According to Roman author Pliny, two Greek painters of 4th century BC were in competition regarding their ability to depict reality. One of them, Zeuxis, painted grapes so convincingly that some birds started circling around the image. Pleased by himself, he noticed the painting of his rival Parrhasios, still covered by a piece of textile, and asked him to remove it — only to discover that it was painted! The second painter was praised more because Zeuxis was able to trick animals while Parrhasios had managed to deceive human beings.
In his recent exhibition at Taseer Art Gallery, Irfan Cheema was successful in confusing artists, art critics and art collectors alike. Being an accomplished fashion designer, he decided to paint and did it in such a masterly manner that it was difficult to distinguish his painted canvases from coloured photographs. Cheema, the second graduate of Pakistan School of Fashion Design in Lahore, has been teaching fashion in Shanghai since 2005. Before that, he taught the subject for three years in Cairo. Hence, one wonders about the motive and need to indulge in painting on canvas that is not fashionable any more.
Yet this is what he has opted for and one can relate to the artist’s choice. In his 17 still life paintings (oil on linen), grapes, plums, sunflowers, Sakura blossoms, lilies, pomegranate, figs, corn, pumpkins along with parrots and sparrows are naturalistically illustrated. His canvases also include books, porcelain horse, cashmere shawls and Persian kilim. Some of these objects are placed against the backdrop of Chinese silk paintings, or next to Chinese pots.
In terms of the artist’s selection of his subject (still life), ingredients of his arrangements and his preferred use of brush echo the classicist aesthetics from a bygone era, in which still life was a favourite theme for the affluent class which, according to John Berger, demonstrated their power of possessions. These include expensive drinks, exotic food and elaborate tableware proudly displayed at their posh residences. A glimpse on these ‘still life’ canvases could stir your life by comparing the deficiencies, failures and frustrations of an ordinary person to the lavish way of living by the possessors and propagator of these canvases.
Today, these paintings leave a different message. Instead of conveying a person’s wealth, these represent a pictorial language where attention to detail of items is more important than to the overall impact of the work and the number of objects is like entries on a ledger of household property. These represent an age of leisure, affluence and perfection. Thus while an owner has the pleasure to savour delicious food obtained from far-off shores, he is also happy to appreciate the painstakingly made painting of those foods and fruits.
In our times, this kind of imagery has another meaning. From historical references to calendar visuals, these images have become part of our lives. Everybody can buy the prints of these luxurious spread of food, fruit and cutlery and adorn the walls of their dining rooms and kitchens. Through these easily available images, one can formulate the idea of perfect living.
In Irfan Cheema’s paintings, the notion of perfect lifestyle is wedded with a perfect scheme of painting. Thus the depiction of each item and aspect is immaculate. And so is the selection of his props, since all allude to a comfortable lifestyle. In a sense, the painter has attracted and appealed to a class who can identify with these fruits in their collection of pottery, along with their prized tapestry. Even though the selection of food, backdrop silk painting, and the inclusion of Chinese pottery marks the usual setting of a painter who has been living in Shanghai since 2005, when seen in Pakistan, it is translated into another content perhaps not intended by the painter.
This leads to a normal issue in art — that an artist who is normally unaware of his imagery’s background and is engaged with familiar and ‘ordinary’ material is read in a different context at another place. For example, an artist living in the US for several years produces works which deal with ethnic conflict, race relationship, and the problem of being a Muslim female surviving in a ‘Western’ society; but when these are viewed in her abandoned homeland, the perception changes.
One may take pride in the fact that works of art have multiple interpretations or feel frustrated that with geography the intended concept of the artist evaporates.
In the case of Irfan Cheema, probably the initial motive of the artist did get transmitted. The artist was keen in enjoying the depiction of a terracotta platter or patterns on a China bowl etc. Looking at his work from his solo show at Taseer Art Gallery (Jan 26-31, 2017), one realises the artist’s interest in capturing sensitive surfaces — motifs on a Persian rug, designs on a Chinese vessel, and the sensation of fresh petals of flowers — is far important for the painter than any other social, political and economic reading of the works. His paintings affirm the artist’s mastery on his manner of depiction in spite of his lack of conventional training in the discipline of ‘Fine Art’.
The work of Irfan Cheema poses various questions about art and how to look at it. Do we follow the artist’s attempt in demonstrating his ability in capturing intimate and intricate details of his subject or do we take a different route to delineate his content? These are major concerns, because the work of Irfan Cheema does deceive our senses; yet it demands our attention for acknowledging a work of art purely on the basis of its skill of rendering or on its wider context.
Having said that, one is not sure if a work created in a certain time can be enjoyed and admired for purely one reason, and then if it survives the test of time, offer some new content or meaning for other viewers that may not have been envisaged by the maker but is quite legitimate.