It is hard to imagine now how people survived or enjoyed life before the invention of cinema. Films not only provide great moments of entertainment, they offer us a chance to shape our desires and decipher our feelings. They act as companions to a lonely person who falls in love with an actor, imagines himself in an ideal environment, and gets involved in actions of bravery or betrayal.
Celluloid substitutes the real life, the virtual being more exciting than the physical. The theatres in Lahore in the 1980s entertained an audience that came in search of fantasy, fun and pleasure to the dark halls, transporting them from their miserable and loveless lives to the glamorous beds of blondes.
Ahmed Ali Manganhar, on the other hand, has a penchant for local films. For years, he has been painting images based on movies made in Lahore, especially the ones in Punjabi. Figures and faces of veteran actors such as Anjuman, Sultan Rahi, Nadeem, Shabnam and others have been occupying his canvases. But his paintings are not exactly a celebration of Lollywood. In his work, the link to film imagery has a complex relationship — ranging from art historical to societal and personal.
Manganhar is not alone in doing this. In the brief history of Pakistani art, a number of artists have used cinema visuals for diverse reasons. Perhaps the earliest and most prominent name is of Ijaz ul Hassan, with his Thah and other paintings derived from popular cinema in the 1970s. Iftikhar Dadi in his works from early 1990s incorporated film clippings as shown on Pakistan’s national television. Rashid Rana in his solo exhibition Sense Non-Sense (held in 2000) appropriated cinema aesthetics to comment upon the condition of society and our approach towards different issues (a practice that continued in his later works in the form of digital prints).
Films not only bring out the sensitivity or sentimentality or sensuous self within us, they formulate the collective response to whatever is taking place in our surroundings. Thus a poster not only describes the scene of a story, it also indicates how we perceive gender, violence, law, love and lust as a group. The reaction to a woman dancing on the screen or a hero beating his opponent is often very strong and can’t be compared to the rather feeble response to say a piece of poetry, painting or music (In cinemas that cater to people from all classes, I have witnessed people dancing on the thin wall that separates the box from the stall during a steamy song or a violent fight, and wondered on the extent of emotion evoked through the ‘art’ of film that compels an ordinary viewer to leave his seat and put his life in danger).
Ahmed Ali recognises this force of film on a personal level and also as a conscious member of society who is aware of its political, economic and social structure. For him, film can be metaphor for a society to denote other issues. In his recent solo exhibition (Mirroring Fantasy, held from Feb 3-12, 2015 at Canvas Gallery Karachi), Manganhar has managed to capture the essence of film aesthetics which is not pretty or pretentious but presents how these films depict a love for life.
Both the art and life are more like a hangover of past years, particularly in the case of Punjabi cinema. The times of Rahi, Anjuman and, to some extent, Saima are gone without anything to replace them in the industry. Ahmed Ali Manganhar’s paintings can be seen as reminiscences of a genre which is still being produced but is unable to compete with Indian films.
One can sense the longing for lost pleasures as the artist adopts a ‘diction’ that is as ephemeral as the state of contemporary Punjabi cinema. In some of his canvases, references to characters and situations from films are rendered as posters rather torn, or painted over in singular colours. So the work portrays not only what was presented and projected outside but has a subjective quality — of personalising the movie and preserving it afterwards (An act not too different from watching a movie in the privacy of one’s bedroom or living space).
In several of his painting, the images of movies are constructed as ripped posters or compositions of various overlapped clips but in each the incredible quality of Manganhar as a painter seduces the viewer. The loosely-painted forms and faces confirm as to how for an artist, everything comes down to putting a loaded brush on a surface. In his latest show too, Manganhar has surprised with his facility of rendering actors and scenes as if these were repositories of the unconscious self.
In the exhibition at Canvas Gallery a significant portion was made as small icons — or homage to female stars — inside decorative borders. Casually rendered yet clearly identifiable faces of Katrina, Priyanka and other beautiful actors in the series of Icons (made of even panels) somehow suggest a link with the tradition of miniature painting. The images are of a size usually associated with the art of miniature and are contained within frames that have decorative patterns like the border of a conventional miniature painting.
But more than a comment or comparison between the popularity of miniature and cinema, the painter has a personal and private fascination with the images and actors that have enticed for decades. This is evident in the way he has dealt with his subjects — like a canvas sometimes resembling a dabbed rag.
The ability that Manganhar shows in his re-appropriation of film imagery can be glimpsed in his works about the city of Lahore, which are created perhaps under the shadow of Gauguin and Cezanne. One knows the pressures of all sorts in terms of inhaling identity, history and tradition, but one is perplexed why a painter like Ahmed Ali Manganhar still has to go through the checkpoint of Post Impressionists in order to be stamped entry into the domain of art world.