The mirror has many faces

Rabbiya Ilyas, 26, knows how to get noticed through his art. Born and raised in the city of Peshawar, Pakistan (and currently based in Lahore), the young artist unabashedly brings taboo subjects to the fore through a Persian art form known as aina kari (mirror mosaic).

Having recently completed a Masters in Visual Arts from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Ilyas’ mesmerizing thesis work consisted of a condom-shaped chandelier (six feet long), an elaborate mirror mosaic that resembled a carpet, and a 10-foot-long Serpent, each made up of thousands of finely cut mirrors.

Inspired by the late Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Ilyas reveals that her work is not only a “projection of personal sexual desires and erotic fantasies”, but also a bold and fearless statement that aspires to expose the hypocrisy that pervades the Pakistani society.

SR: What attracted you to the profession of aina kari?

IR: I have always had a keen interest in discovering and learning crafts since college. I discovered the aina-kari technique during my first visit to the Sheesh Mahal at Lahore Fort. The structure is encrusted with thousands of finely cut and multicolored mirrors. I think the sacred appeal of this technique and the sense of sanctity it carries drew me in and compelled me to fuse it into my artistic practice.

SR: You once mentioned that you were offered to exhibit your work in a number of galleries in Pakistan after university in 2018 – what your thesis was about and why do you think it resonated so well to the public ?

IR: I believe in making art that resonates with the viewer on an emotional level. A bit of mystery can allow the viewer to interpret the art based on their own experiences and identify with it. My BFA thesis work focused on the hypocrisy of some members of the religious clergy – it brought to light the fact that our society is constantly deceived by a deceptive outward appearance that uses a religious shield as a facade.

I was overwhelmed by the audience reaction. Many people have personally come to me, shared their experiences and appreciated the courage with which I have worked to bring such a controversial subject to the fore.

RS: How does this art form allow you to express yourself as an artist?

IR: My work is inspired by the techniques of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian to modernize the traditional craft of aina-kari in which she would fuse traditional Iranian patterns with Western aesthetics. Using erotic symbolism in my work, along with traditional designs and motifs, I try to instill the traditional aina-kari technique with modern designs and bold symbolism.

The main thing that attracted me to working with the mirror was the mirror itself. The metaphorical complexity and sensitivity of mirrors and mirror imagery offer countless ways to utilize the usefulness of the mirror as a reflection that hides deeper truths. Combining certain symbols, shapes and forms – which carry their own connotations – I use the mirror to expose a seen, but ignored reality…the image of our society.

SR: Can you tell me a bit about your creative process, from concept to production?

IR: My creative process is very simple! I think of a theme or an idea that sticks with me and I start working on it immediately. I believe a concept is something that keeps growing as you work on it. I have my own team of aina-kari craftsmen who cut the mirrors according to the stencils that I provide them with my composition. Once all the mirrors have been cut out, I glue them to the desired surfaces.

SR: What is the link between Sigmund Freud’s theories and your work?

IR: Freud has always been a great inspiration to me. In his theory of sexuality, he talks about childhood experiences and sexual fantasies, and how these drives continue into adulthood. Freud helps us understand that the desire for pleasure is an important driving force in our lives. I love how Freud expressed himself in normalizing sexual development…and that’s exactly what I try to express in my art.

RS: Do the themes you deal with in your work worry you, especially when you present them in Pakistan?

IR: It was quite a challenge at first when I was working on my undergraduate thesis project. I used to be warned of the risks associated with highlighting taboo subjects deliberately ignored by Pakistani society. But I have always composed my work in such a way that it appears discreet in its symbolism.

SR: What are you currently working on, do you have any pieces or installations in the works?

IR: Currently I am focusing more on creating organic and anatomical mirror structures that will be different from my previous geometric sculptures. Other than that, I look forward to finding opportunities to exhibit my work internationally. My biggest goal right now is to exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in Iran.

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