‘State—The Beginning’ is a sensitively created body of work by Saamia Vine showing at the Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery. Vine’s cur-rent work is a comment on the world around her today—a world that has ceased to make sense due to a disconnect with our his-tory and an absurd sense of belonging and ownership. The thematic concern of the work comes across as ‘loss’, that echoes sev-ered roots, loss of personal histories, cultural and historical erasure, and lost heritage in the context of British colonization, Victori-an influences and aspirations, migration, dislocation and polarized geographic boundaries. Vine’s work is connected by a triangle of narratives, namely, Alice in Wonderland, Dying Inayat Khan and her Kashmiri heritage. She compares her world and her bewil-dering experience of it to Alice’s Wonderland—a world of illogicalities and absurdities and an allegory for Victorian politics and culture. She calls the prevailing situation a “strange dystopia of current times”.
To convey this idea of a dystopian world Vine has worked on a series of images that depict mundane objects such as a chair, look-ing glass, tea cup, sofa, and silk robe/shirt with Kashmiri motifs and patterns. In some works, she has ventured into abstraction and nonobjective forms as well. The objects in Vine’s imagery draw attention to the fact that the material culture of a society re-flects the social, cultural, political and economic history of a people. According to Vine, these objects float around her with no seeming connection, yet, they create forms laden with symbolic and ambiguous meanings. The reason for this, she believes, is a misrepresentation—informed by the colonial narrative—of the origins, historical context and aesthetic history of these objects. The use of the objects in Vine’s aesthetics and imagery is thus a pictorial device to denote, deconstruct and decolonize the past and present of these objects, our perception of them, and thereby, our perception of ourselves as people of the subcontinent.
Vine has employed varied mediums, techniques and surfaces—ranging from ink and collage on paper and wasli, to oils and graph-ite on canvas and board, photo transfers and digital prints—to investigate these objects/forms in order to understand them in relation to their many narratives and to place them in their proper context in history. Resorting to loose, sketch-like and almost intuitive rendering in her works, Vine has emphasized the idea of erasure and ambiguity, as if forms are being drawn out of fading memory. Her choice of medium, technique and surface seem to have been dictated by the particular object she has portrayed in an image lending credence to the belief that medium is content.
In two of her works, Vine references the famous 17th century Mughal miniature painting titled ‘Dying Inayat Khan’ (1618) that depicts an ailing and emaciated subject of the Mughal court. Inayat Khan, a mere combination of skin and bones, is portrayed ly-ing on a lavish deevan, wrapped in blankets and propped up against large, luxurious cushions. In Vine’s works, however, titled ‘Inayat Khan’ and ‘The Robe of Inayat Khan’ there is a stark absence of the body laying the entire emphasis on the objects. The former is a loosely rendered oil painting on canvas, in which Vine depicts a personal belonging with personal associations/meanings—a red silk shirt woven in her ancestral Kashmir with embroidered paisleys in gold thread—and attributes it to Inayat Khan. The fabric of the shirt and the motif of the paisleys (like other motifs such as the chinaar) are symbolic of Vine’s personal history and heritage. The shirt, strewn over possibly a sofa which is hidden from the viewer, covers the entirety of the surface save for a strip of the background on top rendered in soft brown and black hues. There is an impression of a body inside the shirt which is no longer there, adding to the ubiquitous idea of loss and absence in this body of work.
The latter is collage on paper, in which one sees a bundled up purple silk robe carelessly thrown over a brown cushion lying on the floor of an ordinary room. In the background is a partial view of a chair, table and a trunk covered with printed cloth. The edges of the cushion extend out of the frame on the left and right. Both the cushion and the robe are relatively larger than the other objects and positioned as if almost upright and floating in the environment. As a result, they appear to be superimposed on the setting, con-tributing to the artist’s narrative of irrationality and senselessness in the world around her. The dying and ghostly body of Inayat Khan in the original miniature can be interpreted as ominous of the decadence and death of Mughal rule, the eventual colonization of the subcontinent and the negation of our culture, history and heritage. Vine, however, very intelligently only appropriates the name ‘Inayat Khan’ with its connotations of death and decay and uses as a metaphor for cultural erasure and collective historic am-nesia.
Another work that piques one’s interest is ‘Pretty White Teacups’—an oil painting on canvas it portrays a white saucer with an emp-ty white teacup and two silver teaspoons only partly visible from behind the teacup. The objects are placed in the bottom right cor-ner and the saucer extends out of the surface. Viewed from the top the emptiness of the teacup is emphasized. The loose strokes following the round shape of the saucer, the hollow base of the teacup and extending into the background deliver a sense of circular motion and spiritual energy. The objects are symbols of the Victorian culture of elitism, snobbery and social propriety, which we rather willingly imposed upon ourselves negating our own cultural beliefs and practices. These objects also hold personal connota-tions for the artist in the context of marriage and dowry, where meticulous attention and grave significance was (and still is) attached to silver cutlery, crockery, laying of the tea trolley and tea time niceties.
In a black and white digital print titled ‘Through My Looking Glass’ one can observe a looking glass with a carved wooden frame cov-ering the entirety of the surface. The print due to its lack of detail and chalky blackness looks more like a charcoal rendering. Inter-estingly enough, there is no reflection in the looking glass save for a cloudy darkness. The title of the work and the emphatic empty darkness in the mirror lend a sense of emptiness and uncertainty to the work. In other works, Vine draws upon cartography and references the five rivers of the Punjab, directing our attention to our shared history of colonization, Partition, migration and geo-graphic borders.
Vine has used simple imagery to convey her ideas but it is the very simplicity and mundaneness of the imagery that compels us to look beyond the apparent and delve deeper into reading the works on multiple layers. Vine’s narrative and subject matter bring to the fore a grim reality of our nation: our colonial legacy of looking at ourselves as the colonists did. Our cultural, social and political identity and history has been dictated by the colonial/Orientalist narrative, and so have been our arts, languages, heritage, and ma-terial and visual culture. The Orientalists saw us as the ‘Other’, the inferior, the uncivilized, and therefore, the white man’s burden. Our dilemma today as a nation is that we continue to see ourselves and all that belongs to us through the same colonial lens. Vine’s work urges us to question our distorted perceptions and have a rational and meaningful discourse with our history. It urges us to take ownership of our past and present, and deconstruct, decolonize and recreate our identity and reality.