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What Memory Looks Like

Story by James Michael Starr
+ Photographs by Aqsa Shakil

Aqsa Shakil - Air Hose

Aqsa Shakil   Air-hose   2009   snow and ink on Wasli paper   21 s 13.5 inches

Many of us have a friend or two whose past resides in a place an ocean-and-a-sea away, to which they return for a visit at least once a year or so. I have several, with the ones from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the subcontinent seeming particularly hard-wired to make the trip.

Aqsa Shakil is another. Born in Tanzania and raised in Pakistan, her artist's statement observes with a dry wit, "Attached to my very bones is my international baggage, most of which is carry-on." Some of the residual images accumulated during all her traipsing back and forth are logged in passAGE, her show of paintings and drawings at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

Among the 14-part exhibition are five works on paper from Shakil's ongoing "rain paintings" series, in which she collaborates with weather fronts by laying out large sheets of Bristol under precipitation and to which, as moisture splats the surface, she adds ink from an eye dropper.

The wildly unpredictable and organic patterns that result ground these paintings, or cloud them, with a sort of landscape, and it is within that accidental world that she draws and paints her very intentional contribution in two different styles: geometric motifs, of Islamic origin, and realist renderings, in the style of Indian Miniature Painting; the latter made from family photographs, mostly of people whom, as Shakil describes it, she has "known, grown out of, or run into over the years."

She also writes, "My work has always had an underlying theme of relationships and memories." It's quite successful here, as her layering of technique, culture and hydrated chance produce a contact print of her own consciousness that one might say is dead on in capturing a sense of memory. Mimicking the foreshortening effect of hindsight, she flattens parallel universes that in real time it is likely were not only far apart but way out of sync. Maybe necessity is the mother of her inventions: just as, in life, she has had to reconcile Dallas with Lahore, she has chosen in her work to reconcile her current and past impressions of people, places and self.

Aqsa Shakil - Group Hug

Aqsa Shakil   Group Hug   2009   watercolor and ink on paper   61.5 x 45 inches

And, just as do memories, on their way here these works have crossed, and been transformed by, multiple, concurrent timelines like so many tracks in a rail yard (or transatlantic flights queued for take off). Shakil stated that the paintings begun earliest changed the most over time, grew more layers like thick foliage, compared to the later works that are more minimal, simpler and more pure; again, like memory.

Perhaps the most intriguing and beautiful of the five rain paintings is Group Hug (2009), what could at first glance be a still frame out of a psychedelic film from the sixties or umber micro-organisms, paramecium and single-celled life forms in the process of splitting into two. In their midst sparkle indigo rosettes that drip and melt like constellations seen through clouds, and at the bottom huddle five friends, almost lost under all this meteorological activity and giving the work its name. Is this an enduring recollection of best friends forever, or the bittersweet acknowledgment of how in real life things change? Either way, at least at that moment they were locked together, fortified against the coming storm.

In general, what may be most memorable about Shakil's work is a genuine intimacy and surprising transparency; not the American variety that goes too far, but a sort that because it is restrained and respectful seems more authentic, as well as considerably richer in contrast to her Old World reserve. It fits one who holds fast to her memories, maybe the result of so many personal items, including people, being left behind in airports.


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