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In some ways, seeing an exhibition of abstract art is like entering a round of Fear Factor. This could happen with any kind of art, but abstract art is particularly unnerving. For me at least, the first reaction is sheer panic. In front of you is an entire exhibition that has made sense if not to anyone else, then to the artist and the gallerist. If it’s a reputed gallery and a good artist, then you know that what’s looking like a random jumble shapes and colours to you, is actually supposed to make sense. Except of course, it doesn’t at first. And here’s the thing: it’s not meant to, not at first. If it did, then it wouldn’t really be ‘abstract’ art, would it?

When I first walked around Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz‘s Active Door (currently showing in Mumbai), all I could see was a swarm of triangles, lots of indigo and white. These were mostly large works on paper that didn’t look like paper (she works on gorgeous, thick handmade paper).  Every work seemed to be a sign from the universe that I am a certifiable idiot who should just stick to reading Mills & Boons (though, I would like to state for the record, that stuff is damn difficult to write).

Having been through this a number of times, I know that while I am a bit of an idiot, if I get a grip and give the art on the walls a little time, things usually fall into place. The shapes stop looking so random and begin to reveal patterns. Colours start preening to catch your eye and connections between works glint in the gallery’s carefully-arranged lighting. So now, thinking back to Active Door, it’s strange to think that the first thing that struck me about the show isn’t how beautiful the paintings in it are.

It was, however, the first thing I noticed once I’d got past the Fear Factor stage of walking into an art exhibition. Active Door is an incredibly pretty show even if you’re just looking at the works as decorative wall hangings. The handmade paper is so thick that it seems to be as stiff as treated canvas. It can’t be rolled and it absorbs colour intensely. Against this fantastic paper, the paint is bright and bold. Some of the paintings, particularly those with indigo and gold, almost look like they’re enamel pieces. As a result, even though they’re made up of meticulously painted and arranged geometric shapes, the patterns don’t look fragile the way miniature paintings do.

Most of the paintings in the show are on paper that’s been dyed indigo. It was that blue that finally unlocked Active Door for me. Focus on the colour and the paper’s matt, unevenness and that indigo becomes reminiscent of the night sky or a deep sea that’s layer upon layer of dark, gleaming blue. And just like that, the lines and triangles in the painting before me revealed that they were, in fact, a trireme.

Argo, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

Argo, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

(I’d like to believe that I’d have noticed the trireme if I’d known the painting is called “Argo”. But there is no wall text in the gallery. So.)

Once you spot a form in an abstract painting, it’s impossible to unsee it. Some of Mumtaz’s paintings started looking like massive parchment to me, with hieroglyphics that are intriguing but not incomprehensible. The ragged, uneven edges and symbols that have relevance in past and present societies made these paintings modern ancients, if you will.

When I spoke to Mumtaz later, asking her to tell me about works, she said that “Argo” showed a boat, yes, but it could also be an upside-down tree. After she pointed it out, I could see what she wanted me to see, but for me, “Argo” remains a trireme making its way through the deep, blue sea; maintaining a safe distance from the jagged beauty of the yellow jagged rocks. (You might be able to tell that I rather enjoyed The Odyssey with its dark seas and blue-prowed ships.) Across from “Argo” hung the painting “Ladder”, which looks vaguely like a kilim or a prayer mat — another kind of journey, and both require individuals to become part of a collective.

There’s such a lovely tension between movement and steadiness in the triangle, a recurring motif in Mumtaz’s paintings. The triangle can be a vector, it appears in signage directed at drivers, and at the same time, sitting on its base, it’s seemingly immovable.  That elegant equilibrium quite obviously informs “Bark”, for instance.

Bark, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

Bark, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz

It seemed like a boat — considered a symbol of the soul in many cultures — in the rain to me initially. You can’t tell either the gorgeous, rich indigo blue of the paper in the photo and neither does the rich turquoise and gold come through. Yes, those beige/biscuit coloured bits are actually 24 karat gold. I saw “Bark” and I thought of a few rays of sunlight finding their way past monsoon clouds. The solidity of the upper part, with the solid colours, is contrasted by the delicate lines in the lower section. I love the thin curves below the line of the water that denotes the boat’s reflection in the dark, shimmering water.  Looking at the golden arrows striking the boat at right angles, “Bark” makes me think of the boat being at sea, but not necessarily lost. It’s anchored to its spot by that line of arrows.

Coming back to the triangles, look carefully at paintings like “Bark” and “Clashing Rocks” and there’s a little illusion at play that confuses negative and positive spaces. In “Bark”, for instance, if you focus on the turquoise, the indigo areas seem like the negative space but focus on the indigo, and the opposite happens.

That’s not the only thing Mumtaz turns on its head in Active Door. The trireme in “Argo” could be an upside down tree, Mumtaz told me when we were chatting about this show. In the Mumbai gallery, which has a nicely shiny floor, if you look at the reflection then it’s obvious that “Our Lady of the Door” is an upside down kurta.

Our Lady of the Door, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz.

Our Lady of the Door, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz.

Seen as it is, it’s the one actual door in Active Door. Like the Hanged Man in tarot, it’s not a bad thing to be the wrong way up in Mumtaz’s paintings, just as being at sea isn’t without its charms. It provides a new perspective.

This seems like a good time to describe Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz herself. She looks like she’s a foreign student, interested in South Asia — blonde, Caucasian, glasses, flowing skirt, silver jewellery. But her engagement with South Asia is more intimate and far from naïve. As a MFA student in Columbia University, Mumtaz’s works were very different from what we see in Active Door. The change in her style has its roots in her personal life. She fell in love with and married Pakistani scholar and artist Murad Khan Mumtaz. He paints in the miniature style and that, to some extent, influenced Mumtaz to make the smaller, terrifically neatly painted works like “Bark”. But there’s more that her husband brought to Mumtaz’s art. After they got married, Mumtaz spent a year in Pakistan, living with her newly-acquired family and trying to acquaint herself with Pakistani culture.

In the poem “My Indigo”, Li-Young Lee wrote,

“…You live
a while in two worlds
at once.”

That’s what Mumtaz does in the Active Door paintings. Islamic art is clearly the starting point for her geometric abstraction, and ideas from Islam have inspired a lot of her works. She mentioned how actually seeing the Blue Qur’an (whose pages were dyed indigo) had an enormous impact upon her. There’s a set of paintings in which the rosary is arranged like constellations against the paper.  One reason Mumtaz uses triangles is because of their symbolism in Islam — the upright triangle, with its peak pointing upwards, signifies human aspiration; the inverted triangle signifies heaven’s blessings coming down to earth.

There’s reverence in Mumtaz’s art for the influence that her time in Pakistan had upon her art, but there’s also a subtle sense of discomfort. There’s one work that’s a grid of triangles, but just one is a slightly different colour. Occasionally, one of the beads in the paintings of the otherwise perfectly-aligned rosaries is just a little out of line. There is an enormous effort, an emphasis upon decorum and discipline that goes into creating the neat patterns of triangles and the trireme. There’s nothing natural about the repetitions that show up in Mumtaz’s art — they’re careful and considered. It’s an interesting coincidence that the beautiful paper is unbendable. Perhaps there are aspects of her time in Pakistan that felt similarly unyielding.

Mumtaz doesn’t shy of saying that the year she spent in Pakistan was both extraordinarily enriching as well as a challenge. The art that has emerged is, in many ways, testament to both those aspects of the time she spent in Lahore. Yet, you don’t need to know her story to see the ideas at play in Mumtaz’s art. Those triangles and delicate but deliberate lines in Active Door are waiting for you to give them another layer of meaning.

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