‘Why are you still writing in long-hand and don’t use a typewriter, word processor or computer?’ was the question put to Javier Marias, the Spanish novelist by the host of Hard Talk on BBC. Marias replied that the reason he prefers a pen is that he wants to spend more time with writing. He may be a rare individual or writer because people hardly pick up a pen to write these days, except perhaps when they have to sign a cheque (with the online transactions, ATM machines and credit cards, even this practice is diminishing).
Today, apart from students who scrawl important points of a lecture in their notes books (if they are not playing with their tablets or smart phones) or use pens for their annual or term examinations, the only other form of writing still in fashion is wall-chalking. Ranging from advertisements for clinics to heal secret diseases (male impotency mostly) to announcements about political demonstrations to sectarian claims, these messages reveal our collective obsessions. Hence, even without the intention to record it, these writings on the walls of our towns and cities in an indirect way document the expression of a society.
The most frequently inscribed texts in our urban spaces, after treatments for sexual ailments of course, are promises by leaders, promotion of election candidates and information on political gatherings. In a way, all of them seek to cure the society using medical, political or religious means. These appear in such abundance that in most cases, one line overlaps with several others, producing an exciting visual effect — not yet discovered by a majority of our artists.
Fatima Munir Amjad in her new work has explored that side of our reality and existence. In her series of works from her solo exhibition, The Art of Painting, held from March 10-16, 2014 at Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore, the practice of writing on city walls is the main source of image-making. On the gallery walls sets of four, five, six and seven photographs are displayed, in which a man is bent on painting large-scale letters on a roadside wall (thus blending the two walls — from the pictures and the gallery. His act appears normal and familiar but, after deciphering the letters, one realises that the photographs are not just pictures of a usual or neutral activity but the words form messages intended by the artist who has photographed these as if a routine exercise.
Reading these texts, one comes across content about threats, promises, and patriotic proclamations which have become such a great part of our daily experience. Lines like ‘Try to be human’, ‘Its us today, tomorrow it be you’, ‘Only if you could have seen yourself’, ‘Stop being an animal’, ‘Spend today in honesty’, ‘We are all one in the face of crisis’ and ‘Live everyday in the spirit of 14th August’ (the Independence Day) are a few of the arrangements of letters and visuals included in her exhibition.
Interestingly, the words are not just presented as signs of our contemporary existence, complexes and complexities. Fatima has tried to create a visual substitute of the actual act of reading these lines in public space. In most of her works, an image is composed and constructed with a number of photographs, each with the same frame and the same person in an identical pose of painting large letters. One discovers the whole message only by looking at the entire image. Thus the formal division of image replicates the act of moving and reading the big letters on a wall.
More than just conveying the sense and sensation of movement, Fatima Munir Amjad has formed her set of imagery in such a scheme that the arrangement contributes towards enhancing the content, even if in an indirect manner. Work with the sentence ‘Only if you could have seen yourself’ is made of two photographs printed as opposite images with a man in green turban riding on motorbike and talking on his mobile. The formal elements of work, the reverse visuals as well as the (accidental) insertion of a religious person, signify how the nation has lost the ability to view itself objectively. And because of the artist’s decision to use this random rider in her work, how extremism and fundamentalism in our society have caused this state of complete and convenient blindness.
Likewise, in the work with the text ‘We are all one in the face of crisis’ three frames which contain the beginning of message — in the state of crisis —are printed as negative thus illustrating the gloomy conditions.
In fact, the play with single frames’ scale, shade and order makes her work extraordinary and exciting. As she employs an otherwise familiar imagery with the apparently (but deceptively) detached tone, the shift in the size of certain pictorial component and the change in tone serve to unearth the hidden content. For instance, in the sequence of frames with the text ‘Try to be human’ the photograph with the word human is larger than the rest of pictures. Hence the modification in scale of a certain word enhances her concept.
Amjad’s choice of this imagery, inspired from our walls and urban spaces, indicates how these places delineate the real but often neglected narrative of our situation. The writings on the wall, both from Fatima’s work and in our cities, are not dissimilar from those mentioned in The Old Testament in which Babylonian king Belshazzar witnessed a disembodied hand writing on the palace wall: ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’; which were interpreted by Daniel, the exiled Jew, as the imminent end of the kingdom.
And the end was not far.