Hajra Waheed: “Learning to Tremble”
By Line Ajan
For Hajra Waheed’s debut solo exhibition in Paris, the artist chose to exclusively display recent works on paper, focusing on painting—a medium that she had put aside until her participation in the 57th Venice Biennale, “Viva Arte Viva” (2017). Waheed received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis on painting from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC) in 2002, but swapped this specialization for a multidisciplinary practice. Over the past decade, her minimal sculptures, meticulous installations, and delicate cartographies have been enriched by found documents and material—evidence of her excursions into various archives. This research-oriented approach was suspended in Waheed’s exhibition “Learning to Tremble” at Mor Charpentier, which instead revealed a more formal dimension of her work. When the artist returned to painting in 2017, she favored figuration and represented landscapes, natural and geological elements. Likewise, seascapes, skies, and trees appear here, but are alluded to rather than illustrated. Most are watercolors, painted in a limited palette of greens, blues, and blacks. Highly saturated by the use of gum arabic pigments, these paintings function like vignettes, showing a cropped and abstract view of nature.
In line with the economy of means that characterizes Waheed’s practice, the exhibition featured eight artworks spread across the gallery’s two floors. Each set of paintings was serial in essence, and composed of three to sixteen sheets of paper, all representing similar sceneries. Seriality and repetition were central throughout the exhibition, which began with the meditative Still in Your Wake 1-8 (2021)—a set of eight leporellos or accordion books, displayed over five shelves. Of various widths, the books are identically structured, beginning and ending with a blank sheet, while the central pages unfold like water currents, with occasional strokes of white steering a sense of movement in the continuous flows of light and dark blues. Verging on monochromes, these pages convey both the movement of water and the peaceful sensation one might feel when observing the sea.
A call for contemplation certainly emanated from most artworks. Hung on the opposing wall were twelve watercolors titled Khwabgah 1-12 (2021), which translates from Urdu to “House of Dreams.” These swathes of diluted gray evoke cloudy skies, but they mostly function like modular variations, suggesting a rhythm rather than a form. Placed on a shelf between these representations of sea and sky was the earthly We Need a Whole Lot of Trees 1-16 (2021), a suite of deep olive watercolors with verses of poetry inscribed on them. Written and translated from Urdu by Taimoor Shahid (Waheed’s brother-in-law), the poem formulated a subtle critique of extractivism, claiming the urgency of preserving trees, and linking this ecological concern to a betterment of living and working conditions. While painting is certainly a convenient format for commercial galleries, the exhibition succeeded in moving beyond the marketable breadth of the medium. The display of accordion books and poetry anchored Waheed’s recent work in the textual and the political—methodologies essential to her larger practice.
These links appeared clearly with the mesmerizingly simple How Long Does It Take Moonlight to Reach Us? Just Over One Second. And Sunlight? Eight Minutes (2019). Comprising 30 blank sheets, the work exposed the effects of sunlight on paper, tracing a yellowish halo at the center of the composition. This artwork was previously exhibited in “Hold Everything Dear,” the artist’s 2019 comprehensive survey at the Power Plant in Toronto. It resonated differently here, amid other paintings. Indeed, it refers to an anecdote from Waheed’s time as a student at SAIC, when she did not have the means to buy painting supplies. She would then recuperate sunned papers from the vitrines of art supply shops on Chicago’s West and South Sides. By reactivating the natural decay of paper entailed by the sun, Waheed returns to the very origin of her practice, highlighting how painting feeds and extends it. The exhibition’s title might evoke the wavering of a leaf or a hand, but it also suggests the artist’s return to her formative education, a re-learning of such.
Hajra Waheed’s “Learning to Tremble” was on view at mor charpentier, Paris, from September 4 to October 2, 2021.