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Motifs of war

Fatima Munir makes both textual and image-based works in her recent show at Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Motifs of war
Portrait-5.

In myths associated with traditional societies, birds usually convey words of wisdom, albeit in a poetic manner. What we learn from the little creatures is that our commitment is not just to the world around us but to the one that exists within us.

In her recent solo exhibition ‘Albatross’ at Canvas Gallery, Karachi from April 11-20, 2017, Fatima Munir attempted this dual task. Works can be separated into two groups — text-based pieces and those with imagery. On one level both categories merge because like her visuals which originate partly from print media and social media and refer to our political environment, her textual works are also about the outer world.

Munir conveys more than a single content. Created in different techniques and with varying pictorial substance, these works relate to current crises in Syria. But unlike our usual analysts, she refrains to provide any solution to the problem, or even to take sides.

No matter what the politics of Middle Eastern crises is, one is conscious of the human suffering in that region. Fatima Munir approaches that human aspect in her work.

In a series of eight Inkjet prints on canvas (‘Forever’) a young girl is standing towards a wall riddled with bullet marks, contemplating a famous view because an artist had made a public work on that sieve-like structure by projecting Gustav Klimt’s painting, ‘The Kiss’ (1908). The canvas by the Austrian artist is popular for its combination of sensitive rendering of sensuous figures and patterns of their attire with patches of dark colours. The Syrian artist Tammam Azzam took advantage of bombed gaps in the war-trodden building by converting them as dark hues from the original painting about a blissful love.

Forever - 1.

Forever – 1.

Munir took a step further by appropriating an already appropriated image. In her work, the girl looks at Azzam’s projection but in different tones. The decision to add the figure of a young woman standing towards the wall indicates that the atrocities, in Damascus and other cities — through viral pictures — become visuals to be appreciated, rather enjoyed. It turns a grave incident into a media commodity which appeals to viewers internationally not because of its ‘bad news’ but its ‘clever’ and creative usage of art history reference.

Munir hints at this attitude of detachment and dehumanising and how in a consumer culture, every act, item or sentiment is transformed into a presentable and purchasable product.

Thus, we may feel sorry for what is happening in Syria but we are extremely pleased at how it is cleansed and redeemed through ‘intelligent’ pictorial products by artists from the region.

Munir’s choice in displaying the same imagery in different hues is a way of extending the concept that a turbulent picture, through its aestheticising in art, turns into a tame, attractive image. Like the chromatic scheme of a new line of lawn prints, the idea of presenting this gruesome photograph in many colours shows how repetition desensitises the people from real issues.

Everything ends up as a spectacle — a spectacle containing elements of beauty. In a few works, Munir chose a number of pictures — with demolished houses, blasts, fire etc. — and presented these with patterns of white embroidery (“Sometimes, I calm my fears with the therapeutic technique of embroidery and patterns”). Layer of these motifs in thread on top of gloomy pictures of boats, clothes, life jackets of refugees, and wreckage of Aleppo, in a way, was not different from the Syrian artist’s projection of Klimt’s painting on ruinous urban structure.

Life Jacket-2.

Life Jacket-2.

Munir also comments on the practice of beautifying a content that in its nature is full of grief. The act of presenting a specific version of events is a scheme of adding one’s own point of view, to the extent of blinding if not twisting the reality of things. However, naming this body of work — the back of a young girl looking at torn buildings, boats, life jackets of refugees — as ‘Portrait’ is intriguing. Usually, a portrait is an ‘identifiable’ face; here it is only the back of her head, a generic one.

Portrait - 1.

Portrait – 1.

Portrait - 3.

Portrait – 3.

Munir hints at this attitude of detachment and dehumanising and how in a consumer culture, every act, item or sentiment is transformed into a presentable and purchasable product.

In another group of work, all based on script, Munir addressed what is seen on the media and experienced in our daily discourse. What is said in not what is intended because language becomes a tool to conceal the true meaning. In her series of immaculately executed pieces (acrylic and pigment on Somerset), Munir leaves out the letters of words, but maps the remaining space. With the help of these forms arranged in a certain order, a viewer is able to read what is not inscribed but suggested through blank areas.

In these five works (each consists of separate frames for individual letters) lines such as ‘If not now then when’; ‘Exhale’; ‘One day, day one’; ‘Do not look back’; ‘Exit’ connotes the atrocities of Aleppo. However, besides their political content, the formal construction of these works echoes the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. Precision in shaping the layout for these messages makes them as pure signs. But once decoded, a viewer soon becomes aware that these lines and words signify the current crisis of an Arab nation.

Exhale.

Exhale.

One day, day one.

One day, day one.

Don't Look Back.

Don’t Look Back.

Exit.

Exit.

Fatima Munir opted for Albatross, the name of a bird, as the title of her solo exhibition, which has dual meaning, (Albatross. a: any long winged stout-bodied bird. b: a source of frustration or guilt; an encumbrance). One can guess that the artist intends the second interpretation. Her comment on the conditions of a country not far from us (and not far from anywhere else, in this ever shrinking globe!) reminds of a story about a bird that did not leave its nest once the tree caught fire. The bird is said to have replied that the tree had protected it in good times, so why should it abandon the tree in its difficult phase.

Albatross, the name of Fatima Munir’s exhibition, has its origin in Arabic, thus creating a logical link with the Arab country Syria!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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