With the United Arab Emirates having turned into a successful business centre, one wonders if it could now be called the ‘United Arab Malls’. An interesting aspect of this buying and selling activity is that, like shoppers, the shops also belong to a variety of countries or locations this makes it an international or transnational place.
Of all the Gulf states, Dubai especially is fast becoming a space where art from across the globe converges. Into its eighth year, the latest Art Dubai (March 19-22, 2014) included galleries and artists of different geographies and nationalities. Art galleries from Sao Paulo, Beijing, Bangalore, Bishkek, Baku, Berlin, Brussels, Beirut, Jeddah and other cities showcased works of artists who often do not belong to the city or country in which these galleries are located. Thus one comes across works of Rashid Rana represented by two Indian galleries, or Jitish Kallat showing at a Paris-based Gallery.
This feature, of artists from across the border meeting and showing works simultaneously, is not peculiar to Dubai. This phenomenon takes place in every art fair. However for this region, Art Dubai acquires a particular importance due to its accessibility, interest and relevance to our country.
A number of artists from Pakistan were represented but, for the first time, a section of the fair ‘Art Dubai Modern’ was granted to 11 galleries which curated works of modern artists belonging to Middle East and South Asia. Going through the display, one realised how the artists from the same region were producing similar works. Actually they appear to be in conversation with contemporaries of neighbouring nations; mainly because all of them are addressing the issue of identity not rooted in past, but with a political overtone both in their art and life. Living in societies which have had to deal with new guises of colonialism (or the memory of Imperialism), these artists are aiming to formulate a language that is ‘modern’ in its essence, whether the imagery is based on simple, geometric or minimal forms, or they choose to stylise familiar narratives (which was also a modern occurrence after the works of artists such as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Jean Dubuffet).
In the section of Dubai Art Modern, four artists from Pakistan were exhibited in four galleries. Zahoor ul Akhlaq was at the booth of Art Chowk, Anwar Jalal Shemza was shown at Jhaveri Contemporary, Sadequain’s large scale calligraphic paintings were part of Aicon Gallery’s display (next to a few canvases by M.F. Husain) and Rasheed Araeen’s sculptures were exhibited in the space of Grosvenor Gallery. In a way, these works comprised the most visible, noticeable and talked about segment of the exhibition and not just because of their link with a country but because of their pictorial sophistication and formal strength.
The paintings, prints, drawings and a sculpture of Zahoor ul Akhlaq at the Art Chowk booth affirm his contribution in formulating the language of modernity in Pakistan. On one level, it seems that Akhlaq is dealing with the flatness of surface and simplification of form, two aesthetic elements, possible after twentieth century. But in actuality his pictorial concerns are connected with examining the art of the past and creating an understanding of visual vocabulary that lies outside the European system of perspective and illusionistic space. Hence the flatness of surface (achieved mainly through grid), and multiple views (pictorial device from the Indian miniatures) are attempts to contextualise the idea of modernity in our situation.
These pictorial pursuits were evident in the art of Anwar Jalal Shemza too, thus linking him to Akhlaq, a generation younger than Shemza. In the group of paintings at Jhavery Contemporary, it was a rare occasion to view his paintings from the 1960s. One also got a chance to meet his grand-daughter Aphra Shemza at the booth. The canvases depict his unique approach in formal solutions as basic geometry is employed to create compositions which could have been viewed at one instance to be elaborations on the structure of script but on the other hand offer pure abstract imagery.
The purity of form was visible in the sculpture of Rasheed Araeen at the Grosvenor Gallery space. Coinciding with Art Dubai, Sharjah Art Foundation organised exhibitions of three artists including Aareen. So his presence at the Art Dubai Modern was an extension of his artistic oeuvre.
Witnessing his work both in Dubai and Sharjah, a viewer realises the artist’s involvement with geometry for being a pure language to express complex concepts about space and perception. Even in his previous works, the artist has used elementary forms and minimal shapes. But looking at his work in relation to Akhlaq and Shemza (while not bothering about the biographical details and geographical associations), one feels that the importance of geometry in three artists’ works can be perceived today as the manifestation of their situation — these forms represent two points significant in constructing an ‘illusion’ of identity.
Geometry besides being a symbol of modernity (since it liberates from the primitive and past narratives rendered in figurative manner) is also attached with the legacy of Muslim art of patterns on manuscripts, buildings and pottery.
Arguably, the art of these three artists indicates an aspect of our existence that is often negated and neglected. Caught with immediate concerns, we tend to disconnect our inherited ‘religious past’ by substituting it with our acquired ‘secular modernity’. But their art from the modern era of Pakistan, presented at Art Dubai Modern, illustrates how tradition and modernity can be two sides of the same coin.