At the two person exhibition ‘How To Make A Contemporary Landscape’ in O Art Space in Lahore (May 11-21, 2018), one wonders about the link of landscape to land, as well as its connection with phases of art history, such as archaic, medieval, modern and contemporary (arbitrary human expressions, often contested). When you travel long distance and look out the window, you realise how the landscape changes.
Within Pakistan, the most obvious change one notices is the layers of painted advertisements of one or the other mobile network companies on the outer walls of a mud house in a small village. The city advances into the pastoral land in various other ways too: heaps of plastic bags left in fields, construction of ‘housing societies’ with cement, steel and glass structures, their entrances marked by freshly planted date-palm trees.
As city is encroaching upon nature, nature too is entering into the civic spaces but more as a mockery. In cities, it is not uncommon to come across figurines of buffalos, models of village life, “plastic flowers and plastic grass”.
Saba Khan reflects on it in her statement: “The city fills with concrete; public parks and recreation is only left on greenbelts and roundabouts, which are thronged by visitors in the evenings”. In the past, Khan has been dealing with transformations in the city, caused not by development but due to the presence of kitsch and dominance of bad taste — preferred by those who have the power to decide the fate and face of a city. Their aesthetics is evident in the way public places are ‘adorned’ with statues of animals, big vases, enlarged toys, that imitate high culture and reinforce poor taste. This poor taste is wrongly associated with the public as any house in a village (with a sense of refinement evident in the way crockery is arranged on shelves, pottery is turned on the wheel, fabric is weaved, embroidered, and stitched with patch work, etc.) would testify or the way a vendor arranges vegetable and fruit on his stall.
The abundance of fountains completes and complements the concept of ‘beauty’ which is ironic in a country facing imminent water shortage. When Borges was asked what he did about his approaching blindness, he replied he bought more books. Saba Khan addresses that official folly in her series Fountain (a total of 15, Oil on paper, LED Lights and wooden frames) —fountains of different designs with water erupting from them.
A conscious artist not just paints a picture but indicates the realities of life or the Reality. Khalid Iqbal, the great exponent of landscape, sought to represent ‘reality’: eternal, pure, timeless like sky, trees, fields and clouds etc. But there exist multiple realities — civic, societal, cultural and economic. Saba Khan opts for contemporary reality and comments on it but, like any sensitive and intelligent artist, she chooses and uses her language in a manner that offers more than one reading/meaning.
The work in the present exhibition suggests a new technique; yet it is connected to her past paintings, especially the way she approaches her subject matter. The earlier works were related to class segregation, violence, political situations and popular visual culture — all rendered with a high level of skill, evident in the way she handled her medium and made her marks. In the present exhibition too, the flow of dots (water) — minimal yet precise lines mapping the fountain structures and quick and spontaneous brush stroke in the background of some imagery — confirm the artist’s control of her pictorial language.
These works affirm how a creative individual confident of her ability and vision can shift her means and produce something as strong as her acclaimed art pieces. Known for her vibrant palette and her command of capturing details (raw meat, sweetmeat, cakes, interiors of richly decorated houses etc.), Khan now opts for a selective colour range. Yet the painter’s sensibility enters in the work, the way each dot placed in various sequences (being oil on paper) has left a circle/residue of oil around the paint mark (This small detail along with the choice of surface and injecting LED light inside the white frame enhance the feeling/sensation of water). The jet erupting from these fancy constructions is at odds with a majority waiting for water from their dried-up taps during the hot summer months.
The contradiction is further probed by putting the photographs of an ordinary model from a drawing class and his family posing next to a range of national or public monuments.
Suleman Khilji has also dealt with the idea of a strange entity in a familiar setting. The convincing depiction of a plastic shopping bag (‘A Floating Object’), a deserted car in the middle of a barren land, a midget wearing circus costume against a landscape that can be from anywhere, suggest a mix of real and imaginary. Even though he attempts to transcribe some sort of urbanesque layout in ‘Another View 2’ (part of a series of three works with same title, each showing different imagery), when it comes to “image-making as an investigation” Khilji expresses his natural flair of a painter: Maker of things that existed once but later on reside in their painted version.
Drawing things from his surroundings, especially the white and blue stripped shopping bag depicted so tenderly, an old vehicle, a circus performer, he basically paints portraits — portraits of people and objects, and their relationship with their physical environment and contexts.
Suleman Khilji paints these scenarios with a remarkable craft, subtle application of paint along with manipulating the texture of linen and verbal sentences which can be guessed but not deciphered.
The two artists, in their individual manner, have focused on the city which is a field for those who plan, shape and control it; so the reality becomes a pasture for their imagination. Just like the physicality of a raw canvas, a paper, a piece of wood, wall, stone or any other substance becomes the recipient of an artist’s fancy.
Works of Khan and Khilji are a blend of reality and imagination: harsh reality and profound imagination.