A week before Noorjehan Bilgrami’s exhibition Under the Molsri Tree opened on May 18, the Pakistani artist visited the Islamic Art gallery to look over the tentative layout for the four mixed-media works mounted on the back wall. She stood back with her hands on her hips, and told textile curator Sara Oka that she wasn’t happy with the spacing. Oka offered to run for a tape measure. That wouldn’t be necessary said Bilgrami, who simply walked up to the wall, unfurled an arm’s length of her green dupatta, and began measuring out even breaks between the works.
Like the patterned scarf flowing off the shoulder of her green kameez, or traditional tunic, the two-dimensional wall pieces are extensions of Bilgrami herself, depicting the trees of South Asia, the mountains behind her childhood home in Hyderabad, her beautiful aunt, her grandmother. Represented in creamy acrylics, graphite silhouettes, and old sepia-tone photo prints, these memories were first conjured up by a smell she encountered a few years ago that whisked her back to blissful days of playing beneath a flowering molsri tree—or maulsari, Mimusops elengi—as a child in central India. Visitors can see the whole exhibition through Sept. 3.
A seasoned, Karachi-based artist and educator, Bilgrami flew 30 hours—from Karachi to Dubai to Hong Kong to Tokyo to Honolulu—with her nine predominantly paper works securely packed in her luggage, to be a part of the delicate process of mounting and installing them. But in spite of Bilgrami’s deep, personal connection to her works, they are more than intimate windows into her life. They inevitably become ambassadorial as they bridge what Bilgrami describes as “a big barrier between the cultures” created by the “very negative, very wrong image” that Western media perpetuates.
Bilgrami herself furthers this diplomacy with educational events. In addition to the exhibition, the museum and partner Shangri La: A Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design presented a full slate of programs. The artist gave docent talks, a workshop and talk on indigo dyeing at our Art School, and a textile lecture at Shangri La, where she was artist-in-residence from May 3 to 19. She sat down with us in the textile department last week for an interview, in which she reflected on the journey through time and memory that is Under the Molsri Tree.
How did you become interested in mixed media? Were you trained in one medium first?
I’ve always worked with mixed media, although I studied traditional oil painting. I went through academics working with oil. But acrylic is a very convenient medium, which allows you to take it almost as thin as a watercolor—it’s a great mix between watercolors and oils. You can build it up to any thickness in the same medium. I like working with acrylic, but in this particular lot of work that I’ve brought, I’ve also got some works that I’ve done with indigo dye, because I also work with textiles. So here there’s a mixture of using indigo dye on paper.
Did you produce the different styles on view through a gradual process, or through a preconceived idea that you executed intentionally?
I would say that it is a gradual process. It evolves as one thing leads to another. You pull something from your previous practice and bring that back into it.
And in some cases here it was going way back and pulling family photo albums.
That’s right. My daughter was making a documentary film, and she was looking through the family albums from her grandmother and when I was revisiting those photographs it took me back to my own childhood. There is a big contrast in what has happened in the last 90 years, for example, between now and what was happening in my grandparents’ time. So it was echoing and pulling things from that time into what is now, the present, and sort of layering and looking through the memory and that narrative.
Thematically, these works deal a lot with memories and journeys. Could you talk about what those mean to you, and how they overlap as journeys become memories?
They definitely overlap. They are connected, as it is when you go down your memory of the journeys that you have taken. In my past, I was born in Hyderabad, India—that fairly land-locked area in central India, and I moved to Karachi, which is a port near the sea, like Honolulu. It was a change, a cultural difference. The countries are similar but the environment was totally different. I am always drawn to sort of distant horizons, and the sea, and how the land and the sea at a point become one. There are layers that take places there, and it’s like your own past.
You referenced the similarity between the two cities, Karachi and Honolulu—any work dealing with the sea definitely resonates here.
It’s great being at Shangri La right now, and to be right at the ocean with the crashing waves right there.
And yet, still amid Islamic art and architecture.
It’s interesting, coming all the way to Honolulu and staying at Shangri La. I’m looking at the Islamic craftsmanship and arts from Syria, India, and Egypt in a completely different locale. The juxtaposition in a completely different space—that is surreal.
Have you reflected on the coincidence of showing your works at the museum while another Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander, also has work on view?
I have seen her work, but I have yet to see the gallery. It’s my very first time to the islands. I’m really quite captivated by the whole place. It’s fantastic.
Have you been able to look at any of the traditional arts here, like Hawaiian textiles and paper-making?
I’ve not really. I’ve been experiencing some here, and [in the textile vault] spending a lot of time looking at lovely kimonos. Are there markets here where you can by traditional paper and cloth?
There aren’t really commercial outlets for the kapa. But woven lauhala items from pandanus trees aren’t too hard to find. There are active weavers, but traditional works like the pounded kapa mats are harder to find.
It’s the same story everywhere.
With all the family photos and layers of your own history bound up in Under the Molsri Tree, how personal is the exhibition for you?
Very personal. The fragrance and smell of flowers is something—the olfactory sensory nerve that we have is very strong—and it was strange that this series of work was actually sparked off by a certain smell of flowers that I came across in a place which had no connection whatsoever with my childhood. Then I am saying, “What is this? Where is this smell coming from that’s taking me back so many years?” I played with these flowers under the tree many, many, many years back. All that time has gone. So it was the fragrance that took me down memory lane as well.
Have you recreated any smells in the works?
That’s what somebody else came and asked me, “Can you not do that?” I said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea.” But it wasn’t just the smell. It led to opening up so many vistas and peering back into myself as a young child, and what the smell of the bark must have been, and the smell of the earth as we played with sand and red dirt in that area. It’s a whole series, and there’s the tactile thing, too. You play with the natural materials in a way that’s much different than playing with electronic toys, which you see the children working today.
You have several educational components to your trip here, and in Karachi you run the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. How important is education to you?
I’ve also showed a documentary film about a traditional textile that goes through 31 different stages and washed in the river each time it is printed. Pakistan has fantastic archaeology history, our reference goes back to Kot Diji, which is like 5,000 B.C., and the Indus Valley civilization that was about 3,500 B.C., and a lot of crafts stemming from there are still there as living traditions, carrying on the crafts.
[Education is] very important. There’s a big barrier between the cultures, and very little knowledge of cultural aspects shared about other countries. I think we are more tuned into what is happening in the West, because of the media—definitely we know more about what’s happening here than the people here know about what’s happening in the East. It’s a very negative, very wrong image [of Pakistan] that comes through all the time. That’s what the media wants to play up. Pakistan itself geographically is an amazing country. We’ve got two of the largest mountains in the world, and in a small space have lots of minerals, and the Arabian Sea, and the Indus River civilization, then Gandhara Civilization, then Taxila archaeological remnants in the Buddhist period—there’s a lot happening there.
So do you see yourself as an ambassador of your country, or is it a more personal mission?
I wouldn’t put myself on such a high note. It’s a short period, and I’m learning as much as I’m sharing. It’s a two-way process that depends on the learner and the giver.
What kind of experience do you hope visitors have?
It’s actually very small. It’s a tiny space that we’ve got, but I am hoping that it will create an interest in the country in some degree, and I hope from here we are about to bring a more inclusive, cultural exhibition. I am keen to work towards that, so Pakistan can be given more exposure, rather than just through individuals.
I want to use this forum to thank the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for inviting me here, giving me this opportunity, otherwise who would? Traveling 30 hours to come to another country, and it’s absolutely beautiful and stunning. I am so fortunate to be staying in this most prime location of Shangri La. The people are warm and lovely here.
Noorjehan Bilgrami: Under the Molstri Tree is on view now through Sept. 3.