Critique | ‘Braid’

Lord Mayor’s Pavilion, Cork; September – 1 October 2022

Samir Mahmood, Ewer Issues, 2022 [detail] image transfer on panels, acrylic paint, crinoline tubing; photograph by the artist, courtesy Sample Studios. Samir Mahmood, Ewer Issues, 2022 [detail] image transfer on panels, acrylic paint, crinoline tubing; photograph by the artist, courtesy Sample Studios.

The group exhibition, ‘Braid’, is a collaboration between four artists, developed during the Covid-19 lockdown. Samir Mahmood, John MacMonagle, Edith O’Regan, and Amna Walayat all live in Ireland but have different cultural backgrounds. South Asian aesthetics are blended here with a western visual lexicon, and this activates the space in unsettling ways. There is solidarity and friendship in the enterprise, made palpable by the common theme of loss, which is felt and treated differently by all. 

Amna Walayat shows three self-portraits in the style of modern neo-miniature – a traditional Pakistani painting practice¹ revivified by modern artists, who eschew historical rules to fabricate their own narratives. In Self-portrait with Lock, a veiled Amna in profile holds a tiny padlock; her wrist is tethered by a ribbon that drifts out of the picture frame. In Building a Home With Thread, Amna is in a sumptuous setting, but is enmeshed in a cat’s cradle of thread, suggesting domestic entrapment. In the final portrait, Amna has a luxurious moustache, no veil, but holds up a long, sharp, threaded needle. Standing back from the work, it is clear that the threads have significance – they expand each painting into three glass jars of formaldehyde that lie beneath the works and below the normal line of sight. The result is disconcerting. What is lost here, and what is preserved? Walayat’s work is about gender, race, tradition, migration, identity and belonging. By employing self-portraiture and triangulating between herself, the frame, and the symbolic objects that she holds, she is foregrounding the loss of agency felt by minor categories in every culture, conjuring a model of cross-cultural empathy. These paintings are intriguing, arresting, and exquisite. 

Edith O’Regan utilises gold leaf, gold wax, gold, dyed thread, and blown glass. Her visual language is abstract and spare – a contraposition to the neo-miniature style. Like Walayat, she has made a cage of thread. See how the unknown merges into the known, is a wooden, hand-dyed indigo silk and gold thread sculpture. The artist’s intention is to document and to invoke memory. She is interested in the unconscious human mind and how this affects perception. In On a day when the wind is perfect, she echoes some of the decoration of neo-miniature by inscribing personal symbolic markings onto a gold circle, thus thrusting the viewer into a state between reading and looking, thereby transcending the limits of conventional language. The work conveys something ineffable. Final Breaths (a requiem) is comprised of 22 suspended blown glass orbs. The amount of air in each orb correlates to the quantity of air in a human breath. This commemorates the last breath of 22 health care workers who sadly died as a result of Covid-19. 

Samir Mahmood is a multidisciplinary artist who exhibits digital collages, and artworks that incorporate photographs into Indo-Persian miniature painting through acrylic image transfer. Using traditional methods on panel and canvas, the paintings are full of symbolic motifs. The result is complex and intriguing but also incendiary. The subject of the queer male body would never have been acknowledged in traditional miniatures, and so this work calls out the broken narratives of patriarchal and homophobic societies. It mourns the resulting loss of agency and personal sovereignty. It critiques cultural, legal, and moral fictions, and yet the work is sumptuous and beautifully crafted – these images are objects of contemplation and objects of desire.

John MacMonagle’s mixed-media sculpture and paintings invoke the tree from Waiting for Godot, which symbolises a world that is meaningless. This is existential nihilism – a painful feeling familiar to anyone who lost a loved one in a care home or hospital during the pandemic. MacMonagle works in acrylic on canvas and paper; his marks are broad sure lines made with a thick scratchy brush, very different to the tiny brushes of miniature painting. He repeats the same imagery in the same colourways and style, evoking repetitive prayers – three small black plastic bags tied with red ribbons, the sum of a life. MacMonagle seems to support a defiant and important voice: power is illusory in the face of a pandemic.

Jennifer Redmond is an artist and writer based in Cork.

¹ Miniature painting is characterised by tea staining and layering of colour and gold, methodically applied to handmade wasli paper. The colours are luxuriant, the work is highly decorated, and lines are made with purpose and meditation.