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History in the time of art

Artists present a glimpse of various approaches towards tradition in a show at the Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore

History in the time of art
‘It must be because someone gave creation to me’ by M. Idrees.

I can’t forget an incredible cartoon by Zahoor in June1999 during the 7th World Cup when at one point the whole nation was busy calculating the run rate of our cricket team prior to its scheduled match against Zimbabwe. In the cartoon, a man wearing loincloth and vest with many patches sat on a wooden cot, surrounded by empty containers for food in a virtually bare room lined with cobwebs. With a hangman’s rope round his neck, he was sitting in front of a TV set showing the text ‘Pakistan Versus Zimbabwe’.

Besides commenting on the temporary fervour of a people, the cartoon suggested the state of a society beset with countless problems and, on top of it, had to face the pressing issue of scores in cricket.

This is the dilemma of a creative individual from a region known for its long and ancient history. Apart from concerns such as surviving in the art market, trying to enter the mainstream art scene, dealing with the political situation, he has an extra problem — how to address history in his art. He is expected to utilise his glorious heritage in his pictorial expression somehow.

Thus tradition can sometimes turn into a terrible burden for a creative person who may want to forget all about past and wish to look at and locate the future in his art. But he is bound to carry the baggage of bygone eras whether it has relevance to his contemporary sensibilities or not.

Even if a creative genius completely upturns and modifies the historical practice (like many artists who have modernised miniature painting or people like A. J Shemza, Shakir Ali, Sadequain, Hanif Ramay and Mohammad Ali Talpur who take inspiration from sacred calligraphy), it is still a challenging task for him to seek or abandon the past. Both positions — being of extreme nature — pose problems of identity, authenticity and honesty.

Artists exhibiting in Dear Reality, a show held from Sept 15-19, 2014 at the Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore presented a glimpse of various approaches towards tradition. Perhaps the artists were not even aware of how the past penetrated in their pictorial exercises.

The work not only addresses history, it also shakes the locations of ideas and geographies of images. Thus creating a body of work and a sequence of visuals that is as crucial to our situation.

Shahzad Ali’s resin and fiberglass sculptures (painted with mud) indicate the artist’s preference for picking historical elements. Interestingly, here the history is not confined to one region or period only; in its fragmented version, it reminds of various areas and eras. Columns, brackets, floral carvings, architectural details and decoration on walls are joined in such a scheme that the works look more like pieces from the ruins of a heritage site. However, on a closer view, they seem part of a personal note on the past. Deconstructed components from glorious days are combined without any logical or formal order; thus the entire forms of sculptures (all titled Redebris) convey a sense of powerlessness in the house of power. A sense of irony and mockery about the symbols of beauty, power, perfection and past is achieved through a simple device, yet with greater skill and intelligence.

Similarly the works of M. Idrees present a new version of reality and its unfamiliar views. He has carved a bicycle and a weighing scale in wood with so much precision that except the material everything else (details, size and location) affirms the actuality of these ‘functional’ products. Both of his chosen items are associated with movement: speed in the case of cycle and shifting of weights in the scale. The change of substance not only introduces a new aspect of aesthetics, it also challenges the definition of beauty proclaimed by Thomas Aquinas — that if an object is not useful due to its material, it is ugly. The medieval theologian “would not hesitate to define a crystal hammer as ugly because, despite the superficial Beauty of the material of which it is made, the thing would have appeared unsuited to its proper function.” (Umberto Eco).

Idrees appears to be converting the utility of mechanical products into objects for their usage in art by transforming their materials into organic, ancient and less permanent (in comparison to steel or aluminium) substance. These two sculptures could be interpreted as an attempt to accept and explore new possibilities in familiar arenas.

‘Simpson 2’ by Raza Bukhari.

‘Simpson 2’ by Raza Bukhari.

However the most remarkable effort in deconstructing the past was evident in the miniatures of Raza Bukhari. Having a family lineage traced to Iran, Bukhari has been working on the structure and patterns of Persian carpets (in the show a few works remind one of that fascination). His new works disclose a new beginning for an artist who was desperately seeking his voice. In his paintings, Bukhari has blended the conventional elements of miniature with the imagery of popular cartoon character Simpson. A few works also have intricate designs of carpets but by and large Simpson occupies an important place — either next to queen or with a woman in a compromising position while another female cartoon character is clad in hijab or standing against a portion of early Mughal/Persian building rendered in miniature, looking at a military tank in action, or firing a canon amid cracking metallic paper stuck to surface.

To some extent, the pictorial features of Raza Bukhari are not different from Wasim Ahmed’s imagery — of juxtaposing two characters from opposite backgrounds in one composition. But Bukhari’s choice of different images extends the boundaries between the serious and humorous, high and low, and refined and mundane. It also offers a mixture of East and West in a genre of art that is primarily and purely perceived a traditional art form connected to this soil.

Thus the work not only addresses history, it also shakes the locations of ideas and geographies of images. Thus creating a body of work and a sequence of visuals that is as crucial to our situation of cultural displacements and disappointments as it was during those weeks of World Cup 1999, in which Pakistan VS Zimbabwe became the most important event to be discussed and debated and a cause to die for.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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