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Ali Kazim: Suspended in Time

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Ali Khazim, The Conference of Birds, 2019

2022 is the 75th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan, and from this month until the 26th of June the Ashmolean has on a solo exhibition for one of the country’s leading contemporary artists, Ali Kazim (b. 1979).

Ali Kazim: Suspended in Time shows 23 works including new pieces made from 2019-21, alongside objects from the Ashmolean’s collections which inspired Kazim’s work. The exhibition is the culmination of his time as Oxford University’s first South Asian Artist-in-Residence.

From the Conference of the Birds, my personal favourite in the show, a large five panelled monochrome watercolour that takes its name and inspiration from a 12th century Persian poem by Farid al-Din ‘Attar that tells the story of a group of birds on an epic spiritual journey in search of their king, to his Ruins series and Man of Faith series, these are extraordinary works of great depth. Items from the Ashmolean’s collections that inspired him in making these artworks are also on show.

The artist, Ali Kazim.

Professor Mallica Kumbera Landrus, exhibition curator and Head of the Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum, explains that Kazim’s practice engages with two rich seams of inspiration: the landscapes and ancient civilisations of Pakistan and the subcontinent; and the endless possibilities of the human body.

Landrus writes that ‘‘Ali Kazim has created a beautiful body of work for this exhibition. It offers a profound engagement with the Museum’s collections and the art and history of the subcontinent. Ali has a unique ability to make images that are simultaneously timeless and like nothing you’ve seen before.’

Kazim’s portraits, for example, set individuals against a plain background of saturated colour that highlights the figure with no unnecessary detail. His study of Rajput and Mughal traditions of South Asian painting are clear to see. And as a painter and potter, Kazim has long been drawn to ancient sites for their symbolic values and archaeological resonance.

Ali Kazim, Untitled from Man of Faith series, 2020

Ali Kazim comes from Pattoki in central Punjab, trained at the National College of Arts, Lahore and at the Slade School, London and returned to Lahore where he is now Assistant Professor. He has exhibited in group and solo exhibitions across the world and his work is held in major collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the British Museum and the V&A.

I found this exhibition inspiring. My first brief visit had me hurrying to learn more about the allegorical Sufi poem in order to understand more Kazim’s reimagining. I had stood in awe looking at the beauty of the flight of birds he’d painted so finely in subtle greys and blacks across five metres of paper - a flock of different species soaring gracefully upwards, led in their quest by a hoopoe. Few works of Persian literature have inspired the visual arts across Asia more than ‘Attar’s poem Mantiq al-tayr, which translates literally as the ‘language of the birds’ or as is better known, the ‘conference of the birds’, an essay in the exhibition catalogue explains eloquently.

On my second visit – it is a free exhibition to visit so this is perfectly possible – I absorbed myself in the connections Kazim had made to the archaeology of the region, especially the art of the Gandhara region near the foothills of the Himalayas in what today is northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan that so compellingly fuses ancient Buddhist imagery and that of ancient Greece and Rome.

Ali Kazim, Votive Offerings, 2020

Ali Kazim says: ‘During my artistic residency, the ability to see works closely, touch, and hold them, was an exceptional opportunity. To now be part of a show with works I have admired, and observed closely, is a privilege.’

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, says: ‘Ali Kazim is an extraordinary talent. He creates images that are all at once striking, exquisitely detailed and deeply moving. It is an honour for the Ashmolean to bring his work to the UK in this special year.’

Ali Kazim: Suspended in Time

Ashmolean Museum

Showing until: 26 June 2022

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue supported by the Elie Khouri Art Foundation.

Admission is FREE, but a free Museum ticket is required.


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