In mythology, chaos represented the primordial confusion which existed before the universe was set in order, and also the forces of confusion and disorder which still exist. It was frequently personified as a monster which battled with the gods, the forces of order. In some of these myths, though, they subdue it. And this is a victory which man had to act out periodically in rituals to keep chaos in check.
There is no lack of evidence to show that primitive man conceived of the cosmic process not as something stable, but as a great and continuous battle between the forces of creation and destruction, order and chaos.
The subject of chaos has fascinated many painters over the ages. Among the most famous of these are Pieter Brueghel the Elder(1525-1630) the most significant artist of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger(1564-1636), and Hieronymous Bosch of the same period. Brueghel the Elder’s impressive piece, titled ‘Tower of Babel,’ is a remarkable combination of order and chaos. Like his father, Brueghel the Younger, a painter of country folk, often presented chaos – his pictures often showing several things happening at once. Hieronymous Bosch is known for his fantastic illustration of religious concepts and narratives. His renowned triptych, ‘The Haywain Triptych,’ shows first a man in Paradise, followed by his wrong conduct and finally his life in Hell. Furthermore Theodore De Bry (1528-1598), a Flemish-German engraver, has left us a remarkabledepiction of chaos, in which hot, cold, moist and dry elements seethe in confusion out of which God created the universe and everything in it.
In the exhibition titled ‘Organized Chaos,’ Karachi’s Artscene Gallery has presented 5 young artists, mostly NCA graduates, giving their own interpretations of chaos and employing mixed media. The artists involved are Rabbiya Ilyas, Aleena Mazher, Wasif Afridi, Maha Rehan and Hira Siddiqui. Their work reflects the human condition, the effect of progress, the modern artist’s reinterpretation of the work of the old master painters and so on. Although much of their work involves a personal rather than a universal chaos, nevertheless it is interesting to observe and consider their points of view.
Maha Rehan explains that her work “revolves around the emotional complexities of one’s life. Different stages of life challenge us in different ways, so it’s interconnected with one’s ongoing situation. Because it affects us in many ways, negative or positive forces are always there…” Chaos is the condition into which the unborn babe she has presented will soon emerge. The tangle surrounding the child represents the neverending chaos of the world today – the negative and positive forces which the child will have to face. Yet there is, willy-nilly, organization in the way that nature has gradually, in an appropriate time frame, formed a physically perfect child. Or the artist could be suggesting that mankind is still in its infancy, and is about to emerge on a chaotic scene. And the tangled yet subtle use of colour suggests that even inside the womb, owing to the mother’s existence in this present world, some degree of chaos has infiltrated.
Aleena Mazher’s work is quite remarkable, and she has been invited to take part in some national exhibitions, such as the regional exhibition, “Harappa to Lahore via Katas” (2017) and the 9th National exhibition (2017) organised by the PNCA. Regarding her work for the current show at Artscene Gallery, she says, “In the intricate presence of the human pursuit towards the indefinite lies an ‘Organized Chaos’.” In her picture of a confused crowd of women, mostly going in the same direction, chaos is most certainly present. At first glance it resembles somewhat the work of the Brueghels. Do these women know where they’re going or what they’re looking for? Hands gesturing here and there, dupattas in various states of disarray, a few visible faces, mostly expressionless – it’s an intriguing repetition of elements, and there are, as Aleena says, “infinite possibilities” here. There is no subtle abstraction, which is claimed by a certain critic as being typical of her work. On the other hand, it is a busy and fascinating composition, a burst of harmonious colour. Its attractiveness is undeniable.
Chaos is very much a part of warfare, and Wasif Afridi feels that in this era of technology and advancement, “warfare has become the easiest and most common way to move from the individual to the international level.” He feels that since science has progressed beyond the imagination, it has also increased the rate of destruction in more ways than one, with many living in a gloomy environment, with nothing productive or healthy all around and people find themselves only able to be obstructive.
Their work reflects the human condition, the effect of progress and the modern artist’s reinterpretation of the work of the old master painters
One of his pictures contrasts chaos above a belt of greenery. The greenery being a depiction of constant positivity which helps us to survive. Much of the picture shows an apparently orderly and meditative pattern of circles, though actually Wasif used a burning tool to create these circles. Burning itself is a chaotic process, and by this means he hoped to present constant hardships. He has also used graphite to show darkness, and the hopelessness of victims of war. During war there is much darkness, as a blackout is compulsory at night, leaving people in areas under siege with only the hope of survival to sustain them.
Now for the Renaissance. This gives much inspiration to Hira Siddiqui, art instructor, independent curator and practising artist. “In my recent work,” she explains, “I am challenging myself to break away from conditioned narratives. I enjoy the process of decontextualizing images, and I challenge the inspiration in how work transforms as it moves from the canvas of the Renaissance master to the canvas of the (modern) artist where the process of artistry produces so many diverse dimensions.” She doesn’t think the viewer can derive a specific meaning from any of her paintings, and as to borrowing ideas from old masters’ canvases, in her whimsical piece showing various objects or parts thereof, mainly she has borrowed the halo! This is a prominent symbol in divinity and iconography, while the umbrella is there, not as a reminder of Mary Poppins, but as a symbol of power and dignity.
Meanwhile, she is fascinated by Sandro Botticelli’s 1480 piece titled ‘The Birth of Venus,’ and has used it in several of her works. Botticelli’s Venus was considered the ideal representation of Renaissance women, while right beside her in this piece is John William Godward’s 1908 painting titled ‘Athenais.’ This comparison seems to indicate that in Godward’s day and age the standards of feminine beauty were almost the same as in Botticelli’s time. So some elements in this composition are there to represent the Renaissance, while others are there to balance the composition, such as the cluster of eyes showing different points of view. Hira is very keen that the viewer should enjoy her work.
Last but not least, let’s consider the motivation and work of Rabbiya Ilyas, a contemporary visual artist from Lahore who has taken part in several group shows notably the Young Artists’ Exhibition at Alhamra Art Gallery. Her current body of work “portrays the odious character of moralizing people in our society, who confuse people with their hypocritical miens, but are doing immoral and disgraceful acts.” For example, many women and girls are kidnapped and imprisoned, then disgracefully used. Some she has shown in an intricately textured, hexagonal glass prison, though ironically the hexagon is often depicted as a symbol of harmony – quite the opposite of chaos, suffering and so on. And it is arguably one of the strongest structures in the world. Rabbiya has presented a maze-like series of hexagons, one within the other, right to the central star. And the curvaceous women, whom she describes as pornographic figures, trapped within – will they ever escape, and what will they suffer in the meantime?
The unborn babe, the confused crowd of women, warfare, whimsical remnants of the Renaissance, the hexagonal prison, here are some of these young artists’ representations of organization and chaos. Meanwhile, along with positive forces such as the creative, the forces of destruction and disorder still surround us. As to how far they’ll lead or mislead us, who can say? Let us pray that the creative and positive forces will be victorious.