Nadia Khawaja chats to Time Out about her latest collections and how life in her hometown of Lahore has changed
A month after the Sri Lankan cricket team are shot at, leaving a bus driver and six police dead and on the same day that militants storm a police training academy, Nadia Khawaja tells us ‘these days are not so good’ in her hometown of Lahore. ‘It’s disturbing. But if you don’t switch on the TV, then it’s OK.’
Khawaja returned to Lahore in 2001 after completing an artist exchange programme in France. She was intent on getting a sense of her roots, so enrolled in a Kathak class, one of the Subcontinent’s classical dance forms. ‘I spent my childhood travelling back and forth to Pakistan, I’ve always felt very rootless,’ she explains.
The Kathak style is very natural, Khawaja tells us, distinct in the Indian pantheon of dance for its subtlety and focus on repetitive gesture. From her dance classes the artist became obsessed with practising the pirouette. This movement has transferred into her artwork, where we find complexly constructed, yet visually simple forms, with Khawaja using lines to pirouette across the paper.
For works that are just black on white drawings, there’s a richness to her creations – and she’s quick to dismiss the ‘minimalist’ label, despite being part of the Grey Noise collective, distinct in Pakistan’s art scene for its ardent minimalism. How does Khawaja manage to achieve something alive and inviting among all that white?
‘When I started looking into music and dance at the back of my mind I always had the intention to return to visual art,’ she explains. ‘I’d done video and sound works in France, but I now wanted to create a performance.’ During the period she was working on these pieces, Khawaja would wake before sunrise and practise yoga, arriving at her studio for six in the morning. ‘You’re very much in touch with your inner world at that time because you’ve just woken up. There’s a fresh energy about it, like something is about to be born.
A sense of possibility.’ Perhaps this is what gives these works their vitality and stops them folding into a world of pure monochrome abstraction. The strongest in thejamjar’s show are those where Khawaja has layered repetitive strokes of her pen into a tangible, almost solid, form. These evolving, undulating shapes shimmer on the paper. They grow and diminish and are infused with the calm, disciplined rigour of that time.
The repetition in each gestured stroke of her pen mimics a dancing rhythm. She’s hesitant to call it a meditative state, however: ‘It was like a received instruction in my mind,’ she tells us. ‘Do this, stop now, and so on. When I tried to visualise what would happen before starting on a work, I really couldn’t. It was like I was discovering the work in front of me, as it happened.’
These tubular, sound wave-esque forms are far more effective than the endlessly overlapping routes of artery or capillary-like constructions that also figure in the show. They have a spontaneity that the complex line pieces just fall short of, and which leave us slightly cold.
Still, the stronger pieces have a clear imprint of the discipline of that time about them. Most striking are the points at which two layers cross, causing a strange, dissipating fuzz on the paper.
Though only an optical effect, it’s as if we’re watching a reaction taking place in the charged moment that Khawaja captures. In ‘Drawing 20’ for instance, a funnel tapers into infinity, while through its centre a ripple bursts and follows the shape before disappearing out of sight.
It’s the same subtle rhythm that is at work in the best pieces of this collection. They capture the atmosphere of Khawaja at work – it is a performance, as she hoped to achieve, only in so much as the discipline of that period has ingrained itself peacefully within her creations. We see a quiet memento to an artist shaping themselves through discipline and introspection.
It’s a stark contrast with the Lahore around her right now, but she has captured a peaceful passage of air that blows through this collection, ready to be breathed in. As Khawaja puts it: ‘When the artist is creating the work, the work is creating the artist. And when the artist is shaping the work, the work is shaping her also.’