Suleman Khilji’s buoyant paintings draw one in immediately with their realistic depictions of material, object and element. But the artist’s new body of work – exhibited recently at the Sanat Gallery in Karachi and titled “Inayat and Others” – propels its audience into thinking about the “other”, the common person we tend to ignore in an everyday setting.
For a moment, let us travel back in history to the time of Inayat Khan: a close attendant of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and the epitome of Khilji’s work. Inayat Khan, who was addicted to opium and wine and cursed with a weak constitution, finally developed cachexia and dropsy, growing very` thin and weak. Khilji’s recent body of work is based on the single extant drawing from that time to reflect a likeness of Inayat Khan and which has emerged as perhaps one of the finest line drawings of the Mughal School.
Khilji’s work is a constant reminder of our environs and the people that surround us on roads and footpaths and in newspapers. Stepping into the Sanat Gallery, its bright white lights stimulate one’s visual senses and allow one to observe the artist’s work closely. The careful display gives the viewer enough time to ponder over each painting before moving on to the next.
Khilji’s new work gives prominence to the concept of death. With the miniature of the dying Inayat Khan as his inspiration, Khilji has produced a number of works dealing with death, disease and deprivation. Death is, of course, common to all human beings and often associated with pain and devastation, even though different groups of people follow different rituals related to death and mourning.
The artist’s work is a straight dive into the idea of transition and of understanding those we notice and those we ignore. Khilji focuses on the transition in our surroundings, but through a different lens. Using shiny stickers to pattern a bed-sheet that depicts a car and text in English, the artist reinterprets heritage and deconstructs the past. With works like “Keep Moving” and “Laaghar 1”, Khilji interrogates both the past and the present.
Khilji’s work reads as different periods of art history and diverse cultural contexts, whether European, Egyptian or Mughal, and these play an important role in his investigation of resilience. His piece “Keep Moving” relates instantly to the sight of an ordinary person sleeping on the roadside. The title of the artwork and the background of cars and text take the viewer from the realm of a white cube to the public realm outside. It also depicts how the common person feels on the roadside: he is not bothered with the traffic, the people or the lights; he is simply lost in his own little world.
“Laaghar 3” reminds one of the tragedies that occur everyday in Pakistan. As soon as one looks at the car in the painting, it draws one into the after-effects of a bomb blast, the sight of a road full of dismembered cars and broken windows. The subtle use of colour adds a gloomy tone to the artwork.
“Laaghar 4”, again, reflects something we see on the news or in our own surroundings everyday: starvation in society. Looking closely at this piece of work, one can almost feel the poor animal’s hunger and the cruelty afflicted on it; one can see also the horse disappearing into thin air in the linear drawing of another horse in the background. It isn’t just the animal one relates to, but also anyone subject to starvation and poverty – common enough these days.
The dying figure of Inayat Khan inside a car moving at great speed: a reminder that death is inevitable
In “The Ride”, the dying figure of Inayat Khan is positioned inside a car moving at great speed: a reminder that death is inevitable. Death is the visual device Khilji uses in his work to denote the present circumstances: the recent increase in bomb blasts, suicide attacks and sectarian killings, all of which reveal society’s fascination with and vulnerability to death.
In “Passenger 3” and “Passenger 6”, the artist also investigates the tendency of some groups to examine society’s misfortunes and show what is unseen or too disturbing to accept and admit. Looking at “Passenger 1” and “Passenger 2”, one notices the characters change, that is, characters from different sects and religions or possibly portraits of the artist’s acquaintances in Lahore, all rendered in the pose assumed by Inayat Khan: humorous, uncanny portraits of people battling their fates.
“Marat and Inayat”, a seemingly unfinished work of graphite, ink, gouache and collage, illustrates two men – one dead and one on the verge of death – composed side by side as a combination of basic human phenomena. As real historical characters, both men are placed alongside each other in such a scheme that it becomes a composition of death without borders.
With subdued colours and appearing, superficially at least, to be an unfinished drawing, one of Khilji’s untitled works portrays the lean, starved body of a man in bed, wrapped in sheets and with large cushions in the background: the human anatomy as an allegory for harsh, crucial and current situations. By transporting the viewer to new settings, Khilji’s characters – whether drawn from the present from among people he knows or from the pages of history – continue to surface in the sanctuary and course of his paintings and hereafter to survive.
All photographs reproduced courtesy of the Sanat Gallery in Karachi
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