London (London Bridge, Speak Easy)
Working in the traditional medium of miniature painting, Pakistani artist Maha Ahmed composes intricate, otherworldly scenes that reflect on her personal experiences and wider issues relating to culture and identity. While Ahmed's previous works were largely preoccupied with the relationship between the other and the self, her latest series marks a shift towards a more interior focus. Created during the early months of becoming a mother, each painting visualises different states of interiority as the artist attempts to navigate her new, shifting sense of self. In this sense, The Spaces Between, Ahmed’s third solo show at Kristin Hjellegjerde London, serves as a kind of map, tracing the artist’s journey into motherhood and towards a new sense of wholeness.
While the artist continues to conjure the same otherworldly imagery rendered in a bruised colour palette that pairs fleshy tones with deep shades of blue and green, this series possesses a new sense of stillness and light, a feeling of hope and progression. In works such as Almost home or Where two worlds come to meet, the landscape appears suspended within negative space, almost as if it has become somehow untethered from its original context. This impression is strengthened by the hard, straight edges of corners, where the image appears to be contained, or restricted by some invisible boundary. Yet, in both works, the landscape also expands beyond this boundary: the leafy branches of the trees extend into the space, creating a sense of softness and irregularity while also hinting at notions of fertility and growth. This contrast creates a captivating visual tension which also reflects the artist’s experience of adapting to a new identity. ‘Since becoming a mother, I feel as if I am searching for myself within a new environment. While I have gained so much, I have also lost parts of myself and for me, this series is about negotiating the complexity of that experience and the uncertainty that comes with it, of finding myself in the spaces in between,’ she says.
The painting titled Unfolding of dreams perhapsmost clearly articulates the artist’s feelings of apprehension. Here jagged pieces of rocky landscape create a fragmented kind of maze within which a dragon lies hidden in a leafy outcrop while a lone bird hovers at the edge as if contemplating its journey through the unwelcome terrain. Ahmed sees the bird, throughout the paintings, as a symbol for herself and where there are two birds, as in Almost home, they represent two halves of the same person: the interior self and the projection of self, the person she has to be for others coming together in a kind of imperfect reflection. In Where two worlds come to meet, for example, the birds are joined together by their beaks but only one has its wings raised while the other is standing just outside of where the boundary of the landscape would be whereas in the work titled An ocean between the birds are separated,the distance between them highlighted by an undulating, silvery-blue body of water.
As the show progresses, the relationship between these two parts fluctuates from a profound disconnect that evokes a sense of sadness and loss to something closer to harmony or reconciliation. The painting Perhaps in time gestures towards the latter in its title and through the composition. Here the birds appear to be ‘meeting’ and though they are not physically touching, their wings are flung upwards in the same pose that suggests if not joy then at least a sense of openness. Significantly, this is also the only work absent of negative space: the whole canvas is filled with an inky blue, nocturnal landscape with a central pathway guiding the eye on a visual journey from the bottom of the canvas to the top. For Ahmed, art-making is the space in which she feels safe and able to connect freely with a sense of self without expectation. For this reason, she felt it was important to bring her daughter into the space and to allow her to make her own marks using crayon. The artist took these rudimentary lines as the structure for her composition by then painting the spaces in-between, creating a very raw and instinctive form of creative dialogue that, like the pathway, also signals a way forward into the future.