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A LANGUAGE THAT IS FRUGAL YET BEAUTIFUL

Not often do you see art of such stark simplicity here. Ayesha Sultana, who shows it at Experimenter gallery till June 26, has chiselled her language to the kind of meditative asceticism in her graphite-on-paper works that would make de Stijl appear verbose. In fact, so free of high decibels is the current suite, so studied in its persuasive enquiry, in its denial of concessions to visual furbelows that it’s hard to believe that it comes from a subcontinental, a Bangladeshi.

Sultana was born in Jessore but the young artist — she’s just about 30 — betrays no trace of the temperamental excess, the flowery gush one associates with Bengalis. The rigour of the work gives it a universality that says she could belong anywhere — or perhaps nowhere — in the world. If this be deemed a drawback, it must be remembered that the repudiation of regional specificity challenges an idea of the Orient subservient to and promoted by Western categories. It thereby interrogates traditional paradigms as the artist lays claims to be recognized as a contemporary voice without the patronizing qualifier of identity. And yet, interestingly enough, Sultana’s art references not only Western abstraction but, whether by accident or intention, the geometry of Islamic design as well.

To return to the works. It’s interesting that although they are described as graphite on acid-free paper, they are not, as readers may conclude, drawings. In fact, covering the paper completely with dense and dark graphite smudges overturns media-on-base assumptions so that each piece becomes what the critic, Edward Lucie-Smith, once described in an essay as “a single unity, not a surface upon which something is painted.” Thus its “unified gestalt” confronts viewers not with an image, however unexpected, but an object.

What kind of object? Labels are not possible here, but these works are wall pieces created by the action of smearing the paper with graphite, cutting it into rectangle tiles, relief-sculpting the surface with crisp folds and assembling the separate pieces. To say that she takes geometry as her starting point doesn’t say it all because what must be noted is her rejection of any kind of curve and circle for interlocking rectangles, triangles and diamonds and their rigid lines. Whether small (10” x 10”) or fairly large (63” x 83”), the shapes-within-shapes format yields optical games of how-many-of-which, an exercise both compelling and difficult to complete.

The uncompromisingly repetitive patterns that vary from work to work are, indeed, “spatial structures”, to quote the exhibition note, but in a process of continuous becoming, as it were. Because their precise geometric sequences are both contained in a finite rectangle and invitingly open-ended at the same time, self-multiplying. Particularly when, as in No VI, one corner of each square is raised to suggest a diagonal flow of energy. But the beginnings and ends can only be notional rather than logical and must lie Outside the Field of View, the title of the show.

And yes, simple viewing seems to have been relegated in importance to privilege an experience that’s quizzical and tactile, free of a search for meaning. The graphite layer isn’t seamlessly spread on, but allows uneven smudges to be detected. In one work, it cleverly forms a pattern of bands simply by the play of light on the vertical folds to evoke a stiff fabric. Light, obviously, is a calculated element; under its focus, the graphite takes on a metallic avatar in complete harmony with a dissonant industrial-construction milieu.

There’s another set of works based on photographs. Between what’s real — the photographed subject — and what’s merely its frozen image, a strange transference of value takes place through memory when the picture comes to be treated as sacrosanct, unimpeachable, authentic. The artist abrades the surface with scratches that are sometimes bitingly emphatic or cuts up the bromide paper and re-assembles the parts with slight skews and overlaps which dislocate perception. Her gesture of violating photographic images in different ways is subversive in its implicit resistance to the deference accorded to their unquestioned authenticity summed up in sayings like, ‘Pictures don’t lie’. But pictures become pictures only through the lie of being excerpted from a given reality and frozen in time.

A photograph of an obelisk—perhaps a memorial?—has been subjected to both ploys. The vigorous scratching has turned a (sentimental?) symbol of durability into a freakish, surreal film negative. It seems to be whittling down, whipped white, as though with guano. Could Sultana be insinuating that that’s all that remains of human attempts to preserve memory?