‘Are you with us, or against us?’ When the US president put this question to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, right after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, he didn’t leave too many options for the military dictator. In the attack on Afghanistan that followed, a big section of the population in Pakistan did not agree with Musharraf’s support for the US-led war on terror. Several openly sided with the Taliban. There were public protests and calls for an independent national policy.
This conflict — between the decision to stand against tyranny and being practical in becoming an ally of powerful countries — triggered a contradiction in the psyche of the society because here it was often contended that honour must be maintained, even at the cost of one’s house.
In this backdrop, the real issue for a sane person was what to save: honour or house. I remember a leading intellectual visiting a premier art school of Lahore, after 9/11, to speak on the notion of national prestige in the age of terror. He suggested we should calculate the gains and losses for the country’s interests rather than giving in to sentimentality and sensation. He was ridiculed, challenged and had to leave due to hostile remarks from students.
I felt sorry for the learned writer who had to make an early exit from the stage. But recently, at the exhibition of Muhammad Zeeshan, I realised once again how there are other voices of reason that suggest a path different from the popular (dis)course, often at the risk of being called coward, opportunist and materialist. His solo exhibition ‘No Fight, Be A Donkey’ at ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore from March 29-April 8, 2019, presents a distinct position of the artist which may even be shocking for some.
Muhammad Zeeshan is one of those rare artists who surprises every time with each new body of his work. In the past, his solo exhibitions dealt with constructs of nationality, traditions, symbols of war and the structure of art market. In the present show, too, he is investigating similar ideas in a subtle manner; albeit with a different choice of language. In these pieces, created with a range of mediums — graphite, pastel, laser scoring, and UV print on sandpaper — one finds a relation and tension between the beast of burden and animals used for conquest of other territories.
Consider if the great battles of human history were fought on the back of donkeys. The idea of Greek conquerors, Roman emperors, Arab warriors, Mongol invaders and European generals riding donkeys is not plausible, because the heroic acts are associated with species like horses and maybe elephants. Zeeshan’s work, each a composite visual of one (or two) donkeys along with references from history, relates to battles and bloodshed. Shape of a Mughal figure holding a decapitated head against the detail of another miniature from Shah Jahan’s period; a pair of bulls hitting each other; two elephants with their riders attacking one another; silhouettes of twin horses in black fighting next to the mirror-image of a queen on horseback; and soldiers standing close to a Nazi tank are all combined with figures of donkeys, often superimposed with a pattern of red roses or scarlet hearts.
The pattern continues in another work where the background is built with a repeated motif made by intertwined guns; or hearts printed on tiny cut-outs of donkeys (in acrylic sheet) that run just above the floor of the gallery like a skirting.
Zeeshan seems at his best in utilising his pictorial material here; despite each work signifying identical concerns, the pictorial material is derived from different epochs and areas, including Mughal India, colonial era and World War II. It suggests cruelty as a common element across cultures and continents; whereas putting the form of donkey in these signs of bravery, courage and killing can be read as a substitute for peace, normality, routine and domesticity in the face of ideological expeditions and military operations.
The work of Zeeshan captures and communicates, to borrow a phrase of Milan Kundera, “a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time”; which resists the rhetoric of patriotism, and populist identity. Interestingly, figures of fighting men, of queen, combating animals, all have some sort of identity tags. But the donkey with its varying sizes and rendering appears to be beyond the mark of time and space, almost eternal and universal.
Donkeys in the work of Zeeshan remind us of a basic function of art which “makes us look into each other’s eyes and into the eyes of those who are portrayed as our enemies, transforming them into human beings” (Samar Yazbek). The docile body of donkey is perceived as an emblem of peace, patience and sacrifice (or a symbol of surrender, as the artist informed in his gallery talk a day after the opening). One cannot forget these small animals carrying a huge burden on our streets as well as suffering heartless beatings by their masters and their lack of resistance.
Art is not about providing one answer or believing in a single interpretation. Who knows if the artist’s dictum ‘No fight, Be A Donkey’ (written in a number, which echoes spiritual chanting) is a reflection on the state of a society bent on making compromises — from official matters to international relations to every arena of ordinary existence. It may indicate the impotency of a people who prefer to comply than to confront. The work could also indicate the current scenario of the art market, especially in the light of his previous works in which Zeeshan had commented on the mechanism of art business through his installations and exhibitions.
It would be useful to know the position of Zeeshan in the context of his own work. But at the same time it could limit his reading, since the work in most cases supersedes the maker’s ideas and intentions. So, whatever one picks from these intriguing images, one feels the most appropriate audience of this body of work is our nation, solely because Pakistan, by April 2018, had become the third largest country in donkey population after Ethiopia and China!