Nadia Waheed creates portals, not paintings. In A Strange Icarus, her first solo exhibition with Nicodim Gallery, Waheed ushers us into a transitional space that compels us to meditate on the timelessness to ourselves and the universe. Why is it that we have always turned our faces to the stars? Why is every culture founded upon an attempt to make meaning of our birth, death, and its aftermath? Pondering such questions, Waheed has brought into the world a series of works that explore the most ancient parts of ourselves, the pieces that remember the wonder of the first sunrise, the oldest wound, the enduring ache of human suffering across the ages. She reminds us that we do not exist only and entirely in the present, with our immediate cares and pleasures. We are always creatures of primordial origins imagining eternity in various guises, pondering age-old questions that gather evermore intricate and befuddling layers of meaning – consumption, innovation, theorization.

In this search for the immensity of our ancestry Waheed brings us to the body. The body is not a given, taken for granted thing in her works. Skeletal, celestial, cartographic, fleshy, ethereal – the various figurations of the human body that inhabit these paintings imagine the corporeal in all its simultaneous possibilities. One can almost feel the intensity of the artist’s focus on rendering the body in infinite detail, in a complex chiaroscuro that imbues figures with a three-dimensional, almost sculptural quality. Waheed’s interest in the history of the body spans the history of the visual arts. Three Primes (2023) is a composition of four figures that is reminiscent of Matisse’s seminal Bathers by a River, A Fundamental Archetype (2023) is a prostrate body from whose womb springs a reimagining of the Assyrian Tree of Life. Science constitutes one of the many genealogies the artist turns to in her search for truth, as evidenced by references to Renaissance-era sketches of the body reminiscent of Titian or Da Vinci or 17th century Dutch anatomist Bernhardus Albinus’ detailed illustrations. Despite these influences, her paintings do not reproduce the classical tradition’s assumption of the white male as universal or ideal. The invocation of the artist’s own form illustrates how autobiography is an incomprehensive yet meaningful history of existence. This juxtaposition of the personal and the cosmic allows us to imagine a different universal, one that does not dissolve difference – of race, class, gender and so on – yet insists on the fundamental humanness, and so commonality, of individuality.

These bodies bear an intimate relationship to their environments, binding the internal to the external. By virtue of illustrating this connection between interiority and exteriority Waheed forestalls any attempt to read her work as only portraiture, extending her reach to landscape painting. Her idyllic and fabular landscapes traverse the history of landscape art, with nods to specific works such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866). However, these influences are never singular nor direct; Waheed’s process of searching through many archives simultaneously results in every reference existing as an assemblage, as can be seen in her marriage of René Magritte’s fixation on landscapes glimpsed through windows with her view of an African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulate) that flowers daily outside the bathroom window at her uncle’s house in Karachi, Pakistan. Meanwhile, the various climates depicted index the body that has traveled to the farthest reaches of the planet and universe, along historical and spiritual routes of exploration, expansion, migration. These settings are allegorical as well, prompting the viewer to consider where the body resides in the landscape of Being.

Here is an anatomy of redemption. Waheed explores the secret recesses of being, both within and beyond the body, to imagine where our wounds reside. These paintings are never distant from the lifelong adversities she has battled nor the personal archive of suffering the viewer recollects during the viewing. “I fought the ghosts in my studio every day,” Nadia says as she elaborates on her process, a sense that is achingly human in that none of us can escape our pasts, both of our lifetime and of countless others. While it is easy to build our wounds into prisons that protect by entrapping us, Waheed paints to explore what it means to dismantle all that is meant to contain and reduce us, in search of a more perfect union with what exists at the limits of the self. Eschewing definitive statements, these works invite questions, open up consciousness, render palpable the hope for transformation. We may never reach the answers we seek, but we may atone for our wrongs and forgive that which wronged us in our search for them – this is the hope for transformation Waheed tenderly, fiercely cradles. She invites us to witness her creations and ask, “what if I am truly on my own in being alive?” And then experience not the crushing sense of loneliness our alienating world induces but an expansive reimagining of the self that is truly, transcendentally connected in its singularity. –Themal Ellawala