Many years ago, while having tea at a café in Karachi near Zainab Market I looked around and thought how all other people in the cafe looked Chinese, African, European, Indian and Middle Eastern. On a closer look, I realised they all belonged to Pakistan — one of them was a Hazara from Quetta, others were Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, Punjabis, Pathans and a Sheedi from Interior Sindh or Makran.
Not only in Karachi but elsewhere in Pakistan, there are different ethnic groups without having specific common features. This is also true for landscape, seasons, attires and languages — and is equally valid for visual art, known for its diversity and multiplicity.
That diversity is the focus of ‘The Children of Ambiguity’, the solo exhibition of Irfan Hassan being held from Sept 20-29, 2016 at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi. Hassan has recently become more known for making human figures in layers of thin paint on white paper; some of these refer to famous paintings from European art history. He has also portrayed his friends and fellow artists in the style of European art movements, particularly from Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. In these portraits, Hassan demonstrates his high level of skill in three areas: capturing the likeness of his subject; transforming a living model into a subject from art history; command in execution through a medium as difficult and challenging as watercolour.
In fact his training as a miniature painter at the National College of Arts enabled him to employ, rather extend, the technique of gad rang (a traditional method of building tones through coats of even colours). In the present exhibition, he has used the same method — to create portraits on large and small sheets of white paper. To create this body of work, Hassan has photographed young men and women who come from various parts of Pakistan, mostly the northern areas.
And not only in his works on paper but in his pictures, too, he has tried to transform them into characters from Western art and culture. For instance, the photograph of a recent graduate of NCA who comes from the tribal area looks like the image of Jesus Christ. Likewise, another girl from Balochistan reminds one of the model in Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.
In his latest work, Hassan does not depict total faces; so these characters seem to be evolving or emerging from a void (or white background). Yet with his remarkable skill in rendering detail, these portraits appear real even with incomplete features and missing parts. Whether larger than life faces or in normal scales, these images convey not just the command of the artist on his tools and technique or his successful attempt in blending reality with art; his real talent lies in his approach towards the question of identity. His choice of concentrating on models from Northern Areas is not a simple or random one; it includes a number of assumptions, beliefs and practices — from ancient to present times.
It is presumed by some that the Pashtun population of KP owes its origin to Alexander the Great’s Greek army. One also occasionally comes across attempts to trace their genetic link with the lost tribes of Jews. All these readings are made on the basis of their light eyes, fair hair and pale complexion.
Regardless of any truth in these conceptions, comparing the faces of Pakistani population, one realises the disparity in the ethnic roots of the Pakistani nation despite the commonalities like national boundary, Identity Card, passport, load-shedding, cricket team, currency, army, flag, founder of the nation, anthem and Independence Day. All these unifying elements, which shape the features of a nation, are not in clash or contrast with the diversity found in this country.
The diversity not just means freedom of multiple choices, various views and different ways and practices; it also questions the formulation of a single identity. What can be observed in/through the portraits of Irfan Hassan is a basic fact that there is no prototype or standard Pakistani face. As there is no one dress associated with this country. Likewise, there is no uniform language nor a single religion practiced here. In the past, we used to have one Radio Pakistan and singular PTV but with the media revolution (is there any other revolution possible now?), we now enjoy multiple radio and tv channels — usually competing with and contradicting each other.
This is not about the loss of identity but it makes us believe in multiplicity of identities. As Amartya Sen writes: “I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife”.
In the work of Irfan Hassan, too, faith in many manifestations of our existence is conveyed although he has concentrated on a selective mode to represent this idea — by focusing on the racial features of a people who may be presented as outsiders. To some extent, this choice is related to the saga of migration. Who knows that by drawing individuals from today’s displaced ethnic community (of Northern Areas), Irfan Hassan is portraying himself, a painter, whose ancestors migrated from India to Pakistan after the Partition of1947.