The Green Room

An exhibition by Nazia Ejaz

All that Glitters, 2016, Gold leaf and oil on linen

Artist Statement

I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it. — Maurice Merleau-Ponty

My work is about binaries that permeate the multiple levels of our social perceptions and interactions. ‘The Green Room’ examines themes of perception and identity.

How an individual perceives and relates to the social environment, the idea of connection and separation is the basis of my work. I use geometric patterns in my practice to suggest an external order or organization enforced onto the surface of the canvas. These patterns, derived from my cultural heritage and cross-cultural life experiences, continue the theme of screens that has been a part of my practice for a few years. The grids are metaphors for filters that influence our perception and control our response to that which is different. The patterns speak of tradition, of order and categorization. Through my work, I attempt to explore points of separation and dualistic modes of seeing, looking and representing.

I use mirrors, shadows and repetition within my work to create images that seek to challenge the preconceptions that we as viewers bring to the artwork. The mirrors are a pause in visual time and the augmented reflections of the audience complete the artwork. Mirrors are also an allusion to the third space, created through migrations, where the new alters the old and gives rise to a different real, in-between or hybrid space.

Repetition is a meditative practice within my work. The idea is to break down conscious thought about a subject through repetition to a point where the process and materials allow the artist to access deeper knowledge. for me, the act of repetition allows a certain freedom of though outside linguistic formulations, into abstract territory.

Through the use of colour, light, mirrors and repetition, I am looking to create a space for reflection, an opportunity for the viewer to engage with the cultural signifiers and patterns that shape how we as individuals relate to our environment and ultimately, to that, which is different. ‘The Green Room’ invites the audience to look past the surface of the painting to the meaning of its creation.

Essay by Dr Andrew Dearman

The symbolic motif of the screen has attracted the attention of writers, artists, and philosophers from a variety of cultural backgrounds for millennia; perhaps less so for what they are, than for what they do. These current works of Nazia Ejaz, which share this interest, initially evolved out of a consideration of Jaali, the delicately carved and highly ornate stone screens within windows that moderate the natural elements of temperature and light. The Indo/Islamic architectural device keeps out and keeps in, and in the process of ordering the environment produces something else. Similarly, the motif of the grid within these paintings operates as a screen that filters and constructs and constrains.

These complex works presented here speak to notions of cultural difference and similarity, to constructions of gender and identity in front of, behind, and within a problematic screen. Although it has a complex history, within the theatrical tradition, the Green Room is the space that the actors occupy before moving onto the stage. It is in effect a liminal space between the real and the imaginary in which they ‘get into’ character. It is a point of crossing over — a space of separation. The use of the term within this exhibition refers to how culturally constructed spaces of separation operate as makers — not merely markers — of identity.

One of the earliest narratives concerning artistic technique and the mastery of the natural world consisted of a double screen motif in the story of two Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. In what appears at first to be an art historical one-liner by Pliny the Elder, Parrhasius invites Zeuxis to examine a painting that appears to be covered by a thin curtain. As Zeuxis attempts to pull the curtain aside, his fingers scrape across the surface of the painting — a painting of a curtain. We see this motif of the curtain used repeatedly throughout the history of painting. More often than not, it operates as a marker of the notion of a revelation or a disclosure, however the story also points to a curious valuing of illusion and deceit — a celebration of a lie. The notion of the screen, the surface, the threshold, and more importantly, the notion of crossing over from one state to another is present everywhere, even in popular culture. The space of the gallery here becomes the space between the curtain and the canvas — a space in which mirrors operate.

I once found an interesting children’s book called ‘Bunchy’ in a second hand shop. Written in England in the 1950s, the five short chapters described the imaginings of a young girl called Bunchy, who when left home alone by her Grandmother would engage in creative play through which she would leave the confines of her present existence and enter into the space of her imagination. In one chapter, in which her Grandmother leaves the house to go shopping, Bunchy is left with some old magazines and a pair of scissors to play with. The people in the advertisements within the magazines are cut loose from the confines of the page with the scissors. They then come to life, become life size, and dance around the room in her imagination, only to disappear back to the two dimensional surface of the remnants of the pages from which they came, at the sound of the return of the Grandmother — the return to order and control.

