It is obvious what Muhammad Atif Khan is trying to do, but it is extremely difficult to describe it because, like the interwoven imagery he prefers in his work his ideas take time to reveal — fully. Apparently, the work is about miniature painting, popular visual culture, the political situation, but deep down it indicates other narratives or notions — situations, surfaces and what lies beneath the surface.
Aiming to read beyond the apparent, the viewer recalls the experience of a displaced person who has received an urgent notice to evacuate his home immediately. He collects his belongings in a pile, ties them in a sheet, and leaves for another destination. At airports, we also notice the luggage of other passengers, and realise how their lives too are contained inside these boxes built of fibreglass and leather etc. When we travel, we pack a part of our selves.
Artists also travel from one project to another, from one exhibition to the next. Sometimes they carry the same stuff, at other times they acquire new items. A seasoned traveller normally carries a combination of the two. Like Atif Khan, who in his forthcoming solo show Mind Map’ being held from May 8-17, 2018 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi employs a set of imagery in prints from his previous works as well as motifs that are new to his aesthetics — like, hearts, stones, figure of a Mughal ruler, water weaves, clouds, Keffiyeh, birds, fish, bull and vegetation.
In his earlier works, Khan had repeatedly used flies, ants and biscuits, along with Mughal figures and water pattern inspired from Indian miniature painting. However, his recent work, because of both its choice of elements and his ‘interest’ in meaning, introduces another layer that becomes apparent by decoding this imagery.
Arthur C. Danto reminds us that a term describes both a single entity and a category connected to it. For example, “the term ‘dog’ is the class of dogs, as the class of birds is extension of ‘bird’. Danto mentions Nelson Goodman who “introduced the concept of secondary extensions, which consist in pictures or images of things: so the secondary extension of ‘dog’ can now mean either the primary or secondary extension of the term, it becomes ambiguous whether it designates a dog or merely a picture of one”.
But in the art of Atif Khan, one feels the presence of a third extension, in which a thing is not a pure object, but is a composite entity made of two or more elements, which further invoke and convey ‘meaning’. Something that is embedded in the visuals but exists separately and independently at the same instance. He also brings in his memories, childhood toys, his observations, reflection on current conditions and his fascination with the past forms.
Trained as a printmaker from the NCA, Khan incorporates imagery from Indian miniature painting — considered as art, high art. Thus the artist draws his sources from a shared tradition of image-making and now, responding to the strains of his age, creates his artwork as digital prints on paper.
Besides the genesis of his imagery or the recognition of his technique and medium, one is more concerned with mind maps — not the title of the exhibition but the cartography of the artist’s concepts. It seems he determinedly desires to fabricate a pictorial language that speaks about the contemporary scenario and has a grammar: which responding to our society is made up of multiple ingredients. It includes birds and fish composed of truck art collages, outline of a bull from the Indus Valley civilization, Arabic headdress, Islamic geometry, anatomical hearts, plants and trees from traditional miniature painting and clouds from the same source, barriers and location pin.
He creates a landscape that seems politically charged but is not political in reality. Like many other artists bent on a political subject, his work becomes a creative individual’s comments on his surroundings which may not change anything but will be displayed at the gallery, appreciated by the audience and purchased by a public or private collector. Thus everyone is in a win win position. Political themes sometimes become raw materials for fabricating ‘beautiful’ visuals.
Atif Khan appears to have accepted that state of affairs. Thus his work — although it deals with all or some painful points — is a pictorial delight too. Perhaps it is the first and foremost responsibility of an image-maker because he faces a difficult scenario, a conflict, a contradiction. There is compulsion to comment upon his surroundings and also the pleasure of dealing with the language of forms, shapes, colour, textures etc. To maintain a balance between the two streams — extremes — is the actual task of an artist. One has witnessed in our immediate past as well as long history, how artists blended the two. If one studies the paintings of war, beheadings and hunt from Mughal and Rajput schools, one recognises the maker’s pleasure of putting paint while composing a picture on violence and gore. In recent times too, artists are attempting subjects which are painful in nature but some of their works offer decorative surfaces and painterly rendering.
In comparison, Atif Khan constructs in his work like a mason. The tone of a dispassionate person is evident to convey his position. Hearts which seem bleeding but occasionally composed of leaves and foliage, Keffiyeh staining weaves with its red hue,and a prince aiming arrows at a fish, piercing red heart on a spear, fishing heart in a pond, or chasing wild horses are all metaphors for a force taming nature, or nature of what it rules and possesses.
The method of indicating this state is decorative, distant and indirect. So a viewer may pick the content of the artist or merely enjoy the juxtaposition of past and present, real and imaginary, classical art of miniature painting and popular truck art.
In using metaphors, perhaps Atif Khan is at his best while he infuses elements from his actual and virtual surroundings. Large shapes of location pin (made of plans of different neighbourhoods of Lahore) on small anatomical hearts are allegories to disorientation of a self in the mid of mass confusion. Similarly, the observation of stone formation has led to place hearts on top of each other, as if struggling to have an inner balance (control).
In the same league is the work printed on the invitation card in which the bag of his imagery is recollected and reconnected. So, the edifice is a monument to imagination, in which the world is split like seven skies, scattered in (hemi)spheres yet joined like the tower of Babylon — a structure not to reach divinity but the audience of art.