One wonders about a 32 years old painter’s fascination with scenarios that herald death — wrinkled faces, withered bodies, loosened skin and wilted flowers. Old age is often referred as a curse: British writer and critic V.S. Pritchett said on his ninetieth birthday: “As one gets older one becomes very boring and long-winded to oneself”. Hence the war against old age: anti-aging lotions, Botox, medicines, potions and recipes to revive youth, power and potency.
Yet Maria Khan is interested in elderly people. Her work — titled ‘Vanity is Stronger Than Love at Sixteen’ — is replete with figures, men and women, who seem seventy plus, but their demeanour defies the weakness, frailty and fragility connected with advanced years. With their youthful charm, they look like heroes and heroines from another era. Their bodies may have transformed, their features changed, but their posture and costume reflect a sense of vitality.
Contrary to many artists of her generation who are exploring the idea of beauty, glamour, perfection through objects of nature, social class or their own age group, Maria Khan has always been drawn towards out-of-ordinary (weird?) ideas. During her course of studies in the MA Visual Arts programme at NCA (2010-12), she portrayed women who were dark, fat, bloated to some extent. However, these figures were painted with such care, affection and love, that these became emblems of attraction. Through her sensitive use of lines, manipulation of spatial relationship and preference for varying shades of dark hues (black and greys), she created these figures which became eternal. Like a rose.
Actually, it is not appearance that makes something pretty but the link of that person, piece of nature, object and image with an already existing idea of perfection in our heads that confirms it as beautiful. Thus, in one culture dark skin is charming whereas it if fair complexion for another, and so on.
Despite these, there are a few things on which there is consensus in every culture. For instance, flowers, sunsets and children are equally praised by all. Charm is linked with youth while old age is believed to be a burden. But contradictory to general assumptions about beauty, ideal form and attractive figures, Maria Khan digs into what is often neglected in art and life. She explores formats which are not about sharing political or social content but showing human figures that are usually ignored. Her focus is not on grotesque but normality. Her models are not strange but ordinary beings who can be spotted in our surroundings, waiting for a bus, sitting in front of tv, buying groceries at a corner shop, or busy gossiping at family functions.
In a sense her choice of individuals is not much different from some fashion designers’ decision to engage ‘regular’ models who do not represent glamour but reality. The reality may be negligible, familiar thus unexciting; yet it possesses multiple possibilities to discover basic truths about life and society, mainly about ourselves. Because whenever a person opens a piece of fiction, watches a movie, sits in a theatre or attends a dance performance, he is basically seeing himself reflected through these art forms.
Likewise, when we look at the figures painted by Maria Khan from her recently concluded solo show, January 9-18, 2018 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, we trace some section of ourselves in these elderly figures. It’s a feeling as if we are in the presence of our parents and grandparents. We realise that in spite of our utmost efforts, we are replicating their voice, gestures, expressions and conduct, that are hereditary.
By portraying her figures, Khan diminishes the distance between age limitations. In fact, when a viewer notices the getup of these ‘elderly thus respectable’ characters, he is shocked to spot the bright red lipsticks, pink kerchief tucked in the upper pocket of a jacket, elderly maiden with patterned undergarments, an old man with big flower (a rose) stuck in his coat’s pocket — obsessions normally not associated with senior citizens. Khan suggests that it is the soul of a person that is more important than the condition of a body. Maria Khan has captured that spirit in her drawings which include mature people surrounded by different plants.
In her scheme of adding background material/context, Khan has deliberately added flowers but all shrivelled up. Somehow, these plants represent and replicate the state of human beings who in different costumes communicate a sense of approaching demise. Along with this, the artist’s decision about her palette — mostly black & white, sometimes on light brown background — adds to the power of persuasion of her chosen imagery. This dominant monochromatic tone reminds of the era of black & white photography one identifies with the heydays of these old characters.
More than the chromatic order, the manner of rendering these figures is crucial for Maria Khan. In the art world, drawing an old man is a favourite practice for a formal reason. Compared to a youth or a kid’s face in which lines are fluid, swift, and sharp, lines on an old person’s features stop, stumble, and have varying thickness. One believes the artist has invested in the elderly to remind us of our responsibility towards those who are past their prime, but at the same instance her interest in portrait and bodies of older folks have a formal fascination too, because a pencil enjoys its path more if its rests, reflects and relaxes while denoting the outlines of an elderly body compared to the taut skin of a youthful individual.
In the work of Maria Khan, old age is not about past, it is about present, in which we have new-borns, infants, toddlers, adolescents, teenagers and old people. They are all projected in the images of couples, single figures, who may be elderly, yet are more alive than anyone else — thanks to their attires, postures, interactions, and the formal treatment by Maria Khan.