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Where's the frame

Maribelle Bierens

October 8, 2022 11:42 AM


In Noorain Inam’s paintings, she interweaves references to personal experiences with hidden references and surrealist stories, which makes a dreamlike narrative come alive. Originally trained in traditional miniature painting, she has transformed this practice in a way to foreground all of her newfound experiences from moving from Karachi to London. By telling these stories about herself and her experiences adjusting to a new culture, she raises questions about identity and a sense of belonging. 

Noorain has created a new language by creating broad colour fields made of sweeping brushstrokes and including finely detailed figures and objects that are painted in a traditional miniature way.  The earth-toned fields of colour serve as a background to the story and create a dreamy atmosphere. The story is told by finding out the meaning of each figure and object. They’re all a reference or symbol that together builds a narrative. While leaving room for interpretation, when you know what each of them stands for, you can put it together, and a story unfolds. ‘You have to create a convincing space for yourself,’ she explains how she ‘throws logic out of the window, but it still needs to make sense in that story. You have to believe that this world you’re creating is real on some level, so you start to build this narrative around it.’


Noorain, Sads Demise, 2022, Oil on canvas. 120 x 90 cm. 

In Sads Demise, for example, it all starts with how in everyday conversations, people can come up with nonsensical excuses why they can’t come over. She came up with fantastical excuses like there is a blue crocodile in my living room, I set my car on fire or I didn’t pay my phone bill. She then continues the plot. What if there is an aggressive blue crocodile in my living room? It would need tea to calm down, so that’s why the teapot is there. 

‘My paintings are semi-autobiographical; they have a lot to do with my own personal experiences of moving from Karachi to London. I reflect upon liberation and experiences drawn from life. Where ordinary reality slowly descends into a dream-like disintegration. Raising questions of identity and a sense of belonging. A space that is not driven by logic and leans into what is real and what isn’t.’

In this painting, there are also hidden personal stories depicted. For example, she uses the flashlight ‘to show a moment of discovery, searching for something in the work. I become that same person.’ The broken plate is a relatable symbol of struggle. For her, it symbolises an unfortunate moment that recently occurred, the ending of a friendship. But she leaves room for it to mean different things. It could mean an argument between two people in a domestic setting or conflict within yourself. 

The deer pattern on the edges of the carpet signifies her experience of moving to London. ‘I was thinking about the phrase deer in headlights, and when I moved to London, I felt like that. The repetition of the deer became a way to own narrative.’

She often depicts animals as symbols because she finds it interesting to use them to say something about human behaviour. The cat, for example, is a recurring motif in her practice. ‘I’ve always been interested in that interaction that you have when you look at a painting,’ she explains how for her, ‘the cat became a way to talk about myself through the work.’

The pattern of bird-man hybrids on the top of the painting nods to her background in miniature painting. In traditional 16th and 17th century  Pahari and Persian miniature paintings, birds and peacocks signify nobility. Even though she had studied them countless times and knew how to depict them, she realised how that doesn’t relate to her at all. ‘What I did realise was there was a bit of a void. You don’t have the sort of translation attached to the image you're looking at; it gives you space to project your own experiences on knowledge on those images.’ She continues to explain how ‘as a painter, I can use them in a way that serves a narrative that I want to talk about.’ 

Instead of developing the bird as a sign of nobility, she is more interested in how birds behave in the natural world and using that as a sign. ‘Birds have such interesting behaviour. For example, it’s funny to see how male birds are courting female birds with some kind of dance.’ Similarly, this is what she experienced dealing with people in London too. ‘I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the most interesting larger-than-life figures in London. I would distance myself from the conversation and would think, wow, this person is a lot like a peacock.’

The bird became an observer in these paintings, but she depicts it in a way, so they’re occupying the space but not necessarily participating in it; they’re in the background. She elaborates how they’re in an almost submissive position because she was thinking about prayer too.

The repetition of the bird-man hybrid is significant in her practice. ‘Repetition was a huge part of my practice in miniature painting where it becomes as a sort of meditation almost ritualistic process, but contrasted combining it painting a blue crocodile, and I feel like that creates an interesting dialogue for me as a painter.’ 

Inside Noorain's studio, small works on canvas and panel

Inquisitiveness plays a central role in Noorain’s practice. ‘When I came to London at the age of 23, I wanted to learn as much as possible from everybody, friends, people you work with, people you meet in life. I feel like a student, and I want to hold on to that. Being a miniature painter, there is such a strong link to that entire grounding, wanting to learn from people. Coming back to that world again, initially, I rejected it at first. Coming back to it, having had all of these experiences, looking at it from a completely different perspective.’ 

When she came across the quote by the writer Amparo Davilla, “the three greatest mysteries of life are love, death and madness,” it struck a chord in her. ‘You experience love in many different forms, see death the of naivety, innocence or parts of yourself, and I process it through the madness of painting.’ Feeling very fortunate to have the chance to do it, she feels like ‘Owe it to it to be as honest and authentic as possible, tell more stories, experience life and see where that takes me next.’  

Although you can still recognise some traces of her background in miniature painting in the way she depicts the different figures and objects, her practice has significantly changed since living in London. She explains how in miniature painting, the perspective is completely removed. ‘The crux of the practice is that the concept of depth does not exist; everything is flat.’ Seeing different paintings from Western art history in London’s museum, she found that depth, weight and perspective draw the viewer. ‘I call that the Woosh effect.’ But by partially creating perspective in combination with flatness, she breaks it and creates a dreamy atmosphere that makes you realise this isn’t a living room. 

In this way, Noorain tells these multilayered stories depicting objects in a way that’s evolved from her miniature painting technique by weaving in a new way of painting. Three-dimensionality is next to a partially broken perspective. There are planes of colour bordering abstraction on which finely detailed figures are depicted. Flatness is interrupted by plasticity. Altogether, she creates a limbo between reality and surreality in which a larger story unfolds. 

A selection of Noorain's work is going to be exhibited in the group show DISTORTION & DISSONANCE. You can follow Noorain on instagram and on her website.

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