Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum
February 12 to March 19, 2022
By Ignazio Colt Nicastro
Sakoon, Zameer, Brabri/Bartri, Yaqeen, Sabr, Hasil, Zarf, and Fikr are nine Urdu words meticulously drawn out through intensive, repetitive labor by Pakistani-Canadian artist, Tazeen Qayyum. These nine words encompass the walls of the Zalucky Contemporary, each evoking a personal reaction from Qayyum. Visually, the echoing Urdu characters wrap in an annular structure with a calligraphic form on sheets of paper, swirling towards the center like a vortex. In her debut Toronto solo exhibition, Sakoon, Qayyum engages viewers with this series of ink drawings that speak to her relationship with Urdu linguistics and her exploration of these words.
Qayyum presents the work linearly across the gallery, providing rough translations of these Urdu words that are meant to illustrate something quantifiable. When viewers enter Zalucky Contemporary, they are met with the first work and the title of the show: Sakoon, meaning Peace/Calm/Tranquility, which sets the tone of the exhibition. To truly immerse oneself in this space, it is essential to understand that Urdu is not always meant to be consumed literally. With this in mind, viewers can now see that Qayyum is inviting them to dig deeper within themselves and to seek the quantity of tranquility within and around themselves.
Next to this introductory piece, viewers are met with a triptych that harnesses a deeper presence thematically and visually in the space. From left to right, viewers stand ahead of Zameer (Conscience), Brabri/Bartri (Equality/Privilege), and Yaqeen (Belief). These three works are synergetic, as sentiments of equality and privilege cannot be discussed without having an underlying conversation of one’s conscience and beliefs. Surprisingly, these works were not made for one another, but over time Qayyum found a shared theme between them. This sequence of drawings forms a dialogue around the centerpiece of Brabri/Bartri.
As a woman of colour, Qayyum found herself placed within emotional, personal, and public turmoil during the rise of heightened civil rights movements in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Furthermore, as an artist, Qayyum reflected on the performativity of statements of solidarity that appeared from art institutions across the globe during this time. Screens of text flooded Instagram, Facebook, and arts-based platforms, yet it begged the question, why did these institutions feel the need to prove their core values? Are their values as an institution not visible through their actions? Qayyum began to question her own place in the art community as these statements began to feel more like a checklist rather than a statement of integrity. When connecting with art spaces, she now wondered what was being assessed: her merit or the colour of her skin. As these thoughts came to surface, Qayyum turned to her practice to reflect on these feelings.
Out of these experiences, Qayyum pulled out two contradicting words that exist within each other’s opposition, as the unbalance of privilege cannot subsist in an equal world.These words work against but also alongside each other, just as they do in the ink drawing Brabri/Bartri. As she does for almost all of her works, Qayyum began in the middle of the page, drawing Brabri (Equality) in black ink in a circular, clockwise direction. As she reached the end of this section, she then inverted the experience. Now drawing in white ink and counter-clockwise, Qayyum fills the page with Bartri (Privilege). She continues to do this for another five rounds, purely in black ink, filling the page with this new vessel of equality and privilege. It is the laborious act of repetition and rhythm that allowed Qayyum to turn from moments of disparity into a meditative trance.
As time went on, more world issues were raised or persisted, furthering this claim to Brabri/Bartri. The rampant development of COVID-19 highlighted the disparities within marginalized communities, further exposing how our judicial systems overlook and reinforce structural violence against those who do not fit the quota of cis-gendered, straight, white, able-bodied, men or women. Qayyum pondered on the quantity of Zameer (Conscience) and Yaqeen (Belief) in society while considering this imbalance. In response, she is asking her viewers to consider their Bartri (Privilege) in order to obtain Brabri (Equality).
As these older works of Qayyum’s still resonate with audiences today, her newest piece, Fikr (Concern/thought) continues the series that speaks to her audiences and herself. Looking at this word closely, viewers should consider how deeply they reflect on the world around them. What is interesting about this piece, however, is Qayyum’s execution of the work. As aforementioned, Qayyum’s previous works are created from the center to the exterior. This was because the word choice itself was often a result from the world around her. Although Qayyum’s work often encourages her viewers to contemplate the phrases ahead of them, when she created Fikr she decided to focus inwards on herself. Even after finding solace in her therapeutic practice, Qayyum joins her viewers as we all seek Sakoon.