SABA HASAN: UNDECIPHERED FATES. Review by Indira Lakshmi Prasad


The artist outside her studio with a resin book sculpture being sent for multimedia her solo show


“Longing to escape the rain filled house with shuttered windows,

I try to open the book in which I am hidden” - Saba Hasan


Irreverent yet inestimable, ephemeral yet crystallised, Hasan presents us with a careful agglomeration of myriad art mediums. This eclectic collection of works is in the vibrant art hub of Lado Sarai at the Art and Aesthetic Gallery. The exhibition includes many of the book work pieces which have become a defining signature of her body of works, along with a potent video and a spoken word piece.


Having been deeply involved with representation of conflict and peace throughout her career, Hasan takes on the role of provocateur in her featured video installation. The video Burnt Book 6 is hand held camera work as Hasan herself sets light to a book placed on a rehal (book rest) with characteristically Arabic calligraphy. As a child of the USA- Middle Eastern era, my memory immediately harks back to the televised reportage of bold embittered young men torching flags, portraits and scriptures of the adversary’ an age old language of rage. In Burnt Book 6 we are presented with something else entirely. As the very first embers ignite and we watch the pages begin to sear and wilt with that unique kinetic energy of fire, we are presented with the base elements of physical reality. The paragon of ‘The Book’ stripped of all connotations as we are confronted with this visual journey of matter and form. From sacred and hallowed into the raw beautiful dance of the elemental energy as we watch the flames engulf and transform entirely. As the animated clot of pages bulges and the organic black mass heaves and crashes to the ground, we are left to witness the aftermath of soft grey ashes fluttering in the gentle breeze against the backdrop of green grass.


Hasan’s work is heavily preoccupied with a sense of the reclamation of nature. We dress and imbue so many physical objects to become almost mascot like of communities and societies in this world. Hasan takes us back to basics, in reminding us, the viewers, that humanity is but a spec in the timeline of the universe. All will be reclaimed and eroded by time, both by physical reality and the institutional complexities that humanity has created for itself.


The meticulous layering of materials in her wall based untitled paintings speak a language of both permanence and transience. Most of these magnificent pieces, both large and small scale, utilise fragmented vectors of textured paint, nails, shell fragments, burnt paper and building materials with delicate flashes of Arabic calligraphy. Like brief segments of events passed, it is as though each work narrates a piece of ‘aftermath’ too complex to hold a sigular narrative.


Still from Saba Hasan’s video, Burnt Book 6, 2014


Hasan’s work, though at first glance is gorgeously marred with the ambiguity and chaos of times passage, holds an undeniably rich sense of personal identity. She comes from a family of literary academics and states the influence which led to her choice of mediums in her latest exhibition. “These works are my experienced emotions, ideas expressed as intimate totems and memories … the art in them is what we believe in, what we live by, whats precious in life, what we deeply fear or desire, doubt nurture or protect…” Saba Hasan extract from ‘Undeciphered Fates‘.


By far the most powerful works in this exhibition are Hasan’s small assemblage pieces ‘Embalmed Book’ 1&2 and ‘Book in a Smashed Box’. The artist creates totemic micro - landscapes, with all three analogous of a grave. The language of abstraction between the various objects and the hinged coffin lid of the books/boxes encasing them share the same nod to morality and temporality, and to a peaceful sigh of expiration, frozen in time forever.


The aptly titled ‘Book Body’ pieces appear as anthropomorphised remains. The fossilised books are reminiscent of the charred and contorted human remains captured in the photography of human tragedies. Each one is delicate, unique and characteristically blurs lines between hardness and fragility. As well as the language of abstraction, Hasan explores the language of poetic spoken word in her piece’ Undeciphered Fates’ which is featured as an audio clip. Though spoken in English, the artist’s voice holds the rich tone of Northern India, with echoes of her mother tongue, Urdu.


Saba Hasan has received worldwide credit as a multi-disciplinary abstract artist, having won the Raza National Award for painting 2005, art fellowship from both the French Cultural Ministry, 2006 and the Oscar Kokoschka Academy, 2010. Her works received an honorable mention at the Mosco Photo Awards, 2013 and video works nominated for the Celeste Contemporary Art Prize, 2014. Her latest achievements include her photography work presented by the Japan Foundation, and sound work becoming a part of John Cage’s installation at the Met Breuer, New York, 2016.


‘Embalmed Book 2’ by Saba Hasan, 2015

© Saba Hasan

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