In the world of the arts, it is not uncommon for the child to follow the parent and achieve equal or at least considerable success. Take, for example, the several sons of the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), all of whom became composers of note – their music showing the father’s influence. And in the world of painting, the names of the Dutch artists Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) and Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1636) are not likely to be forgotten, though the son (nicknamed “Hell Brueghel” for his depictions of fire, hell and grotesque imagery) spent much of his time on reproductions of his father’s more peaceful paintings, thus contributing greatly to the Elder’s international fame.
However, none of this applies in the case of the well-known Karachi artist Khusro Subzwari and his daughter Shanzay, with her remarkable talent. The father is a mystical, spiritual painter, devoted to the poetry of Rumi, and at present to the depiction of the whirling dervishes who follow his philosophy, while the daughter, an IVS graduate, is a most original miniaturist whose main preoccupation is the portrayal of deception in the material culture surrounding us. Her recent first solo show, “Tale as old as time,” based on ingenious adaptations of currency notes and held at the Sanat Gallery, was a virtual sellout. Furthermore, she was recently invited to Switzerland as a panelist in the ten-member “Watch and Talk” team in the Belluard Bollwerk International Theatre and Performance Festival.
“While at art school, I was very much drawn to miniature work, because of its intricacy, and because I like to put a lot of detail into my work. Also, I was inspired by the work of some of my teachers, like Irfan Hassan and Muhammad Zeeshan,” she explained. And of course, the whole idea of miniature painting has changed drastically from the days when kings would commission these works to create a certain image of themselves and the events and achievements of their reigns. The miniatures of today are called “neominiatures” – still faithful to the basics of the style, but with artists bringing in new ideas and using new mediums. Some established miniaturists, for instance Naveed Sadiq, currently studying at Slade School in London, are saddened by some of the changes taking place, feeling that there is not enough attention given to pardakht, for example. Others acknowledge, however, that modern artists are trying to keep alive the basic sensibility of the style and dare to hope for something really remarkable from the synthesis now taking place.
Shanzay started working with currency notes even before graduation and feels that the delicacy of the portraits and borders seen in many of these notes, especially the vintage ones, echoes the meticulous borders of Mughal miniature works, as the designing of most currencies is done using the principles of miniature painting. There is a definite contrast between the miniatures executed at the command of Mughal rulers – unseen by most people – and most currency notes, which are widely circulated. “But,” says Shanzay, “there is still a similarity in that currency notes provide ‘portraits’ of rulers, and present a record of significant attainments by nations: therefore, like miniature paintings, currency notes carry their own stories.”
And our conversation continued thus…
The designing of most currencies is done using the principles of miniature painting
NJ: Your work shows a deep concern regarding deception in its various forms.
S: Yes, when I was very young I became aware of some of the subtle ways in which the consumerist world manipulates us. Consumerism is another interest of mine, and it’s connected with currency. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, played a major role in attaching people’s emotions to products, thereby helping to create a materialistic society. I suppose I’d want my work to make people think about the numerous ways in which material choices are manipulated by the media, and also about the larger picture of how major world decisions are based on this.
In my first exhibition, I illustrated the concept of deception by the portrayal of .roses – red roses, blue roses and so on. They all represent deception too, as the flower is beautiful but transient. Beauty is not there forever. And the blue rose is something that does not even exist naturally.
NJ: There is in fact an old Chinese folk tale, in which a princess said she’d marry the man who could bring her a blue rose. Eventually she married the court gardener, as after all the false things presented by princes, he came bearing a single white rose into a room where the blue glass of the windows coloured the rose, whatever test was applied to it. This was taken as evidence of his honesty and sincerity.
S: Yes, and when we see this or that on T.V. for example, I feel that the truth is not really there, in the sense that we’re never shown the actuality of the situation. It’s always … what they want us to believe. So here and there in my pictures I’ve overlapped faces, to show that the reality is hidden. We don’t know whose is the true face… What’s more, I’ve used a lot of Disney symbols in this exhibition, because his work has been around for 90 years, and has influenced the minds if so many children all over the world, for example regarding what the perfect life should be. That’s a sort of manipulation of their minds.
NJ: True. The child that we once were lives on in many of us, and inspires our work. But what inspired the title of this exhibition, “A tale as old as time”?
S: It’s the title of a song from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. Well actually, since the power of deception has been there for hundreds of years, I felt it was an apt title for my show.
NJ: There’s a strong allegorical influence in your work. Would you call your work ‘allegorical’?
S: Yes, sometimes I create the underlying story and sometimes it creates itself. And what I’d like the viewer to do is to understand my perception, though I really like to hear what their ideas are, too. But I love to show things that aren’t immediately perceptible. Maybe this reflects the aspect of deception. It’s only when you really look into something that you understand, as very few things are transparent.
