A classic case of gain in translation is how the Original Sin is interpreted. Around the end of 4th century, when priest and theologian Jerome “rendered Bible into Latin, he introduced a pun that created one of the most potent symbols of the Christian iconography, turning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (‘malus’) into the tree of apples (‘malum’)”. Hence the presence of this fruit in literature and European art.
Fruits, and vegetables to some extent, hold not only religious or nutritious value, they also have a metaphoric dimension which is often explored by artists and writers. Several authors have dealt with these for higher meanings, for instance Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Watermelon’. ‘Ode to a Lemon’, ‘Ode to the Tomato’, and ‘Ode to the Artichoke’. Jeanette Winterson’s novel about the feminist experience is called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
In the work of Basir Mahmood, oranges seem to be the only or essential fruit. In two of his works, ‘All Good Things’, and ‘One For Each, Two For All’, (Inkjet prints from his solo exhibition ‘All Divided Equally’ curated by Salima Hashmi, August 31-September 11, 2018, Canvas Gallery Karachi), oranges are a prominent part of narrative. In the first image, a group of people is holding them; seen from above, the huddled men form an almost sculptural composition. The fervour in grabbing this fruit makes them a joint entity; thus orange appears to be the only goal or achievement for these ordinary individuals clad in varying shades of shalwar kameez (Mahmood has used orange for a formal reason as “it can be a point, a dot”).
The other print consists of three sections: arms interacting with each other carrying oranges in their hands; a single arm holding the same fruit; another one dropping a banana peel.
Another work from the exhibition, a large-scale construction, is a drawing in metal ‘Equal From All Sides’, with outlines of fingers picking grapes. The sensitive rendering of contours is an act that appears monumental due to overlapping of multiple hands, branches and fruit. It takes one to the threshold between reality and imagination. Originally “a storyboard for a video project, which was never realised”, the artist decided to make it in metal harking back to his initial experience in sculpture before he joined BNU in 2006. The work signifies and is an embodiment of what Mahmood describes human beings’ relation with the edible — “we are what we eat” since “food becomes part of us”. His focus on food is a means to recall our interaction, from the period of hunters and gatherers till now, which is crucial for sustaining the body and creative expression. Hence the tradition of painting still-life with fruits, vegetables and meat.
John Berger points out that the custom of producing this theme, especially in Western art, was a strategy to demonstrate a patron’s power of acquiring exotic and expensive food (like even today, the rich can afford to buy imported greens from big supermarkets!)
The blend of fiction and fact in order to reflect on life is apparent in Mahmood’s other works too, like the diptych ‘All Divided Equally’ with pictures of two steps, different yet looking identical on first glance. In both prints, one recognises fruits, vegetables, portions of meat, and fish, all sliced in half and placed on both sections in an almost similar arrangement. On a careful scrutiny, a viewer realises that the two spaces are not a mirror image nor is the edible stuff put on these stairs cut in perfect halves. The artist wishes to comment on the notion of impossibility of equality.
This work in its details echoes classic compositions of Dutch still life paintings (the artist was on a research-fellowship at the Rijksakademi van Beeldende Kunstne, Amsterdam, 2016-17). Outside the exhibition, one finds fruits and vegetables stalked on roadside stalls — a still-life aesthetics practised by ordinary sellers. In some scheme, Mahmood’s work relates to those fruit vendors’ displays.
With superb pictorial presence, the titles may reveal one strand of his content. One notices that out of seven new works from 2013 to 2018, the word ‘all’ is repeated in four titles, whereas ‘equal/equality’ is used for two prints. For a visual artist who is extremely eloquent, inquisitive and interested in language, this choice of words is important; because it denotes the artist’s intention to come out of the art world, and operate in the arena of general public.
In a sense, his medium of pictorial expression is also not much different from what is being produced in the public domain: photographic prints, videos and metal grills. Even though the level of sophistication in his work is far refined, superior and superb, the vocabulary is commonplace. I remember his plans to make a feature film or his interest in theatre. Seeing his work, one feels the artist is seeking a diction beyond the divide of trained artist and uninformed maker. Today, with the availability of tools and accessibility of technology, anyone who never went to an art school can take a photograph, shoot a video or weld a steel screen.
Thus, the characters and components in the work appear from a simpler stratum of life; through these figures and situations, a larger population’s life and mind are suggested, like the element of belief in the ‘Holy Water From Mecca’ for example.
Along with belief, futility is also part of our existence. Arguably, belief is an effort to reconcile with fate. Futility and fate emerge as the main content in some of his works, pushing them into the realm of fiction in a way. In the video ‘Lunda Bazaar’ (single channel projection, 2010) men try out used jackets in the second-hand clothing market. The act of changing into something that was worn by someone else, in a subtle sense, signifies how our actions are merely imitations, so our lives are just repetitions. What we do hardly alters the order of things; most of the time it’s a waste of time.
In the ‘Milk’, a man balanced on a tall stand is dropping milk from a big container, with a mass of pure liquid gathered at the base. In its pictorial quality, the work has poetic elegance, due to the white milk seen in a line (difficult to achieve but the artist aims it) and spread on the ground — sparkling, white, yet wasted.
Using familiar materials, ordinary props and everyday characters and acts, Basir Mahmood fabricates a world of fiction that tells about ourselves: our fascinations, frustrations, failures, and triumphs in a truthful manner (what can be more true than a camera!). V.S. Naipaul observes “Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies”.