It is usually the concern of the contented upper classes that the views of empty plots and quiet roads from their drawing room windows must not be destroyed by some upstart who made his fortune only a decade ago during the brief boom of the Musharraf years.
The hearth, home and hypocrisy of this upstart is the object of the three-person show, Pretty Can Be Gritty. It is an acerbic, sentimental and frequently representative show of girl-power and bourgie-power inverted, shaken and stirred. Think gaudy wallpaper, wedding-cake-style houses, a booming parade of bad taste accompanying the arrival of a plot-developer or tunnel-farmer in the plusher parts of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faislabad or Karachi. This is an effort to transform the consumerist gluttony of the bourgeoisie into something innocuous and palatable.
The works by Sausan Saulat and Saba Khan are an ode to country-bumpkin grandiosity smothered in sweetness
To call them ‘paindoos’ (provincials or ‘villagers’) in a derogatory or even half-affectionate way is to disclose your own membership in a class they have overtaken or rapidly overrun. To celebrate them means that you must be either one of them or that you’ve simply thrown in the towel and decided to join them because they are just so hospitable, so cruel, so insatiable and unstoppable. You call them ‘paindoos’ because you can see that the blueprint for their consumption is their false fantasy of what the rich live like. Developed countries are mostly made of this sturdy middle layer that came into existence in the West in the eighteenth century. In our country they are still a seething minority. (But we’re getting there.)
The works Kyun ke dhaag toh achay hotay hain by Sausan Saulat and Dream House on a Rainy Day by Saba Khan are an ode to country-bumpkin grandiosity smothered in sweetness. Like the Punjabi sweetness of a car bumper sticker that reads in dripping Dracula font: I want Friend or Have no Fear, Butt is Here, Saba creates this frivolous, cutesy mood with candy-colored beads and cut diamantes; Sausan Saulat manages it with the busy finesse of flowery wallpaper straight out of a Kehinde Wiley painting (Google it). Toilet bowl brushes on Corinthian marble plinths are made to produce the shock of the contradiction of bodily waste – the stark realism evoked by props of sweepers and servants in general (or simply, shit) being placed lovingly atop white, sanitised symbols of power and authority. A tad easy, this trick will work for decades in art produced in a society like ours, in which many things are taboo and not talked about in the face of impossible standards of respectability and the prickly issue of caste. This kind of thing can also be seen in the biting political satire so popular on local media.
Saulat makes references to bestselling mainstream literature like Fifty Shades of Grey and to Hollywood movie titles like Prozac Nation. Not for me. Her best work, perhaps, is Untitled, an acrylic painting on canvas measuring 43×111, hinting at less delicious contradictions. The picture shows – in several charmingly disorganized vignettes – painted bars, traffic barriers: drums, barricades and barbed wire that separate rungs of the social ladder with a menacing threat of violence, experienced in the public space by everyone who has ever been stuck in traffic because of security protocol for some VIP passing through.
If I were to write a short story about a person constructed with the props in Saba and Sausan’s pictures, it would be a newly married Begum Sahib called Dolly, Farah or Lubna – the pudgy wife of a hairy thirty-something banker. She is the milk-white mother of one who reigns supreme over her staff in a ‘Mashallah’ DHA house. She has pedicured nails and wears tight-fitting flower-print shalwar kameez. She doesn’t say all her prayers but throws on a dupatta on her gold-streaked hair every time she hears the azaan. She often has ladies-only Khatam sessions and committee parties. She has a penchant for chandeliers and is irredeemably superstitious. Pirs, society magazines and interior designers are all vital to her decision-making process. She is a woman who imports Louis Vuitton toilet paper from Dubai to instill awe in her committee gals. Deep down she’s a misogynist and her hospitality is unforgettable.
What makes this story or setting new in picture-making or painting is perhaps impeccable execution – a reinvention of technique and unusual materials. And some works in this show are truly innovative. House & Garden is a presidential-style ‘Mashallah’ house with Corinthian columns – abundant as they are in Defence Housing Authority in Lahore – with a high-heeled Aunty’s dream of a divan and stately flower pots. The picture is a poster or cover for its title, ‘House & Garden!’ The joke is lodged in the fact that House & Garden is an elegant English lifestyle magazine of interiors, travel and recipes. And this is a poor man’s local Third World vision of that sort of thing. But the house is also a certain idea of a house instead of an actual house. In fact most of what I read in Saba’s press about this new body of work were things I’d said about my own show, I heart Kitsch, back in 2011 and displayed at Lahore’s Rohtas gallery, involving words and phrases like ‘kitsch’, ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘seventeenth century Holland’ and ‘Peter Paul Rubens’ and so on.
The show is witty, spicy and a little cold-blooded
That is cheeky, no doubt, but the pictures seem to evoke the trappings of nouveau riche ‘paindooness’ while isolating themselves from its less saccharine values, namely: religious narrow-mindedness, superstition and a veiled (or outright) hatred of minorities. That isn’t a bad thing. Why should a painter be moralising tool? But the work by Saba Khan makes room for a familiar local violence whose absence in art upsets journalist-types who seem to think that art must have a direct relationship to news headlines. Sara’s three Boom Boom Boom! pictures do just that. Bullet-holes and jewelry. Brides, dowries, codes of honor, confinements of class and gender are fenced in with the threat of violence. Her Gajra, titled Brace It pushes this idea into a contradictory world of gunpowder, explosions and pain and the beauty of adorned women. This is a truly loaded object, brimming with potential energy.
‘Paindooness’ as potential energy for an aesthete, as an aesthetic. That’s one way of experiencing and accepting what is usually an eyesore – the voracious hunger of the bourgies and the threat it poses to the accepted upper class perception of taste and tradition. And aesthetic for its own sake is not necessarily a bad thing at all. No need to listen to accusations of shallowness from the little local intelligentsia that decries excessive skill as hollow aesthetic masturbation. To aestheticise paindooness is to release paindooness from the shackles of context. I think we can all agree that this is not earth-shattering, but it is remarkable.
This fixation on upward social mobility has its parallel in contemporary desi literature. Look at Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or Aravind Adiga’s relentless White Tiger. These are near-Dickensian stories of societies on the move, in turmoil. Old values of king and pauper are tried and true; the emerging and rowdy new world is ugly. It is hard to find pathos in it. And that is precisely what is missing in this show: Pathos (not to be confused with sentimentality). The show is witty and spicy and, well, a little cold-blooded. And it describes its artists more sharply than the amusing aspirations of classes they depict.
This ‘pretty’ isn’t ‘gritty’ so much as sticky and sickly sweet.
This is a traditional self-conscious show and it has the advantage – as opposed to Rashid Rana’s ambitious global creations – to be available for absorption (but not consumption!) as an image by a cook employed in an upper middle class home, as much as a student or teacher at NCA, or a banker who collects such pictures. It shows that there is indeed a vibrant local scene, unconcerned with Western fashions. I cherish this fact. It is sad to see similar works get lost in translation when they are shown outside South Asia or the Middle East, anchored with excessive academic Press Releases which always sound like excuses.
This is art created for us, by us. Let us not blow it out of proportion but let us also enjoy it, please.
Salman Toor is an artist. He lives between Lahore and New York