An illustration from another chapter in the book describes the moment when Bunchy crosses over the liminal threshold of a piece of paper into an imagined space that she has made real through the act of drawing. Left home alone again, Bunchy has drawn a house with two adults standing in front of it. The illustration of the house and the people that we see is drawn in the style of a child’s drawing. The piece of paper on which the drawing is made is presented as a material object. It has a border. The edge of the piece of paper on which the drawing is made casts an imaginary shadow onto the page of the book that we look at. The corner of the piece of paper on which the drawing is made curls up, pulling away from the page of the book that we look at. It is clear that we are looking at something other than the page of the book. We are looking at a drawing of a drawing. This curious repetition has the effect of seducing us into the space of the imaginary. On the left side of the page of the book that we look at, we see Bunchy drawn in a slightly more realistic style which is consistent with all the other illustrations within the book. She is in motion, one foot within the imaginary space of the drawing that she has created, and one foot on the page of the book that we look at. It is a simple illustration within a children’s book, which describes an incredibly profound moment — the crossing over from the space of lived experience, into the space of the imaginary. This drawing of a drawing seems to refer back to something at the heart of the story by Pliny the Elder which doesn’t really get mentioned — the impossible space between the canvas and the curtain.

This idea of the surface — that which distinguishes the point of separation between here and there, now and then, you and me — has been a profound motif within the arts and elsewhere for thousands of years. It crosses cultural boundaries, and it is also used to describe and critique cultural boundaries. Within language itself, the surface/screen/filter of identity is performed by words described as ‘shifters’ such as ‘you’ and

‘me’. These are the words that move the site of the speaking subject back and forth within dialogue — like an image of the self moving back and forth across a piece of paper, canvas, or mirror.

While Nazia Ejaz has drawn on a broad range of complex personal experiences within these works, one particular text that informed her thinking was ‘Of Other Spaces’ by Michel Foucault. Foucault describes complex contradictory spaces that are both real and imagined all at once. In one part of the text, the author shifts to an incredibly poetic style of writing, making use of the motif of repetition, something which is necessary to describe the phenomena of the mirror as a real/imaginary space which constructs ones sense of self. His one sided use of the shifter ‘I’/’me’ within this part of the text produces an effect of an othering of the self. Foucault writes;

‘In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. … From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror … makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.’[1]

Foucault makes use of the materiality of writing through his use of repetition and ellipse and shifter, to reinforce the function of the mirror as a space through which we move back and forth in the construction of our sense of self. Mirrors, screens, paintings, drawings, operate in a fashion not unlike ideologies and concepts. We see ourselves within the cultural constructs that we are presented with daily. Sometimes we are excluded from them, causing us to question the ground beneath us. As seductive as screens may be, they are never unproblematic. Paint, the mirror, and the space of this gallery operate in a similar fashion.

Sometime in 1930, the French artist Claude Cahun wrote an incredibly beautiful poem about the relationship between you and I — the relationship which has as its point of difference, the surface of a clear pane of glass. She writes;

‘Sash Window. Glass Sheet. Where shall I put the silvering? On this side or the other; in front of or behind the pane?
In front. I imprison myself. I blind myself. What does it matter to me, Passer-by, to offer you a mirror in which you recognise yourself, even if it’s a deforming mirror and signed by me …
Behind. I am equally shut in. I shall know nothing of the outside. At least I shall know my own face and perhaps it will be tolerable enough to please me. Leave the glass clear, and according to chance and the hours see, confused and partially, sometimes fugitives and sometimes my own look.
Then, break the glass panes … with the fragments, compose a stained glass. Byzantine work! Transparency, opacity. What a vow of artifice!’[2]

For Claude Cahun, the surface of the glass became problematic through its potential as a mirror — constructing and constrained. ‘I shall know nothing of the outside’. For her, the only option was to break the glass, and then make something new out of the fragments. Something similar happens here within these works by Nazia through their fragmentation of colour and order. Order is presented by the grid, but denied by the orientation of colour. A space is called into being, called into question, fragmented and rearranged. Made beautiful, but also disturbed — rendered as problematic.

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’, Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1, Spring, 1986 p. 24

[2] Claude Cahun, Aveux non Avenus, Paris, 1930, p. 129. In Dawn Ades, Surrealism; Desire Unbound, (ed. Jennifer Mundy), Princeton University Press/Tate Gallery, London & Princeton.