In Haruki Murakami’s fiction, different levels or layers of reality exist side by side, and characters, like Aomame from his novel 1Q84, smoothly slide from one sphere to another with such ease as if entering room after room of a house. What a reader gets is the suspicion of actuality, or a singular version of existence.
Variations of reality were visible in a recently-concluded group show ‘After-Past’ held from Oct 27-Nov 5, 2015 at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi. The exhibition comprised works of four artists: Amjad Ali Talpur, Ghulam Mohammad, Inaam Zafar and Kiran Saleem. Talpur and Saleem recently acquired their MA Visual Arts from the National College of Arts, Lahore while Mohammad and Zafar graduated in Fine Arts from the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. All these artists have been regularly exhibiting and participating in different residencies or teaching programmes.
One could see how the artists approached reality — not as a subject but as a means to investigate the essence of various entities. What unfolded in their works were political, social, historical and cultural constructs; thus, the works offered a chance to ponder about the truth of our visual, physical and emotional experiences.
Amjad Ali Talpur juxtaposed opposite elements to create a new synthesis, which indicated peculiar situations, conditions and combinations of this society. For example inserting pencils, spoons and injection syringes in bullet belts signified a society that has been militarised or mutilated to such extent that one encounters violence in educational as well as in domestic spheres. A person has to assert his viewpoint like a bullet; an argument is not used for sharing a thought but as a virtual weapon to combat and conquer an opponent.
A viewer could have picked a contrary content as introduction of pencils, spoon and syringes might be metaphors — to counter violence and to subvert the militarisation of society through other means. This reading was reinforced by a painting that showed an army helmet resting on an ordinary pencil. All these works, rendered skilfully in watercolour on wasli paper, looked like pictures of sculptures — especially of some that Talpur had displayed during his postgraduate degree show at NCA.
The sculptural quality was found in Ghulam Mohammad’s collages too. Continuing his exploration of text as texture, his recent pieces indicated how the assemblage of tiny alphabets turns into shapes that remind of other objects. Yet, one felt that the work has not altered, drastically, since Mohammad started his experiments in composing letters cut in a tiny scale during his BNU years.
The new works appeared as exercises in the same method, with minor changes in composition and colour. Comparing his new and previous works, the artist’s concern about the ephemeral and deceptive nature of language is evident because it is the language which erects illusions regarded as real.
One of the main consumers of language is the media. A citizen is daily bombarded with words emerging from multiple channels of television, different stations of radio and various editions of newspapers and magazines. The world shaped through these words is supposed to be true but is, in fact, fabricated to serve a certain purpose. The same can be said about the photographs appearing in the press pictures which, considering the medium, are often perceived as depicting the truth. But the photographer’s selection of what to shoot, where to focus and the editor’s discretion regarding the size, caption and where to place it sometimes transform the ‘photographic’ fact. Inaam Zafar appears to have dealt with this aspect of our life in which the news turns into a story (it is not surprizing that in journalistic diction all news is story!).
Derived from historical sources, his paintings showed pictures, either printed in papers or clips from black and white television programmes, which must have been connected to important events, episodes and debates in the history of this country, but are now forgotten in the annals of collective amnesia. Titled Xerox, these paintings looked like photocopies glued to brick walls.
Zafar’s inclination to investigate the past, examine how it was forged in the first place and then employed to serve several agendas only to be viewed later in a completely different manner, was evident in his works. Loosely-painted figures in official ceremonies making speeches, meetings, or taking part in tv discussions brought out faded memories of some of the most powerful and significant individuals from our brief history who, once resurfaced, appeared strange, alien and somewhat miserable.
This reminds one of a passage in Umberto Eco’s novel Numero Zero, in which an Italian newspaper editor proclaims that there are no new news, these are all recycled (ranging from last evening to several years back). He suggests publishing the news of Caesar’s murder with comments from people of the present age and hopes the reader will find it a new occurrence.
The distinction between the new and old is not restricted to the world of media; it is crucial in the realm of art too, since artists often draw their inspiration from past practices. Kiran Saleem recreated works from European art history but her manner of painting these recognisable images is impressive. Prints of past masters’ paintings seemed to be stuck on bare canvases, but all painted in such an immaculate way that it could perplex even a perceptive and trained eye. In a series of paintings, Saleem selected self-portraits of Van Gogh, Rubens and Rembrandt and executed them as if fixed with a paper tape on the surface of canvas (the effect of masking tape was so strong and compelling that it invited a spectator to touch the tape, only to realise that it was painted). Collectively titled ‘Look at my Eyes and Tell me if You don’t Love me Anymore’, these paintings transformed the theme of self-portrait into a contextual framework, because now a spectator looked at these artists through the eyes of Kiran Saleem. Thus, the artist created a conceptual link between different periods, a concern that was evident in another work comprising multiple self-portraits of Lucien Freud overlapped on a white surface. In this work, the last image was a photo-transfer, but it complemented the rest of masterly-painted ‘reproduced’ portraits. The passage from the fully-coloured image to a monochromatic version to a Xerox copy alluded to the way history evaporates in our midst.
Artists in their work critique and comment on this erosion of past, since past is a reality that is disintegrating both in individual minds and collective narratives. In the works of these artists in general, and Kiran Saleem in particular, the past is resurrected to review various versions and interpretations of reality — be they in art, religion, politics or private affairs.