To many, the new paintings of Rabeya Jalil reminded of the work of another artist of Pakistan. You could hear whispers linking her imagery to that painter on September 22, 2016, the opening of her solo exhibition ‘…of marks, moments & mistakes’ at Rohtas 2, Lahore.
Reaction of this kind, which is rather unkind, is not unusual in the context of Pakistani art where comparisons and connections are often made at a superficial level. Forgetting two interrelated facts: one, the world of art is huge and one is bound to have a visual, formal or conceptual link with an artist from the immediate surroundings or time or in distant history and location; two, it discounts the importance of “inspiration” since artists who are already influenced by others can and do inspire artists coming after them.
Tracing the work of Rabeya Jalil to a single painter can be misleading because her language belongs to a group of artists who use vocabulary of naïve art, and incorporate drawings of children, mentally disturbed individuals and untrained people in their works. The leading name in this league is of Jean Dubuffet, followed by innumerable painters around the globe. Known for ‘Art Brut’ Dubuffet aimed for a raw, pure and unconditioned mode of expression. Commenting upon the conventional skills of professional painters, Dubuffet states: “I hold to be useless those kinds of acquired skill, and those gifts, whose sole effect seems to me to be that of extinguishing all spontaneity, switching off the power and condemning the work to inefficacy”.
Apart from him, many artists working in different idioms seek to capture the essence, power and purity of primitive drawings. Mark Rothko, even though he created abstract surfaces, wished to paint like a child. The freedom to pick an unexpected colour palette, the courage to apply materials, and the vision to compose elements (both from observation and imagination) are a few qualities sought by artists who desire to attain the same level of purity.
In children’s drawings, one cannot distinguish between the real and imagined, like in their stories and explanations which are a blend of truth and fabrication. A mixture, that normally puts the children in trouble, is a cherished and admired feature in art where artists are constantly combining reality with fantasy. But this act which seems simple on the surface is the most difficult to achieve for a painter because s/he has to manufacture in a conscious manner what children instinctively produce.
This perhaps is the biggest challenge for an artist using this sort of imagery. In her exhibition, Jalil is showing a number of works clearly inspired from children’s drawings. But everyone knows the artist is not a little girl; she is a grown-up person, trained at NCA and Columbia University with several years of teaching experience at various art institutions in Lahore and Karachi. So when one comes across a shape of a dog, alphabets in Urdu or English scrawled in the manner of a child’s drawing on a surface, constructed like the page of a school exercise book, one tends to believe in the ‘untruth’ about the maker.
In her solo show, Jalil has displayed two kinds of work. One section contains repetition of visuals on pictorially-tactile surfaces, i.e., series Days in a Calendar, How to Draw and Noting the Remains of the Da’. In these, the artist has managed to attain a sense of spontaneity associated with a child’s expression. One finds the recurring image of an animal, presumably a dog, occupying a large part of composition. The elementary rendering of a canine with its tongue visible doesn’t look like an ordinary or banal depiction of an animal; it seems to invoke the beastly aspects in a culture or within a human being. The desire to attack, tear and control enemy, which is attributed to the specie because of its instinct is seen in human beings too (no matter if it’s a party, office meeting or a television talk show). So the inclusion of a canine-like creature in her work may signify the cruel side of our selves that is satiated with destruction of other human beings.
Violence of this kind or the other is present in her latest works also where vehicles of different types are drawn. So you see bicycle, scooter and rickshaw rendered in different settings, composed with abrupt, diffused and frenzied lines. These works along with others such as Pursuit of Happiness and Obsessive Mushroom offer a rawness and naturalness in terms of constructing and conveying one’s image and content. But when it comes to paintings like Pregnant on Wheels, To Each of His Own, Behind, and Export Quality, a viewer becomes aware of the artist’s surge to deal with issues and concerns of our times, since a man wearing a cap is seen trapped in a pattern of a prayer rug in Behind, or a person in an almost military attire is drawn in an unassuming setting (Export Quality) indicate the present political, religious and international situation.
Jalil’s effort to act as if a child is scribbling and drawing his environment in these circumstances reminds of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass in which a child refuses to grow up. The main protagonist of the German novel, Oscar Matzerath’s reluctance or resistance to join the world of mature people is related to the Nazi past of the country, in which grown ups acted shamefully in exterminating the Jewish population.
The choice of a childlike language in Jalil’s art does not necessarily have a political or societal aspect since the painter seems more interested in the naturalness, fluency and expressiveness of her mark-making — thus resurrecting what a child would have drawn. Even though her colour palette is vibrant, vivid and strong, in the larger (and most recent) surfaces one notices a deviation from the simplified, straightforward and spontaneous vocabulary of children’s drawings. This imagery that initially seems derived from a child’s style of rendering figures then appears more like a forced effort rather than a convincing endeavour — to the extent of being farcical.
A viewer may think this kind of painting is easy, quick and undemanding compared to working with a realistic composition. But this language is more challenging because you can only possess it if you have command on academic drawing and a capacity to incorporate essence of another, long-abandoned, diction. Picasso visiting an exhibition of children’s drawings remarked: “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.”