Faiz Art Prize, 2011

Irfan e Surmust - Semazen

By Taimur Ahmad Suri

Sumaya Durrani is an enigmatic person. Trained in the western style of artistic expression from United States of America and England, she has now decided to explore the eastern idiom yet within the contemporary art practice.  Her latest work in progress appropriately titled Irfan e Surmast – Semazen,  at the Chawkandi Gallery (February 23 to March 5, 2010),  is a profound expression of the paradigm she has been working within for the last few years. Her earlier exhibits, also at Chawkandi Art, Shahab e Saqib and Rukh e Mustafa investigates the same metaphysical theme. 

Imagery for this particular exhibition was an almost achromatic abstraction of a palm tree against various backgrounds; there being the primary colors of red ochre and blue, and a fourth one which was primarily black on white, yet very monochromatic. The canvases were large (8 X 7 feet) with intensive color palettes,   but the most overwhelming experience was the loud, almost deafening, recording of the talbiyah recited by all Muslims during Haj, that was continuously being played. This juxtaposed sound with the canvases was deliberate, as I found out from Sumaya. One was not left with any option except to contemplate on the imagery itself. 

For those who are familiar with Sumaya’s previous work would associate the strict geometric forms emerging randomly in the background to her inclination towards Tareeqat and Qadiriya Chishtia Silsila,  seeking spiritual direction from her Murshid,  Faqir Nasiruddin. It is a conscious decision to move away from her western training of the use of the abstract to depict beauty, whereas in the Islamic art tradition the abstract is more within the domain of spirituality; a subversive element as she describes it in her art, consciously moving away from western models of aesthetics. The central motif of a stylized palm tree in motion is metaphorically the ubiquitous tree of life.  The layers and skillful use of color and tonal values add volume to her work, testifying to Sumaya’s erudite skill in the art of drawing and painting.  In keeping with her own catharsis of continuing her journey in the path of Allah, Tauheed, the first tenant of Islam, where submission rather than rebellion is of utmost importance, Sumaya’s western art training manifests itself as a unique expression of a modern art practice, with its idiomatic approach and conscious use of Islamic symbolism. In her compositions, forms swirl upwards in complete harmony and emerge as flowers in joyful abandonment: an expression of the spiritual journey in her own chosen path. The strictly western approach of using the geometric forms following a modern art theory combined with an Islamic art paradigm is understood immediately by the discerning viewer. This distinction between abstract in modern art theory and that in the context of Islamic cultures has not been understood at large. Sumaya’s use of both paradigms reflects her understanding and engagement with both. 

The artist’s passion of her subject grows on the viewer once that engagement is made. That, of course, is a huge task given that most viewers have to be initiated in modern art theories and alternate practices in art. For Sumaya or any other artist, the challenge is to make the viewer experience similar inspiration and passion with which she worked and felt whilst creating these works; the spiritual journey on which she has embarked upon; the trials and trepidations in the path of rediscovering herself and re-evaluating her values; the purpose of this inner struggle between the good and evil being to cleanse and purify her soul. Her work reflects the different levels the soul experiences as it wavers between clarity and complete confusion. The variable geometric forms are built around the constant palm tree demanding an evoked response from the viewer.