History shows that monotheistic religions have a violent side. The Jewish and Christian faiths have remained militant over centuries. These days it is mainly Islam that is associated with violence. Decades before 9/11 happened, in 1956, French author Andre Malraux wrote: “The violence of the Islamic upsurge is a major phenomenon of our times. Underestimated by the majority of our contemporaries […] today the Western world seems ill prepared to face the problem of Islam.” Prophetic words, indeed.
The rise of political Islam and its narrow interpretation has affected not just the West but many Muslim societies, including Pakistan, who now have to deal with variations of Daesh, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and Taliban.
The real threat, however, is the enemy ‘within’; the silent groups, supporters and sympathisers of militant outfits who subscribe to their notion of jihad against infidels and stray Muslims. These can be found in our surroundings. Today mosque, the house of God, is no more a safe haven as it used to be.
With this backdrop, when you look at a minaret, leaning, red and submerged in a pool of blood, the message is quite clear — of the relationship between religion and violence. One does not need an explanation to decipher ‘Message Failed’, the sculpture of Safdar Ali (part of his solo exhibition Utopia, held from August 30 to September 8, 2016 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi) that indicates the roots of religious extremism lie in our midst. The minaret tilted and ending in a spread of red liquid represents political jihadists.
Interestingly, the slanted minaret if on the one hand reminds of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it also suggests how orthodox doctrine can be a suicidal exercise. The red minaret appears to be emerging from or being melted in a pool of blood. The work is created in such a scheme that both the minaret and blood look real; this despite the fact that the whole piece was created in MDF board and paint.
Actually, the smart fabrication of this work makes it possible to believe in what is just a constructed imagery, because the exact replication of a collection of blood at the base of minaret, and repeating the precise details of a muezzin’s tower enhances its power of persuasion. In addition, Ali has decided on a size that reinforces our perception of mosque minarets. These are actually large structures but what we see from the ground level is reproduced in the gallery space. Thus the scale contributes towards the reality of the artwork.
Like the ‘Message Failed’, in another work the usual gadget of communication, a cellular phone, is used. In ‘Your Grace’, a cell phone is constantly calling from somebody called Your Grace. The two answering options on the set are identical — both offer ‘accept’. The work reiterates the narrow path of dogma where a common man has no choice but to agree.
Perception of reality, questioned in his minaret and mobile, is also challenged through ‘In Between’, in which a heavy road barrier is lifted and installed upside down, resting on a stretched red rope coiled at the base. The entire installation looks impossible, because such a heavy object cannot be balanced on a rope. Yet the artist using his skill and, more than that, his creativity and imagination has managed to make it credible.
The work based on these barriers, familiar sights now, allude to our altered situations. The diversity in their designs, urgency in their demand and popularity in their usage make one realise that not only our social urban space is modified; our minds too are adjusted to the need of these barricades of security. But do these provide or ensure safety? Ali has commented on these false constructs by unpacking the ideas (and aspirations) associated with these devices.
Yet the threat is imminent as is observed in the rolled religious booklets, with a thread in the middle which resembles a collection of bombs ready to be exploded. The sculpture ‘Some People Feel Rain, Other Just Get Wet’ that discloses its meaning immediately is part of a body of works, in which the artist has communicated the bondage between violence and belief but in a simplistic and direct manner — as is observed in ‘Takleed’ the book with a rattrap tied on its topside.
For an artist who is sincerely concerned with the issue of terror and religious fervour in the society, the crucial question lies in how to depict the real issue of our times. In some instances, it turns into descriptive and illustrative mode; in others it is so remote that it loses its relevance. Ali, however, has managed to find a language that suggests rather than describes his content and concern. For example in the work ‘This is Not a Wonderland’, one comes across a montage of mosques and mausoleums, superimposed and clustered, which in its aesthetics resemble a Disneyland poster. The work conveys how faith, like entertainment, has turned into an industry.
In his other works, with enlarged blood bag and fire fighters’ water hose (‘We Need You’), and a big cube composed of shaving blades and a light inside echoing the format of shrines, Safdar Ali dares to reflect upon the link between religion, extremism, popular appeal and power. Like every other citizen, he is aware of religious fanaticism. But as an artist, he is searching for the essence of these crises without taking a position or accepting the narrative of power.
Art is a means to deal with questions that otherwise are difficult or dangerous to handle. Art is like poetry (or art is poetry!) which in the words of Syrian poet Adonis:…..“is the opposite of the religious spirit. Why? Because religion is a response. Poetry, on the other hand, is a question, and as such is at the opposite pole to power.”