According to Paul Valery, painter Edgar Degas once confessed his frustration to poet Mallarme: “I have so many ideas for poems — if only I could write them down!” “My dear Degas,” Mallarme replied, “poems are not written with ideas, they are written with words.”
It seems the works of visual arts can also be created with words or around words, as was witnessed in a recent exhibition The Headlines held from April 3-13, 2015 at the Frere Hall Karachi. The show, curated by Munawar Ali Syed, comprised works that dealt with print media, and explored how the news, the newspaper and information can alter reality and change our perception of truth.
Holding the show at a public space in Karachi is a commendable decision since it aims to bring art closer to a population which otherwise is not exposed to art. Perhaps the nature of the show — focused on the newspaper — demanded that it must move out of private galleries situated in posh areas and be available to the community.
Distributed, bought and read by millions, newspapers are not exclusive. So the art made around them also required a wider and larger audience.
Another impressive part of the exhibition was its catalogue. Instead of a glossy and expensive publication, a newspaper-like catalogue was printed for The Headlines, which had a low cost, temporary and affordable feel to it. The accessibility was reinforced by artists’ information and statements in Urdu; the bilingual document became a means to communicate across social classes and regions.
Compared to literature which is perceived as elitist or exclusive, the newspaper is considered more democratic since it caters to a large population. Although many works of literature initially were serialised in the newspaper, the two are considered different due to their content, depth of engagement, function and life span. Whereas a book is read and transferred to later generations, a newspaper for all the insightful analyses has the existence of a single day.
One found a range of approaches adopted by the artists from The Headlines. Some commented upon the effect, place and power of the printed word in a society, while others preferred a direct or detached position. A few treated the newspaper as any other readymade object, while several examined the nature of its relationship to a society as well as the aesthetics of this unavoidable document, item, invention and intervention of our times.
Amongst the artists who had picked actual newspaper to make their works, perhaps the sculpture of Faraz Mateen was the most powerful and prominent art piece. He transformed the stack of newspapers into a trunk of a burnt tree. The work ‘I Love Real’ suggested how the printed word, which is cherished, respected and believed in, is not more than tiny spots in the grand history of human beings or of this planet. Mateen seemed to be completing another cycle, since paper is made from the pulp derived from the trees, and he converted paper into tree.
Artists like Ali Abrar, Farrukh Shahab and Shahana Munawar tried to incorporate newspapers superficially in their works while a few others investigated it on a different and deeper level. This was observed in the two paintings by Zakir Baloch in which books or pieces of ceramics on shelf were wrapped in newspapers. Baloch’s act of concealing these ordinary objects with printed paper could be read as a critique or observation on how the reality is camouflaged by the (print) media.
A number of other artists such as S. M. Raza, Roohi S. Ahmed and Arsalan Nasir employed newspaper in diverse manners but, in most cases, the works were not more than exercises to utilise newspaper print as a material to make sculptures and paintings. Some participants did not use actual newspaper, but their works were about the impact of information and the confusion connected to it, and its place in history. Within that group, Adeela Suleman constructed a visual from a historic reference of battle. Much like Intizar Hussain or other writers who incorporate motifs from the past in order to denote the present situation, Suleman also commented on this fascination with war, in which one could not distinguish the invader from defender.
This ambiguity was examined by Samra Rohi, who in her Lenticular prints sought to maintain a link between acts of violence and display of joy. Hence in Matti Ki Paidaish man who flaunts a Kalashnikov appeared to be holding a kite. Or a team of investigator seemed to be looking at a blood stained car, or interrupting a job to paint the side of the vehicle.
This distance probed by Samra Roohi, is a sign of how the real can be detached from its representation, or even how the multiple interpretations of reality may differ or contradict. In fact a latent motif in her work is the deception of the physical events, because what takes place in more cases is not that is portrayed. In some sense the perpetrators of actual incidents are also — like everyone else — aware of how those be shown in the news. So the reality is amended and altered with the anticipation of its projection on the media.
The Headlines was not only an attempt to bring together artists’ responses to the events of our age and how these are modified, mutilated and manufactured for a particular communication, it also suggested that despite the so-called alienation, artists are still interested in their physical, immediate and social surroundings.