Now and then, an artist is siezed with or by an idea which is likely to haunt them for some time to come. Sometimes these ideas never let go. Having seen Paul Rizvi’s recent show “When a Grown Man Plays with Dolls,” one felt that this was the limit to which surprise could go. However, Karachi’s Canvas Gallery has recently displayed Tazeen Qayyum’s “Cover the Same Ground,” in which the time-honoured cockroach takes first place, and one understands its ability to attract and repel at the same time, depending upon how it is presented.
Why do I say “time-honoured?” Well, the earliest cockroach-like fossils, i.e. blattopterans or roachids, are from the ex-Carboniferous period, 320 million years ago. Since the 19th century, scientists believed that they were an ancient group of insects that had a Devonian origin – according to one hypothesis. But as it happens, they originated 49 million years ago in the New World – in North America to be precise, and have been classified as periplanata americana. So they were thriving when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Besides having 12 chambers in their hearts, they have a strong capability for limb regeneration in the nymph stage, and special spines to help maintain traction. Furthermore, they can withstand compression forces of 300 times their body weight when crawling through cracks. And don’t tell anybody, but years ago I read of a restaurant in Tokyo where a dish of “hygienic” cockroaches was served to interested diners!
“Selecting a cockroach in particular shows an interesting contrast of beauty and grossness in my work, and a unique similarity to notions of religions and race-based fright”
Meanwhile,Tazeen is a contemporary miniature painter, who graduated BFA in visual arts from NCA Lahore, and besides receiving various awards, has taken part in a number of shows in Canada, Australia, the U.S.A. and Austria. Through her work she comments, now and then, on subjects like human rights violations and war fatalities. As to the cockroach, “It crept into my work back in 2002,” she explains, “when the U.S. and its allies launched the war on terror in full force. When people are killed like insects around the world, we question our insensitivity and the diminishing value of human life. Selecting a cockroach in particular shows an interesting contrast of beauty and grossness in my work, and a unique similarity to notions of religions and race-based fright.”
Tazeen also used the cockroach image in 2008, in a show titled “Exclusive Realities” at Chawkandi Gallery, as a response to the Gulf War, where the suffering of the people was shown akin to the cockroach form. At that time, curator Amra Ali’s comment was, “This time she separates the cockroach parts and makes it appear like a slow tableau of drawings and coded messages. With the embossing, the lyrical line, white on black or vice versa, one would not even know that these were cockroach forms.” And one might well comment similarly on parts of her present show at Canvas.
In this exhibition she has presented many examples of black and white, circular forms, which could be said to resemble calligraphy but are actually composed of cockroach legs. They present forms of increasing density. Of course the piece of greatest density and adventure is composed of embossed cast iron, and titled “Cover up 3.” There are 4 concentric circles here, the circle symbolising totality, wholeness, perfection, eternity. These circles are divided at various junctures by pairs of lines containing smaller circles. In the outer space are – voila!- seven adult cockroaches following one another around, to what purpose one cannot say. But the most incredible feature of this composition is a lotus flower, right in the centre. This is indeed amazing, since the lotus is the Buddhist symbol of purity, quite the antithesis of the cockroach.
“To your Heart’s Desire” brings to mind the many stories written about the rose, its beauty and how possessing it is believed to gives happiness. Think of the lengths that both prince and pauper have gone to in order to find the rose desired by the princess. The Chinese Story of “The Blue Rose” is a case in point. Tazeen has given us a beautiful red rose – but where is the heart’s content if this wonderful flower is surrounded by cockroaches, each in its own little niche? Sometimes our heart’s desire, when attained, gives us great pain and lifelong regret. “Aesthetic Pollution” is similar in that the pure white circle is surrounded by undesirable creatures. One good puff of insecticide would get rid of them all; but what a lonely vista is now and then left behind when people and things deemed repulsive are suddenly despatched!
Now, what is a vortex? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is a whirling motion or mass, even a system, occupation or pursuit, viewed as swallowing up or engrossing those who approach it. The one presented here and titled “Vortex Overflow,” in some way resembles a black hole in space. As aforesaid, the cockroach may be either repulsive or attractive, depending on how it is presented. Here we have a combination of “Beauty and the Beast,” since the outer, larger ones are instantly repulsive – the further they are from the vortex opening, the more repulsive they seem. The smaller, colourfully decorated ones are, to a certain degree, attractive, even if each one bears a blue cockroach among its decorations. Unity amongst these is part of their attraction. But who will first be swallowed or anyway drawn back into the vortex? Sometimes the desire to be beautiful holds unsuspected dangers, or excelling in one’s chosen field can destroy one, depending, for example, upon who one’s competitors are, what the stakes are, and so on.
“Fall into Decay” is rather attractive, with its 2 black circles filled with a variety of flowers blue, white, mauve , pink. Even the ubiquitous blue cockroaches with their decorative, initially floral appearance do not detract from its appeal. But the clusters of detached vermin legs remind us that beautiful things may fall to pieces, beautiful people may fade away – fall into decay as it were.
There is much to be learned from Tazeen’s variety of skillful presentations, with their underlying messages, their concealed dangers and their many contrasts.