AISHA ABID HUSSAINfrom “Two Not Together" series, 2014, relief print on Somerset paper, 24 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Two, Not Together

Aisha Abid Hussain

Hanmi Gallery‚Ä®
UK Pakistan

Aisha Abid Hussain’s exhibition of recent works, entitled “Two Not Together,” was exhibited at Hanmi Gallery, in London, from August to September in 2014. In this body of work, consisting of photography, video, collage and prints, Abid Hussain delicately rips apart the institution of marriage.

A recent graduate of the MFA program at London’s Goldsmiths College, as well as an alumni of the National College of Arts in Lahore (where the artist is based), Abid Hussain gained international recognition for her inclusion in the 2013 Bloomberg New Contemporaries—an annual touring exhibition of recent art graduates in the United Kingdom. A glance at her resume also reveals that she has shown at museum exhibits in New York, Vienna and Delhi, just to name a few.

“Two Not Together” is an exploration of Abid Hussain’s interest in gender and power relations, which are recurring themes within her oeuvre. For the works in the exhibition, however, inspiration came from her family photo archive. The artist claims: “My keen interest in human relationships with one another and to one’s surroundings inspires me hugely. The series is a satire, an attempt to start a debate regarding the institution of marriage. It is an effort to investigate the idea of marriage—is it not becoming a utopian concept in the present time and age?” Making use of a text by Urdu writer Bano Qudsia that frames the Hanmi Gallery show, Abid Hussain quotes the author’s reasons for which a marital contract should be valid in today’s world. For reasons other than having children, Qudsia suggests that a marriage contract should be renewed every two or three years. The artist herself adds that a paper contract for two individuals sealing their romantic commitment to one another is itself an archaic concept. The work in this exhibit uses a variety of media that parody, spurn and scrutinize the conventions of marriage that are specific to cultural context.

The relief prints entitled “Two Not Together” (2014) are a remarkable set of works. The original photos that Abid Hussain’s prints are derived from are of her parents’ wedding. Five images, which originally captured moments of festive spectacle and ceremonial splendor, have been stripped of their photographic gloss and saturation and reduced to relief prints. The resulting images are rife with symbolism. Abid Hussain brings our attention to moments in life where there is heightened role-play: posing on a stage are a bride and groom, who one could perhaps say are “performing” their new status as man and wife. These moments that are so present in the Pakistani imagination, as seen in numerous vintage wedding photos that are often displayed in drawing rooms or shared on social media. In one print the blushing bride is simultaneously stunned and blinded by the photographer’s flash, and nearly swallowed by the heavy embroidery of her outfit. Another print shows the groom lifting an ornate dupatta (scarf) over the bride’s head as she casts her demure gaze downward. A third image features the groom posing with characteristic bravado, proudly adorned with a haar, or decorative wedding garland. The act of subtraction in Abid Hussain’s prints distills the pomp and ceremony associated with the colorful rituals of South Asian weddings, and instead asks us to consider a more bleak narrative, where something has been lost, faded or misplaced. Indeed, one is forced to look a little closer, to examine the nuances of the raised surfaces of the relief prints—the edges of which scatter into abstraction. The artist consciously evokes our nostalgia by virtue of the prints’ source material and subject; however, she does not build on their emotional drama or elaborate on any sentimental longing for the past. Instead she plays with the power of subtraction and suggestion, which she has done to desired effect.

AISHA ABID HUSSAIN, from “Two Not Together” series, archival print on Hahnemuhle photorag, 60 × 84 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

In the same series, there are four staged, color photographs that embody a different tone and take a more humorous and direct approach. The setting, again, is the shaadi (wedding) stage, which makes use of a simple yet specific mise en scène, as well as props that are indicative of social class and an explicit sense of materialism. Here, the artist employs a colorful shamiana (tent), as well as confetti and lights that are commonly used in festivities. In the same vein as other female artists who have used themselves in their work (the most notable example being Cindy Sherman), Abid Hussain poses as both the bride and groom in her photos. Her talent as a performer is striking in this series. Her facial expressions and physical posture range from deadpan and absent for the macho groom to a showy attitude for the bride, both of whom are poised for role-play on this perfunctory-looking stage. It is both the subtlety and the irony portrayed here that are illustrative of Abid Hussain’s sharp observations and critique. Of her work, the artist states: “The power politics between the two, apparent on the very day of marriage, is something fascinating to observe. In this series of staged photographs I am trying to create the nostalgia [that I] felt while looking at old photographs of my parents and other family members getting married. The photographs being the embodiment of a certain time and era—a celebration of ephemeral love without being aware of its future decay—creates an anticipated anxiety which I tried to capture in my work.”

It is in fact surprising that not more artists from South Asia have chosen to explore the territory of marriage and its associated rituals, especially since it occupies such an important marker in the local culture. Moreover, given this context, Abid Hussain’s work could have easily been about the excess and spectacle of marriage (which would have been a contrived path to take); but instead the artist chose to emphasize the parodic tensions of role-playing and power dynamics between the bride and groom.

The wedding photos of the artist’s parents also make an appearance in a set of digital collages entitled “Love is a Wasted Vigil” (2014). These works use different juxtapositions, including found images, to elicit notions of disaster, wreckage and isolation. These digital collages work on a more associative level, bringing together various motifs and concepts, such as the idea of disruption, which is currently enjoying popularity in the field of art discourse. These collages read very differently from Abid Hussain’s other works.

When questioned about the various media she has employed in her works, Abid Hussain states that “the leisure of being in the comfort zone of working with one medium [can set in and] stay there for a lifetime. I personally don’t like that comfort zone, and to be thrilled enough by my visual vocabulary I challenge myself to opt [for] new mediums.”

“Two, Not Together” presented a sharp critique on marriage—an institution that is foundational to the society that we inhabit—through Abid Hussain’s provocative and accomplished body of work. One can expect to see more exciting projects from this talented artist.