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The city centre

The city takes the centre-stage in the art of Farida Batool displayed at the Gandhara Art Space, Karachi

The city centre
Oos shehr mein mohabbat, 2009.

American novelist Siri Hustvedt observes: “Every painting is always two paintings: the one you see and the one you remember; which is also to say that every painting worth talking about reveals itself over time and takes on its story inside the viewer.”

But a lenticular print is more than two visuals. It reveals itself with the passage of time and unfolds its imagery with the shift in the viewers’ position. On each new step one discovers a new side — of the otherwise static two-dimensional work. The same was experienced in the solo show of Farida Batool, held from August 18 to September 16, 2016 at the Gandhara Art Space, Karachi. The exhibition was “the third and last in the project series titled Look at the City From Here curated by Hajra Haider Karrar” that includes works of three artists who are contemporaries (class-fellows at the National College of Arts), and share concerns, like politics, power, popular visual expression and urban situation.

But the city takes the centre-stage in the art of Farida Batool. For her the city, particularly Lahore, turns into a metaphor where political powers and ordinary public interact with and confront each other. To denote this site, Batool has opted for a medium, whether lenticular or digital print, that is based on photography.

Images from her surroundings are captured, edited, manipulated and combined in order to convey her content. But her choice of photography is significant because it forms part of her content and concerns. Photographs are considered to replicate reality, and in appearance her work verges into the domain of journalistic reporting — something that invokes the element of truth and impartiality. Compared to a news item which is still a piece of writing by an individual, a photograph printed in a newspaper is perceived as factual, authentic and accurate.

Batool has picked this visual vocabulary in order to fabricate her work that deals with the relation of power structures/systems in a society. Her Kahani Eik Shahr Ki (2012) is comprised of combined views of a street in which the artist is walking across barriers, policemen, walls with political, religious and medicinal chalking, vendors and other pedestrians. Besides the wall that continues to extend, the connecting element is the figure of the artist who seems to be constantly moving, with the technique of lenticular printing.

Kahani eik sheher ki , 2012.

Kahani eik sheher ki , 2012.

What she discovers is the composition of a city that has evolved into a complex social structure without any planning or programme. Changes in our urban spaces due to the threat of terrorist attacks, religious intolerance and increasing fundamentalist sentiments constitute a narrative that anyone living in today’s Pakistan can identify with.

In Batool’s work, the power of virtual is a potent part to decode the message since the artist’s choice of lenticular technique is a way to provide some experience of a moving image.

Lahore with its red brick architecture and glimpses of old town emerges as a major formal component in her art. But one realises the story can be extended to other parts of Pakistan, if not to different areas of South Asia and regions beyond. All those societies, which have experienced terrorism, are trying to cope with it using barriers, raised front walls, search points, barbed wires, hoping these measures are enough to safeguard against any terrorist threat. It requires an extensive survey to know the impact of these efforts and whether encouraging tolerance and openness in the society would be more effective, but these additions have altered the civic space as well as the psychology of its inhabitants.

Works such as Oos Shahr Ki Oonchi Deewar (2009) and Oos Shahr Ka Band Darwaza (2009) allude to that sense of enclosure in a city, now being experienced as normal and necessary. In the first digital print with grey tones, a wall of small bricks signifies the unending terrain of terror and restrictions. The artist has created a continuous image without a beginning or an end, and removed the sky and land. So the tightly joined bricks turn into a symbol of a blinding barrier, which might be about present day security crises but could also signify how since beginning governing bodies create insurmountable distances among classes, between the ruling elite and the subjugated population.

Oos shehr ka band darwaza, 2009.

Oos shehr ka band darwaza, 2009.

The other digital print about a doorframe filled with bricks also suggests how we are fast turning into an enclosed society from an open one.

Paradoxically, as the physical contact is turning rarer, access on virtual arena is getting easier. So a person who cannot travel to the US or Europe or cannot entre into a house of power can conveniently visit these ‘forbidden’ places virtually.

In Batool’s work, the power of virtual is a potent part to decode the message since the artist’s choice of lenticular technique is a way to provide some experience of a moving image. But that movement is limited, restricted, and controlled, like the video installation Marching Masculinities (2016) in which she has composed image of a marching person in a grid form. The movement due to its repetition and replication conveys the machine-like (or inhuman?) side of power, because it appears as a fabricated video segment rather than footage of a real human being.

Marching Masculinities (2016).

Marching Masculinities (2016).

The link between reality and its reproduction is invoked in another work Dekhna Manaa Hai (2009) with eyes of various people combined together. When a viewer moves in front of the lenticular print, he gets the sensation of seeing some of them closing their eyes. Hence the title ‘Viewing is forbidden’. To an extent, it indicates the situation of society in which many sights are barred from public.

Dekhna manaa hai , 2009.

Dekhna manaa hai , 2009.

One such sight was a short video in which Taliban were shown playing football with the decapitated head of their victim. Perhaps this video generated Farida Batool’s installation World Cup16 (2016), in which a number of footballs were scattered on the floor. These footballs look ordinary in their size, making, material and placement, except that each side of the football shows parts of human body. The artist has printed images of body on leather and then workers have sewn these patches to produce footballs, deciding on what section is joined to which one. Yet these random compositions look gruesome and gory.

World Cup 16, 2016.

World Cup 16, 2016.

All works from her solo exhibition certify how an artist can live and love a city but cannot leave it. Even if her art did not have too obvious or specific signs of Lahore, most of her titles in Urdu sentences made it ‘landlocked’.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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