Wardha Shabbir @ Grosvenor Gallery

Best-known in London for her intricate miniature paintings of leaves and natural life – having been shortlisted for the Jameel Prize and subsequently exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year –Wardha Shabbir is now using this imagery to comment on the paths we take in life. In her new exhibition Free State at Grosvenor Gallery, dozens upon dozens of tiny leaves appear on paintings and sculptures, reminding us all of how, like leaves, we are small, delicate and one of many. Gallery Girl spoke with Wardha about this new body of work and what a “free state” means to her.

Wardha Shabbir, In A Free State, 97(w) x67(h) cm , Gouache on Acid Free Paper, 2019. Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Can you tell me a little about this new body of work? 

Stemming from my interest in the myriad contradictions that inform human behavior, the path, or “Siraat,” has come to inform some of my recent work. Following this notion of the path, I take reference from the everyday ‘Maps’ that we see around us, both the physical markings and the non-physical realm of the mind. We construct maps almost about everything, not just to help us locate our own space, but also as a medium for marking, such as an incident, the future, and experiences. Various arrangements of foliage form relations with points, lines, and surfaces connect space to formulate the ‘organic geometry’ in my recent work. Similar to the foliage growing in these motifs, my journey as a Pakistani woman artist signifies abundance of growth. The elements of my subjective experiences create an interactive imagery that unveils itself gradually to the observer’s eye: formulating his/her own ‘visual vocabulary’. Having used surrounding spaces as a continuity of my canvas, I have moved on to create new ‘spaces’ within the paintings themselves, in the form of passages, enclosures and sometimes even light. The abundant use of ‘blue’ incorporates the element of light, a symbol of spirituality and connecting with the sky, referring to the free state of mind in which we don’t have any geographical boundaries.

Taking forward the technique of traditional miniature painting, influenced by gardens from my surroundings and the ones depicted in historic manuscripts, the linear organic compositions in my paintings respond to my contemporary concern as an artist: to invoke a thought-provoking process of demystification.

These leaf-lined Utopian pathways are a means of navigating oneself through the clutter of these possibilities and a course of clarity in the midst of contradictory values and states of being. Religious texts and their interpretations incline towards a fatalistic view regarding human life, however there exists at the same time the concept of choice – choosing right over wrong, eternal bliss over worldly and temporary comfort, self-sacrifice over self-centeredness. My laborious rendering of countless dots coming together as units to form an idea on surface is based on the “Nuqta” or dot symbolizing infinity. The dots join to form a line, which becomes a single, self-perpetuating medium of self-realization. The linearity of a path is the basis for a shape that can multiply and form a pattern, implying the path’s infinitude. Different configurations of well-trimmed hedges and other motifs represent the state of mind: the barriers that block our development, the path we follow through life, or the destination we aim for.

What does a free state mean to you?

Here I am more referring towards the free state of  ‘Mind’ where we are not restricted with any physical boundaries.

I got very interested and started looking at various geographical maps and their formulation while I was producing this body of work. We, as people living in this contemporary world – continuously mark ourselves with something – document our each and every destination. In one way we consider ourselves free but we are getting more restricted within these boundaries as well. For example to reach a destination we always use Google maps, which helps us to mark our geographical location and point us in the exact direction that we need to follow. I find these notions of our marking very interesting and I am trying to connect it with the marking that we make for our self-discovery as well. These symbols of pathways are helping me understand and evolve my own practice further.


How long does it take you to make each piece?

It takes many days to complete a painting; it depends on the hours I am giving to it everyday. Usually for a bigger piece its a whole month’s process. The technique that I am using is derived from the traditions of Miniature painting and it’s a very slow process in which you build one visual by placing various dots and marks next to each other. The process is so slow and repetitive that it has become meditative for me.

Wardha Shabbir, Map Of Mind, 43(w) x70 (h) cm, Gouache on Acid Free Paper, 2019. Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery.

What made you decide to move from paper to sculpture?

I never decide for myself, it’s the work that holds my finder and lets me decide where I am going further. My intention is to always challenge myself by using new mediums and wherever I feel that now I am in my comfort then I challenge myself with something new.

The sculptural pieces are indeed 3D but it has all the qualities of a miniature painting. Like if you look at the process of its construction it’s literally mimicked how I paint on the 2D surface. Special plants have been grown in the city of Faisalabad, which are identical to the leaves that I paint in my painting, then a very careful selection is made where plucking the leaves. That’s also done in only a specific weather and daytime. They go through various processes and then form these 3D objects as if my painting is coming to life.

If you look at the work carefully you will see a bridge between painting and the sculptures that is where the 3D paintings are coming in which I am giving various shapes to the frame of the painting, this notion can be marked as my evolution point.

Wardha Shabbir: In A Free State is on display at Grosvenor Gallery, 35 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6AY until 18 October 2019

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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