The real significance of Rabia Ajaz’s work is not about flowers, stems and petals you see in her paintings but how the same image changes its meaning with time
Gone are the days when one used to go to parks in the company of others and notice various footwear. Now, in the age of social distancing, self-isolation and personal security, facial masks get all the attention due to their design, effectiveness and longevity. They have become our new identity – a dominating part of our features.
On the morning of Rabia Ajaz’s exhibition, I met the artist and discussed her work while both of us remained behind our masks.
These stretches of fabric were recalled again, stepping into her installation. A dimly let space with paintings of flowers, petals, stems; all rendered carefully on black surfaces. In the dark background, you start seeing the architecture of a flower, and begin to compare it with a tri-folded face mask. In some deep recess of imagination, the delicate layers of petals and the thin material of a surgical mask converge. Both remind one of decay, disease and death.
These painted flowers, broken, wilted, or disintegrated petals – in another way connect with facial masks, which lose their form (or beauty, if you prefer), their utility, value, and are thrown away after use.
Sometimes you spot these abandoned covers at public sites, much like petals on pavements, trampled and turning into trash. The faded beauty of a withered flower is hardly remembered, and a flaccid mask is soon forgotten. Because other flowers/masks replace the ones tossed in the bin, or dropped to the ground.
One wonders about the choice of flowers, as the main – actually the only –motif in Rabia Ajaz’s installation. To some extent, these paintings become repetitive and predictable as they represent stages and states of flowers. However the question becomes more pronounced. Why flowers?
Flowers, like sacred texts, have multiple meanings for mankind. They are pretty, colourful or emanating fragrance. They are fragmentary, too, once plucked and pressed into bits; and short-lived as they shrivel and perish in days.
Flowers are used for several contrasting purposes. Sent to lovers, placed on coffins and graves, for decorating interiors and for rituals and religious ceremonies. They are also used as ingredients of culinary or medicinal recipes. In Rabia Ajaz’s work, flowers denote disintegration and destruction. Cut from the stem, crumpled, dismembered, these suggest the present circumstances, of death – via decay.
Ajaz has been fascinated by decay. In the past, she created a site-specific work (Immaculate Decay, 2017) in a house about to be demolished. She intervened through enhancing the atmosphere of decline, by adding various pictorial patches into electrical fittings, pipes, windows, wall plasters – all deteriorating, decomposed and dysfunctional.
That body of work, had a connotation to human existence, because a house is a man-made structure. Damage to the house, once documented, signifies the state of its inhabitants. In a way, an individual’s house is a substitute for his/her body.
Likewise, flowers in the house are identified with his/her soul. Because in comparison to the house (with electrical/mechanical facilities), flowers do not provide any material pleasure.
You can spend an entire life without flowers. But can you? Sculptor Henry Moore was once asked by an English peasant, his neighbour, the reason for making huge art pieces. “Same as for you growing flowers in your garden!” Moore replied.
Flowers, like art, are the aesthetic side of life, with no practical purpose, yet we require both, because they make us see a bright side of life, fill us with happiness, add hues into our mundane existence – but more than anything else, remind us that we need things we do not need.
For this reason, perhaps we associate emotions, and relations with flowers, more than with structures built in brick and mortar. We do not forge our passions, feelings, fears, desires, dreams; these are part of our nature.
So is the case with flowers, which are part of our existence – and nature. We admire, grow, and witness these soft, light and fragile specie; and occasionally try to ‘know’ them.
Flowers in Rabia Ajaz’s work and words are about relationships, about love. However, these do not present a positive or pleasant side; bringing to mind the title of Brazilian author JP Cuenca’s novel The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story Is an Accident.
Probably her work (some titled, Crumpled Love Letters, The Bitter Half, I’ll be Alright) addresses a deeper chord of human interaction, in which a relationship comes with its end in sight.
For her the depiction of mutilated flowers, scattered petals amid dark abyss is a symbol of survival as well as decline.
Interestingly, this body of work created in 2019for showing on March 21, 2020, is seen differently now. In the days of pandemic, her installation A Still Descent, (opened on June 3 for three weeks), can be understood in a different context.
The dismembering of human relations due to temporal and temperamental impulses seems a thing of the past.
The real significance of Rabia Ajaz’s work is not about what you see in the paintings – flowers, stems, petals – but how the same image changes its meaning with time, and without the effort/involvement of the artist. This leads us to a bigger query: in what way can this collection be viewed in history - a record of Covid-19 (not intended by the artist), or an essay on the fragility of emotional bonds?
How do we see the work at this point in our lives: from the lens of the immediate, or through the tunnel of eternity; physical death or emotional demise – or just a variation of flower paintings on the walls as part of an installation in a dark room?