Exhibition

Nothing in the Sunshine - Rabia S. Akhtar

28 Jun 2024 – 27 Jul 2024

Regular hours

Friday
11:00 – 18:00
Saturday
11:00 – 18:00
Monday
10:00 – 18:00
Tuesday
11:00 – 18:00
Wednesday
11:00 – 18:00
Thursday
11:00 – 18:00

Free admission

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Travel Information

  • Stop G | K | The Hop Exchange
  • London Bridge
  • 25 minutes walk from train station London Waterloo
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Hidden within the long grasses of a luscious outcrop lies a giant radish with tears streaming down its cheeks as crows peck at its blushing body. This hopeless hybrid creature – half human, half vegetable – is a recurring character in Rabia S. Akhtar’s latest series of miniature paintings.

About

Hidden within the long grasses of a luscious outcrop lies a giant radish with tears streaming down its cheeks as crows peck at its blushing body. This hopeless hybrid creature – half human, half vegetable – is a recurring character in Rabia S. Akhtar’s latest series of miniature paintings, which employ the language of myth and fairy tales to negotiate the point at which dreams and reality meet. Nothing in the Sunshine, her first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, Wandsworth, presents an intimate body of work that was made during a period of personal struggle. Reflecting on feelings of grief and claustrophobia as well as the transformative potential of making and encountering art, her highly detailed paintings tread a fine line between beauty and horror, nightmare and dream.

The world that Akhtar paints is rooted in her fascination with the creatures of Urdu fables, cartoons and folk tales. Growing up in Karachi, she very rarely came into contact with animals and has used her practice both to imagine encounters with the animal kingdom and to reconcile the dreams of her childhood with her adulthood understanding of how humans are destroying the natural world. While we still see some of these themes emerging in her latest series of paintings, the focus is more inward, drawing on the artist’s emotional experiences and relationships. As Akhtar puts it, these paintings are ‘psychological states, exploring different aspects of my personality and ways that I’m feeling’. The compositions are darker and denser in detail, absent of the vast empty spaces that characterised her previous works and populated with characters that convey the ‘animal energy’ that she and her family members possess. The cow in Hollow World, for instance, represents the artist with its body buried in a bush and its head thrown back as if bracing itself for the snake, which lies between its back legs, to strike.

In this work, as throughout the series, there is a tension between the superficial beauty of the landscape and what lies beneath. Wasteland, for example, appears to depict a magical, thriving garden filled with an abundance of plants and flowers and a bright blue stream running up its centre. If we look more closely, however, we begin to notice signs of turmoil, disease and danger. There is a bird drowning in the water, the half-human, half-radish is being eaten alive by crows, one side of the garden is on fire and on the other side there is a bush that seems to be bleeding. Similarly in Hollow World, the blue sky is streaked with bloody raindrops that stain the grass an unnatural shade of scarlet while teeth, instead of flowers, hang from the branches of a bush. ‘I’m interested in the way that an environment can be both healing and poisonous,’ says Akhtar. But it’s also a question of perception: how closely are we willing to examine our environment and to acknowledge the parts that are potentially harmful?

In these works, Akhtar’s creatures are either literally trapped within their surroundings or helpless due to their physicality. The latter is most clearly expressed through the recurring radish character. Previously in Akhtar’s paintings hybridity has expanded the potential of her creatures, giving them characteristics or abilities that they might not ordinarily have; by contrast, this half-human, half-vegetable is regressive, playing on the concept of the vegetative state in which a person is awake but shows no signs of awareness.

While this idea of immobility or stagnation pervades the exhibition, these paintings are not without hope. The beauty of Akhtar’s painted world may be tainted just as the sunshine of the exhibition’s title may have lost its warmth, but it still exists in delicate details: in clusters of flowers and wispy tufts of grass, in the ruffled feathers of an owl, in the pale moon hanging in a blue sky. These are works that make us painfully aware of the fragility of life.

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