NJ: I see a few dragons in your work, which is very interesting, as the dragon is one of the most complex and universal symbols on earth – in western culture it symbolises sin, wickedness and ferocity, quite the opposite of its eastern counterpart’s attributes of wisdom, benignity and spiritual powers.
S: One or two of my dragons are from miniature painting references. But then, in the piece titled, “Oh dear, what an awkward situation,” where I’ve featured the Pakistani 100-rupee note, I placed a dragon taken from Disney’s movie version of “The Sleeping Beauty” on Quaid-e-Azam’s Ziarat house, which it’s trying to burn down. Obviously this is a comment on how political activists some years ago tried to do just this. I wanted to show how internally there are so many conflicts, and to question whether people still care for these historic buildings.
Modern artists are trying to keep alive the basic sensibility of the miniature style
Shanzay’s use of the octopus is also really canny, and this being of the deep is very much suited to her theme, though in her work it is depicted as Ursula, the villain from Disney’s movie version of “The Mermaid.”
In so-called real life, this creature moves skillfully in a realm that’s in constant motion – like the business and financial world, and the lack of a structured spinal column gives it the agility and flexibility to slip out of the tightest places. So in this it reminds us that we may move towards goals in unorthodox ways, and its flair for camouflage suggests how our bank balances, national development plans, foreign loans and international agreements may appear and disappear with ease.
Minoan art depicts the octopus as unfurling itself, which was symbolic of the creation and expansion of the universe, and may today be interpreted as the expansion of the financial world. And the artist’s display of an octopus on an old 500 rupee note, with its tentacles wrapped around the state bank suggests how banks both foreign and indigenous entrap those in need, binding them irrevocably.
Ursula also appears, dark and foreboding, in the piece employing mixed media on digital print, titled “Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?”
The currency note has the intricate border that Shanzay loves, and the subject is a young man – actually taken from a classical miniature – bearing an olive branch, with the intent to bring peace between India and Pakistan. On the right we see a sad looking Jinnah, on the left an equally unhappy Gandhi, both surrounded by the clouds that complicate the issue; and Ursula is the unknown force working to create dissension between them.
The gouache-on-paper piece titled “Running the Circus from the Monkey Cage,” is one of the few which are not based on currency notes or Disney references, and it features a number of world leaders attached like flowers to the branch of a tree, while the light green wash is pleasingly manipulated. I asked Shanzay, “How did you come up with this title?”
So she explained, “When you’re at a circus, you don’t expect the monkey to run the show. So this again shows deception, as you feel that somebody else is dictating the procedure. And that reflects upon these leaders – and not just them, as some of them are now part of history – but maybe the current leaders of their nations, where somebody else is pulling the strings, making puppets of them.”
Somewhat mystifying is the mixed media piece on paper, titled, “How do you run from what’s inside your head,” based on the refreshingly plain currency note from Monaco, with its simple border. The beautifully-coloured centerpiece, surrounded by a refreshing combination of plant emblems, is actually taken from Disney’s movie version of Alice in Wonderland, and the butterflies’ wings are actually made of bread and butter. The lamp on the right is of course from the story of Aladdin, where the genie promised to grant three wishes – just as we are promised so much by our national leaders, but…
Meanwhile, as to the animals and the human figures, they are all from miniature paintings, and even the animals have a hierarchy amongst them, showing how some nations are more powerful than others, while the Sufi figures below remind us of how Mughal emperors used to lean towards Sufism, and also of how unknown, unseen entities make the decisions.
In a lighter vein comes “It’s always teatime,” a magnificent Tower of Babel, again rooted in “Alice in Wonderland,” specifically from the scene called “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.” Lewis Carroll could not possibly have imagined the ways in which his book would influence the wider field of culture. In fact, in the Mad Hatter’s world, it’s never teatime, so the tea party characters, like many in the so-called real world, are trapped in time, repeating the same meaningless words and actions. Amongst the symbols presented are Aladdin’s magic carpet, hard-working African slaves, a chameleon from a Mughal miniature, representing the changeable nature of the world. And from the steam a Mughal miniature figure representing the suspicion surrounding Muslims and Muslim brotherhood, aims his gun at a Russian woman. Below all this Benjamin Franklin, an early American president, is really stuck in the soup – like so many national leaders all over the world.
So all this is a take on the current political scenario, again reminding us of the colonial past, of slavery, some currency notes, like the Russian, redolent of questionable liberty, the Syrian woman symbolic of the current refugee crisis, and so on. And this piece typifies Shanzay’s amazing general knowledge, her flair for wry humour, for symbolism, for the fantastic, for composition, and for loyalty to her aim of exposing deception in its many forms. When I asked her, “Your show was a virtual sellout, but did your buyers understand what they’d bought?” we laughed as she confessed:
“Actually I had to spend 10 to 15 minutes explaining each piece to intending buyers!”