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‘One’ too many

Seven major artists display their works at the recently opened COMO Museum of Art. The exhibition is aptly titled ‘One’

‘One’ too many
Risham Syed

Language is the collective of phrases, words and meanings that a group of people have formulated, that they share and use for communicating with each other. Thus, words or terms are created. For instance, the word COMO — a portmanteau from ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ — was conceived during a conversation at a café, for what happens to be the first private museum of art in Lahore.

A project of Seher Tareen, COMO Museum of Art was recently inaugurated with a private showing, before it was opened to public. The museum’s maiden exhibition, aptly titled ‘One,’ includes seven major artists who have made their mark here and abroad. It contains their new and old works that however have a common link — they address the fragmentation of society.

It’s a phenomenon that trickles down to — or, let’s say, emerges out of — individual lives. Risham Syed’s mixed media installations explore urbanisation that has badly hurt human relationships. Tall buildings feature here as isolated strangers. Meticulously painted, these small surfaces signify how the process of shifting to cities, and to posh localities, for that matter, has led to an artificial (read dehumanised) existence.

Saba Khan

Saba Khan

In Syed’s other works, objects from the past, usually redundant, are composed with panels — paintings that are so small that they remind you of postcards. These consist of segments from diverse sources and are of different dimensions/usages — a language Syed has preferred for quite some time. There can be various reasons for this, but the most logical is the ‘indefiniteness’ of our social structures and personal behaviours. The uncertainty of our age is represented in the way elements such as a chair, microphone, and china kettle are composed next to paintings, revealing unpleasant episodes. Consider fire in a city, a tank within a tranquil landscape, a soldier caught in a cloud of smoke, etc.

This certain kind of disjointedness in Syed is also observed in other works. In Saba Khan’s work, for instance, ambitions and aspirations of a middle-class professional are portrayed in the form of prized trophies that are meant to decorate a future house.

Ali Kazim’s works on paper, together with a three-dimensional piece, invoke a sense of constant destruction. In his watercolours and pigments on paper, one can imagine an ephemeral entity: fleeting clouds on a colourless sky, a streak of lightning, a storm or smoke. Two other works that capture the image of broken clay pots may denote the breakage of terracotta vessels but, on another level, they allude to the shift between the past and present, tradition and modernity.

The effort to join broken pieces is never complete nor perfect, as seen in Kazim’s ‘Untitled (Fallen Objects)’ series of terracotta shards fixed with epoxy resin that are far from the circular shape of the original pot.

This distance between the past and present also evokes the notion of status of women in society. In traditional cultures, the honour of a woman depended upon her virginity, and was ensured through chastity (belts). Naiza Khan challenges these false and feeble values of virtue/purity by making works that are derived from historic corsets but are independent objects with galvanised steel, feathers, and leather. Her title, ‘Armour Suit for Rani of Jhansi II’ suggests a contradiction in terms — of opposing roles forced on females. Her metal works define the contours of a female body, indicating immovable, unshakable boundaries for women in a male-dominated society, which are cruel and constraining but paradoxically portrayed as complementing her beauty.

In traditional cultures, the honour of a woman depended upon her virginity, and was ensured through chastity (belts). Naiza Khan challenges these false and feeble values of virtue/purity by making works that are derived from historic corsets but are independent objects with galvanised steel, feathers, and leather.

Contradictions of all kinds are addressed in both the sculptures and digital prints of Rashid Rana. In ‘Identical Views I’ and ‘II’ (2004), the artist captures himself in the process of changing his dress, from vernacular to European style. A normal activity, in any home, it affirms the chameleon custom of a post-colonial community — of converting from one identity to the next, effortlessly and mindlessly.

Rana’s other work, ‘War Within VIII,’ is a composite print of Neo-Classical French painting, ‘Oath of the Horatti’ (1784) by Jacques-Louis David, and the press picture of a blazing bike. Both are cut and combined in such a manner that they point to a problem that becomes a burning issue with each passing day, no matter in what part of the globe you reside.

The same concerns are also observed in ‘Red Carpet I’: innumerable shots of a slaughterhouse in Lahore, once arranged, look like a Persian carpet. Hence, the west’s fixation with the east surfaces in its rhetoric of terror, heritage, and exotic beauty.

Ali Kazim.

Ali Kazim.

Owing to their formal structure, Rana’s prints also point to a ‘fractured’ world. Here, an image is split in and composed of several tiny pictures, enough to confuse (or perhaps make clear) the imperceptible difference between illusion and reality. For example, ‘I Love Miniatures’ (2002), digital print in a gilded frame of Emperor Jahangir’s portrait, is composed with multiple pictures of publicity hoardings from Lahore that remind us of our attitude towards the past that is still shaped by western desires and designs.

The split between reality and how it is perceived is further experienced in Rana’s ‘sculptures,’ particularly in the ‘Books I’. These appear like essays on meta-reality. The three-dimensional books, in actuality, are singular (aluminum) structures, with pixels covered on all sides, appear as the outer layer of a pile of books but when closely observed reveal their identity as flat colours.

Similarly, another work, ‘Untitled (H.O.C.)’ (2010), with its four walls balancing each other, is composed of various small images of houses in Lahore, as a response to Richard Serra’s ‘House of Card’ (1969). The conceptual complexity, the conflicting interpretation of ‘house’, and the retinal sensation of this piece of work can all be matched with Rana’s ‘Dislocation I’ (2007) — a view of one house in the centre of Lahore, built with small visuals of the same site (and format) which were photographed each second during an entire 24 hours of a day.

The idea of creating a blend of multiple realities that exist simultaneously can be recalled in the spectacular work of Salman Toor. A painting in acrylic and oil on canvas (‘Upside Down Party’) is in the form of a collage, with several figures loosely handled that seem to be socialising at a function, enjoying beverages, while servants carry food trays around — with fragments of an event, a spilled drink here, and an empty speech bubble there.

A kind of celebratory atmosphere is drawn as if viewed from top. Interestingly, the work is installed on the ceiling of the main hall of COMO, so when you look up, it appears as a large mirror, reflecting the crowd that was gathered at the opening of the museum to glimpse the works of arts.

(The group show, ‘One,’ ends on June 30, 2019)

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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