Solo Show | Sana Arjumand


The Way of Love
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

I found Sana crouched over a painting on the lounge room floor. She looked up at me without really seeing me, her bubble of concentration unbroken by my entrance. A painting of many connected eyes and hovering birds emerged under her steady hand. I felt a bit reluctant to interrupt her creative flow, but I was there to view the new paintings of her Ascension collection, so a short break was unavoidable. As she took me through the work, there was all the vibrancy and technical accuracy we’ve come to expect from Sana Arjumand, which has garnered her critical acclaim, but there was something different about this collection. These images weren’t a search for an external identity, there were no haunting faces silently asking ‘who am I’; there were no flags, or any such symbols as these paintings weren’t making a political statement, nor were they explorations of a nationalistic nature. The images I was seeing were an examination of another realm altogether; a journey into the Spiritual.

This theme has been working its way slowly into her art, appearing first as a geometric backdrop, and then a crystalline hummingbird flittered across several canvases. This is the language that Sana has developed to communicate her ideas about Spirituality. The geometry in her work has come to represent the spiritual plane, the realm of light that lies congruent to our own earthly plane. And the birds that now hold such a central place in her work, to Arjumand they are beings of the angelic realm. She explains that birds are unique; they are the only creature on earth that can ascend to the heavens, and to her they represent a conduit between the sky and the earth. They symbolize help from above and her work depicts their subtle presence in our lives.
Spirituality, the subjective term that it is, means different things to different people. In the subcontinent, which is Sana’s context, this term evokes images of Sufi shrines, bearded ancients, wandering malangs – hands heavy with rings, eyes gleaming with the light of another realm. Sana, however, is not looking to her external context for inspiration so we don’t see images of temples or vagrant mystics on her canvases. She is searching deeper than her context; she is searching within herself, with the sparks of inspiration coming from mystic traditions.

One Pip From Heaven, for instance, is exploring the Hadith of the pomegranate. This painting is in reference to the Hadith, narrated by Abu Nu’aim, that “There is not a pomegranate [on earth] which does not have a pip from one of the pomegranates of the Garden [of Jannah] in it.”Arjumand interprets this in her images by differentiating one part of each symbolic pomegranate. Each round has one portion, the artist’s ‘pip’ that is somehow different, exclusive, from the rest of the painting.

Similarly in the painting In the Heart of the Tree There Was a Voice- I Belong with Him Sana is referencing the mystic story of the Oudh tree. The tale tells that the Oudh tree cried when Adam was sent down from Heaven, and so was allowed to join Him here on Earth. The heavenly Oudh is surrounded by a background of russets and dripping umber, which reminds us of the sweet-smelling tears of the earthly Oudh, man’s most prized perfume. This painting is also an expression of the love that the Oudh felt for Adam, so much so that it would sacrifice its place in the Garden to be close to Him.

Spiritual Love is a strong theme for Arjumand, explored in-depth in The Realization of Love. This triptych, painted in a similar pallet of reds and umbers to her Oudh painting, shows us the full drama of Love. The cycle of bloom and blossom represents the process of Love, petals opening and closing, yearning for the light, shrinking from the dark. In the central painting there is a white rose in the now-familiar geometric style that signals to us that this flower represents a higher state of Love – the purity that comes when the process of Love has lifted all your veils. You are meant to find that light in Love. To the left of the white rose is a representation of opposites – green and red – coming together in love to form a perfect bloom. To the right there are clouds and shadow, light and dark in existence together, a place where we lose consciousness of the self and get lost in the other; a place where we realize that the distance between you and your loved One is an illusion, because Love has lifted all the veils between you.

Veiling of Consciousness further investigates the theme of veiling, of peeling away the layers. This painting, which Sana was working on so intently when I arrived, is an image of many unblinking eyes that are being stitched by the ever-present otherworldly birds. These eyes are representations of consciousness, which as we grow from childhood is gradually veiled until as adults we have a chance to work at ‘unstitching’ the layers that cover us. In order to ascend, these veils must come down until we are back at the state of purity we were at birth.

The rebirth that happens when we ascend is detailed in the painting Nectar of Knowledge. When I first saw this work I thought it evoked something violent; there was blood, and it looked like two birds were somehow feeding off it. However in the context of Spirituality this painting represents the process of ascension. Below is the grey, the grinding that is necessary to refine the soul, then the flowers that come from that effort. However to ascend, to create the pure structure necessary to reach the highest levels, there has to be the purification of the ego self; the complete unveiling. Yes, there is blood, but it is the blood of birthing, and the birds? They are the ever-present angels there to assist and to ease the delivery process. Emerging from the scene is the purified structure, the simple, pure essence that is what we are at our core and how we ascend: the door there is devastation.

Before we ascend however, there is the epic struggle between light and dark. The Odd One Out details these conflicting energies, the tension of our existence – the dance between rejecting and accepting, between arrogance and humility, between hope and fear. This work sparked from the the story of Adam’s creation, when the angels were told to prostrate, but one refused. One had arrogance in his heart, and the result of his disobedience has painted our history with the great friction of light and dark. Both are necessary, because we must come through the dark in order to reach the light. Both hope and fear are required for our ascension. As the 13th century mystic and scholar Ibn al-Qayyim said: “The heart is like a bird: love as its head and its two wings are hope and fear.”

When we are thinking about hope and fear, it reminds us that we are not alone; the choices that we make have consequences. The Record Keepers evokes the feeling of opposites, one bird is in monotone, the other in brilliant color; one the geometry of the spiritual plane, one the manifestation of the physical form. The painting also reminds us of the two angels that are with every human being, and what their duties are.

This theme is continued in the painting Learning to Fly where we see the flightless black and white bird on one side, and the vibrantly colored bird on the other. This painting however conjures a different emotion, where there is almost an eagerness on the little birds face to become like the flying bird it looks up to. Sana has captured the eagerness of a seeker here, with the guide there to help the little bird learn to fly, to become free: free from the grounding of the physical. Geometric patterns in the background remind us that this lesson is taking place in a higher realm.

Between Water and Sky is a depiction of our creation from water. It also shows us the relationship between our existence in the physical world, and the unseen assistance of the other realms. Here we can see the different planes of existence – the higher and the lower – with the physical realm in the center. In the lower panel, a single ovum is sprouting a tiny blossom, which will one day grow into the botanical form that is in full bloom in the middle of the canvas, its trunk and branches markedly physical. It is coming out of the water, representing our aquatic beginnings, but its leaves and blossoms are ethereal, helped into being by the angelic bird who is there to assist all those seeking to make their spiritual bodies manifest. The angel is holding the threads to create a support system for our unveiling, providing a link for us to the Heavens.

On earth, the places that are most closely linked to the Heavens are mountains; these places, where the air is thin, are where spiritual people of all creeds have always gone to seek Communion. The Mountain of Light – Jabal-Al-Noor looks at this connection. It is not only that mountains are closer physically to the Heavens, but in these places the veils seem lighter; you have to leave the burdens of daily life behind as you ascend to the mountaintop. The higher you climb, the more you leave behind. And the majestic bird in the painting is there to remind us that those who seek connection will be helped.

At the end of my visit, standing at the doorway to say goodbye, I’m struck by how much these images have made me reflect, of how they sparked an internal conversation within me. So when you look at these images, don’t think of them as static; they are a living, breathing invitation for you to look inside your own self, and start the journey towards your heart. And don’t be afraid to fall along the way, because how do we learn?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.