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Abstracting from Myth and Memory. Review by Georgina Maddox

Saba Hasan, detail from a mixed media painting on canvas, 2008

The Aristotelian metaphor of catharsis, purging and purification, underpins the work of many an artist. In this instance however it is not an actor but a canvas that faces the audience. Bits of burnt text cling to the surface, ripped and sutured fabrics bearing nails that are driven into their very heart confront the viewer. The canvas exposes itself as a living being, unabashed and unapologetic in its trauma, tactile and yet not quite inviting one to touch. For Saba Hasan, art becomes a site of exorcising her inner demons and expressing her social and political concerns, seen through the prism of her own life. Her materials currently reflect subconsciously the concrete, nails and rust of the city.

The Delhi-based Saba Hasan came to abstraction from figurative painting, having formally studied the human body at studio drawing classes in Switzerland. However as ‘recognisable’ forms fell away, Saba found she suddenly had a greater sense of freedom. Figures had become a boundary and abstraction allowed her to move past into a new territory. One that was spontaneous, untrained and totally experimental. To trace back to the point when this process began and these elements first made their appearance into her lexicon, it was during the 2002 riots in Gujarat that Saba became more pointedly aware of her Muslim identity and she began to get a growing awareness of what her name and identity meant. The way people around her reacted subtly changed and this led Saba to foreground her multiple identities as Muslim, liberal and female especially in her work.

Saba had already chosen to retain her maiden name even after marriage to her husband Amit Kumar from a different community, but another choice she made was to use Urdu text as part of her visual language. “I actually speak and read English better than I do Urdu but I wanted to use Urdu as a political choice,” says Saba. What is also important is that the text is not religious, poetic or historic but contemporary text. Like personalised notes, letters and newspaper reports that foreground marginalised voices and human rights issues. The text anchors me in issues that are personal,yet universal, says Saba who sometimes uses literary references from writers like Ismat Chughtai, Kishwar Naheed and Mahasweta Devi.

Importantly though Saba does not provide translations of the text, instead she uses it as a piece of abstraction enmeshed with her personal issues and philosophical ideals. It’s like hidden roots that expose themselves to those willing to dig deep enough. Besides the canvases, Saba also works with actual burnt and distressed books as sculptural pieces. Text and poetry is born from her childhood memories of poetry reading sessions at her home that colliding with the urban dystopias that she constantly feels in her city.

Poetry also lends itself to sound and as a result some of her most recent experiments include sound installations. The sound installation, which has featured in this exhibition is titled “rehearsal for a poem” and it makes oblique and subtle hints to the violence in Kashmir where bullets are being exchanged for stones and poetry for the echo of gun shots into the night. There are lots of layers in this work and it needs multiple hearing, the poem and voice are the artists’ and it touches upon the domain of racial profiling, hope, music, conflict and war.

Underpinning all these different media is a movement towards natural and organic materials, like weathered grass, mossy and mouldy textures and weathered wood. “The move towards nature indicates that there is a larger world out there, a universe that is bigger than our human quibbles and obsession with weapons of mass destruction. My work is trying to embrace that larger life force,” says Saba, who creates her own richly woven mythsout of her personal experience and memory.


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