Amina Ahmed and Polly and Me at Twelve Gates Arts

I love a glimpse into a different way of life. It is the same enjoyment provided by a novel that lets you become a character alongside the rest and upon finishing, come back to reality feeling as though you have lost a dear friend but gained something invaluable.  Amina Ahmed and works from Polly and Me offer a similar high.

Entering the gallery, the first thing that drew my eye was Amina Ahmed’s piece, Sinews “The Divine Names” Our Buktar-bund. It is a meditation in fiber by the Africa-born, Western-educated Turk Indian artist. At first glance the cotton, thread and buttons piece resembles snakeskin or a swath of some gorgeous couture gown; step closer and you’ll be surprised to find that it’s composed of thousands upon thousands of tiny silver snap buttons. In her statement, Ahmed, who is an educator and activist interested in human rights, explains that she writes the Divine Names onto the black cotton and then rubs them away, similar to writing and erasing on a chalkboard. For Ahmed, the process of sewing acknowledges our need for “binding, holding together and nourishment.” She speaks of the necessity of connection to origin, roots, and a foundation. Ahmed’s work is devotional and reflective while insisting on the value of hard work, patience and persistence.

Amina Ahmed Detail: Sinews “The Divine Names” Our Buktar-bund Buttons, Cotton thread on cotton

Works from Pakistani collaborative, Polly and Me, furbished the other half of the show. Polly and Me is a social movement comprised of almost 1000 female artisans in a remote mountain area of Pakistan. The collaborative allows the women not only a mode of creative expression outside of the home, but financial support through the sale of their works.  The money is an income-generating opportunity otherwise not afforded to them. From this group there were three tapestries and an assortment of handbags, all meticulously hand-embroidered. During the holy month of Ramadan in 2010, the women of three embroidery centers kept diaries, “recording daily thoughts, events and conversations.” It is these diaries that inspired the tapestry series shown at Twelve Gates.

polly and me
Polly and Me Detail: Sheeshal Hand Embroidery on fabric, 2011. The diary entry explains the seeshal are drying on the local newspaper.

Each tapestry is accompanied by its corresponding diary entry hung on the wall, which informs the work without giving too much away. The diary entries are translated into English to give a clue to what they mean. About the piece “Sheeshal,” Qamar explains in the diary the process of making Sheeshal biscuits as a gift to her married sisters and their families for Ramadan. Reading her diary entry, I can see the importance of tradition and family in Pakistani culture but also an acceptance of the social and political environment in which they live. Qamar writes, “Today it is the local newspaper Mashriq that drains the excess oil from the Sheeshal. Politics, load-shedding and bombings in Peshawar, interspersed with advertisements for iftar-cum-dinner blur as they become yesterday’s news.”

As I read their diary entries, I felt as if I had entered another world– a world where life is structured by familial duty, routine, devotion and submission; a world where, if you want a cup of tea, you must first milk the family cow and then light a fire with twigs collected from the yard. This excursion into the private lives and thoughts of these women was an experience I will continue to savor and reflect upon. Though these women live tougher lives than me, their art feels conversely soft and sensitive, providing a pleasant parallel to Ahmed’s piece.

Twelve Gates Arts, located at 51 N. 2nd Street in Old City, will be showing Amina Ahmed and works from Polly and Me until March 31 as a part of FiberPhiladelphia 2012.