Zara Mahmood’s first institutional solo exhibition in the UAE merges light and time

For her first institutional solo exhibition in the United Arab Emirates, Pakistani artist Zara Mahmood studies and commissions stillness and a heightened attention to changing light and temporality in our daily lives.

Towards Time, curated by Cima Azzam at the Maraya Art Center in Sharjah, marks a turnaround in the practice of the artist who lives in Dubai. This body of work departs subtly but crucially from Mahmood’s established background in traditional printmaking, drawing and painting, slipping into the newer and more technological realms of photo transfers, video and prints. digital on unconventional surfaces.

The exhibition is housed in a large, airy room – located on the center’s newly renovated second floor – filled with natural light from the windows, softening the whites of the walls and floors. It’s the perfect backdrop for Mahmood’s minimalist and sparse yet deliberately placed artwork, whose visual intricacies emerge more easily on the surface.

At the entrance, a low-volume video of the artist plays, featuring discussions of his practice interwoven with scenes from his studio – a fundamental entry point to contextualize what lies ahead.

Many of these works were made in the last three years and their design and process can be traced back to a trip Mahmood made to the Satwa Fabric Bazaar. She began experimenting with photo-to-fabric transfers and, after placing the printed image on fabric near a window, was fascinated by how the light from behind unexpectedly affected the image.

Intrigued by the idea of ​​printing “moving” images that shift and change based on the impact of their surroundings, she tried printing on other surfaces available in her studio and home, such as mylar and ceramic tiles.

We see the results in works such as A place (2021), which shows gradations of light falling on a domestic surface, as digital prints on mylar, as well as Dimension (2020), a series of photo transfers on tiles that would be found in a kitchen or a bathroom. Originally shot in the Maldives, the latter depicts hazy, hazy clouds mingled with sunlight, like bright, scattered fires in a grainy sky.

The treatable nature of time is a key element in this body of work. Not only inherent in the meticulous printing processes undertaken by Mahmood, time is also explored in the artist’s video installations. Momentary (2018), for example, observes the transience and subtle shifts of light in time through the blinds of a hotel in Arizona. Meanwhile, the 33 minutes When I had the sea for me II (2019), which appears in dimensions similar to an enlarged phone screen, depicts a choreography between light and shadow in a video of sunlight dabbing the tide on the beach. It’s reminiscent of the meditative Instagram Stories or Boomerangs people post when they go to the seaside, gazing at the ocean and the sun in concert, eliciting a simple aesthetic and spiritual, near-universal enjoyment.

Installation view of Towards Time at the Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah.  Photo: Maraya Art Center

Mahmood is also a keyboardist and harmonist for the Dubai band Sail into Night. Thus, the idea of ​​temporality, and more precisely of tempo, is anchored in his visual practice and highlighted in the titles of works such as Frequencies (2020) and Listen (2019).

The sound is not present in the show, but rather suggested and gestural. In Cellular (2022), a cinematic montage of wall-wide digital prints, reflections of light are rhythmically arranged and repeated to mimic the stillness, harmony, dissonance and recurring patterns of a musical piece. In one segment, clouds and sunlight intersperse in a way reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot test; other shards of light fading into the background signify snippets of memory fading in and out of the present. The whole work is like a musical time-lapse of a remembered moment of solitude, causing a contemplative effect similar to that of, say, looking at a large-scale Monet.

Dr Nina Heydemann, director of the Maraya Art Centre, describes much of Mahmood’s work in the exhibition as featuring a kind of “digital impressionism”, using technological tools and what is readily available – household surfaces to desktop printer and phone camera – to achieve the same soft, poetic blur encapsulated in artistic movement. Impressionist painters were known to spend hours outdoors to distill the almost imperceptible progressions of sunlight onto their canvas.

Except Mahmood looks more within. With many of his works created out of and in the solitude of his studio during the coronavirus lockdown, the seed of Mahmood’s conceptualization for these works came from stillness and a focus on detail.

Nowhere is the idea of ​​capturing something ever-changing and impermanent from a place of isolation more salient than in Align (2020), a series of photomontages of video stills seen through a circular tunnel perspective, reminiscent of “the train-cinema interface associated with the early moving image”. The shrunken lens through which the images are viewed invokes the constraint and isolation of having to stay indoors, yearning for a new landscape.

Leaving Towards Time, Sharjah’s summer sun begins to materialize, as does the urge to spend time gazing at its diaphanous. Mahmood’s show embodies a notable point in the artist’s thought and career, but it is also an invitation to viewers to lean into their own intuitive impulses for more slowness and stillness – the same impulse gravitating towards us towards the soft aesthetic of seaside photos and golden hour selfies; those moments that make us pause.

In essence, Towards Time takes us to a more focused appreciation of the ordinary, something as constant and mundane as the sun streaming through our windows.

Updated: July 03, 2022, 06:48

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