see a constant attempt to overlay them with the aesthetics of the analogue world, like burning, nature, stillness, blurs. This engagement comes through the artistic process employed by Hasan; burning, weathering, forgetting, walking, breaking become her artistic strategies, deployed silently in various combinations in the alchemist's laboratory, looking for the potion that will take her to the verge of her utopias.