Rabiya Choudhry makes paintings that are like the thought bubbles of a particularly active mind. They skid from joy to darkness, combining the aesthetics of Robert Crumb cartoons and hand-painted Bollywood posters with the surrealism of Max Ernst and an under-current of Philip Guston. Despite this being Choudhry’s first ever solo show, these works own the walls of Glasgow’s Transmission gallery as if they were made to be there – and perhaps they were.
Choudhry, who grew up in Glasgow, has said of the artist-run venue that she has ‘always loved the space since she was a wee girl’. You can feel that enthusiasm in how she uses every aspect of it: the way she brings her own biography onto its walls while utilizing its large, street-facing windows for a specially-made neon work and its floor for a shop-like display of dresses, ties and purses, printed with mischievously demonic face designs lifted from her paintings. It is enthusiasm tempered by experience, however: the experience of being a person of colour – Choudhry’s father is from Pakistan, her mum a white Glaswegian – in a predominantly white city and art world. The exhibition’s title, ‘COCO!NUTS!’, reflects this – a reference to the use of the word to describe a black person who is seen as acting white. It’s an idea further explored in the two films charting the British Asian experience that Choudhry chose to show in Transmission’s event space during the exhibition’s run: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and East Is East (1999).
The neon work has a playful echo of the earlier of the two films, calling to mind – albeit on a much smaller scale – the glimmering ‘POWDERS’ sign atop the movie’s refurbished launderette. It also foregrounds the personal nature of Choudhry’s approach. Titled Dad (2018), the neon spells out her father’s name in italicized capital letters: ‘MAZHAR’. If that seems a bit sentimental, then it’s sentimentality with a hard edge: a lot of the work here feels as though it’s bridging the gap between the certainties of childhood family experience and the realities of adult life and personal trauma. Choudhry’s paintings are like the orderly containers into which she pours the frenetic chaos of life.
In the smallest of the nine paintings included here, that unpredictability is depicted via a literal collision while also referencing a metaphorical one. Car Crash, January 25th (2018) – which is just 29 × 23 cm – is, on the one hand a response to Choudhry’s father being involved in a crash. But the date is significant for the gallery, too, as the day it lost its regular funding from Creative Scotland. The painting memorializes both moments with a mix of slapstick and comic stoicism. A crudely drawn, bare-chested figure at the steering wheel, arms raised in shock, is repeated, with slight variations, another three times. There’s a car registration number (SB14 OOF), a pair of Y-front pants with ‘PISS POOR’ written on them and other text, too: ‘Still have my health’; ‘Balls up LOL’; ‘Easy on that break’; ‘OOOH Fuck!’ The car’s wheels feature the crescent moon and star of the Pakistan flag: this accident scene is over owing with a life’s loves, fears and hopes.
Elsewhere, there’s a head that doubles as a red-brick house (Houses for the Holy, 2016), a temple building with a gaping, sharp-toothed mouth and bloodshot eyes (Black Temple, 2014) and a delicate, beautifully touching tribute to a relative with cancer (Prayers for Moona, 2018). Daily dramas, raw emotions. Choudhry doesn’t hold back: what’s on the inside is out there for all to see.
Rabiya Choudhry, 'COCO!NUTS!' was on view at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, from 15 September until 20 October 2018.
Main image: Rabiya Choudhry, Prayers for Moona (detail), 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Transmission Gallery, Glasgow
First published in Issue 200