Selecting a facet of Pakistani life to represent with images is a task I do not envy. Pakistani life is convoluted and slippery under that white kurta-ed simplicity. And Pakistani art has, in all its variety, begun to reflect that deviousness. There are works inspired by the martial forecast of the country, full of images of missiles, guns and grenades, looking like a framed and spotlit arsenal. Then there are works rising from a morass of squelching social interests. There are works reviewing religion and tradition. Art both conventional and experimental is being churned out and it requires a degree of purpose from a curator, who is to showcase Pakistani art to the foreign world, to know what unifying motifs to look for in a selection of works.
For the second edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, which ran from 7th to 9th February, 2014, Lahore-based curator Ambereen Karamat brought together works by six Pakistani visual artists for Ex-ist, an exhibition surveying the act of living and looking. The contemporary Pakistani artists selected by Karamat all work around a shared concern with life, in a time and place overrun with visual references to other times and other places – so much so that a kind of tenuousness comes to inform this life, a frailty of being that is ironic for it results from an overabundance of connections. The exhibition makes no lofty claims. It is a suspended and cropped view, in a manner, of what being an artist in Pakistan is like. There is no prelude or epilogue to it; it bears no badge of cause or provocation. It is a view of the influences and implications that run through our consciousness, catching light and casting shadows and lending themselves to our thoughts.
Farida Batool’s lenticular prints exemplify this layered and suffused existence. The prints, which are excerpts from her lengthy walk around Lahore, show Batool in varying degrees of opacity as she passes by parked cars and moving rickshaws, barricaded gates and open gates, blank, impassive walls and graffitied, hostile walls. With lenticular printing, the image moves when you move, so Batool’s walk is also participatory. It put me in mind of British artist Richard Long’s ‘walking as art’. When Long takes a walk with a motive, it becomes – he claims – a schematic means for him to look at time, distance, cartography, information. Batool, too, uses the walk as a graphical study and record of the city’s fluctuations and its inhabitants’.
Digital prints by Sajjad Ahmed point to the myriad visual and conceptual sources that govern our lives and, by reason of their sheer multiplicity, occlude our perception instead of clearing it. Much of Ahmed’s practice deals with the unification of dichotomies within a single frame. He disassembles found images, reusing their debris to construct new ones that at a glance are meant to look abstract but are actually composites of microbes of meaning. However, looking at some of Ahmed’s prints in Ex-ist – a series titled Ruins of an Abstract Evolution – it becomes difficult for me to not question this increased propensity for cutting-and-weaving that so many artistic minds of the country are at present displaying. It makes me wonder whether we, as a people, have become so pleased with our fractured existence that whole and healthy single images appear to mock our carefully orchestrated grieving over a troubled history, an uncertain present etc. Or is this tendency indicative of something more serious – a desire to force meaning out of an act that, really, is not as arduous as a fragmented appearance may make it out to be?
[quote]I was put in mind of something a character from Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great says[/quote]
This musing is in part due to an unfortunate and repeated exposure, over the past few weeks, to many works that found enlightenment in duality and in strips and stripes and squares of stray images, but I was put in mind of something a character from Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is Too Great says – ‘ “Poets,” you’ve written, “are hungry and curious creatures – but only about what’s inside them. And the only way they usually know to get there is by tearing themselves up at the seams. They are always scattered inside. They only know how to tear themselves up.” ’ So what we are seeing in much of the art being produced around us may just be this hunger and curiosity, though it would be welcoming to come across a work, every now and then, that has not employed dysfunction in technique at least.
[quote]Aroosa Rana’s videos explore the blurring of boundaries between direct and indirect experience[/quote]
Other works in Ex-ist included Aroosa Rana’s videos exploring the growing infiltration of our world by static and moving images and the blurring of boundaries between direct and indirect experience; Muhammad Zeeshan’s paintings of a motley of symbols and icons from popular culture – made by a combination of laser scoring and gouache – seeking definition in erosion, a fulfillment in perforation; and Amber Hammad’s engaging digital prints that offered another take on what it is like to exist as an artist in a world riddled with, well, art. I have a weakness for art that shows a clever toying with art history. To me, such art speaks of the artist’s long familiarity with, and good-natured respect for, older artists’ works. Hammad, after years of smart bantering with historical artworks, has now recreated works by her contemporaries to investigate, among other ideas, identity and its furnishings – dress and skin colour, spaces and props showing lifestyle and ethos.
[quote]I have a weakness for art that shows a clever toying with art history[/quote]
Among her prints for Ex-ist was a reworking of John Currin’s Thanksgiving, a marvelous oil painting showing three women around a table graced by a large, rude, uncooked turkey, a dainty flower arrangement and bits of important-looking fruit. One tries to feed the other, whose mouth yawns wide, while the third sits with her head bowed, surly and ascetic. Hammad takes great care with the reproduction of Currin’s long-necked and loose-limbed females, who are themselves throwbacks to Parmigianino. The contrast between the two livelier females and the ‘hag’ (as Currin referred to the third in a preparatory drawing), is also worked on, Hammad stressing the sickliness of this character with subtly different lighting that lends a shade of green to her skin. What she changes are the delicacies on the table, which can be instantly recognised as South Asian, and elements of the architecture, which remain grand and ornate in the spirit of Currin’s painting but are now reminiscent of a kind of Arabian baroque.
In Wardah Shabbir’s work, the sensitivity and maternity of miniature painting synthesises with something as violent and corrosive as time. For Ex-ist, Shabbir worked on old photographs of distinctly fin de siècle, European sitters, both celebrating and challenging their self-assured ownership of history by introducing into the small black-and-white environs foliate borders and marks from a long tradition of Eastern miniature painting. Works like Mehroz’s Memento Mori and Mehr-un-Nisa’s Possession of the Past most strongly convey the ambivalence of revisiting a past that has been subjectively recorded. The former is a portrait of a dapper, mustached model who stares wistfully out of the picture frame while Shabbir creates a humid afternoon backdrop for him, painted with wilting flowers and lazily buzzing dragonflies – a stirring contrast to his frigidity. The latter shows a lady, distant and inaccessible, encased in a double frame of intricate Persian floral designs. And from her midsection, forcing its way through the belt of her gown as if through chapters of undisputable history, issues a rose – like an overlooked and subversive footnote.