You could see two blackboards in/from the exhibition In Silence, Sound recently concluded at the Koel Gallery, Karachi. One of them carried the names of delicious dishes as chef’s special menu offered at the adjoining café in English language, and was visible from the gallery space. Written with chalk, it was a list of food items that are expensive and exclusive. The other blackboard was inside the gallery and was part of the display. Like the classroom of any government school, different words and shapes were inscribed on it. A viewer could decipher the lines of the national anthem — readable at some places, smudged at others. It also had traces of knots and crosses, a game popular among children. The blackboard suggested the presence (or absence) of children from lower middle class homes who are taught state-designed courses, emphasising patriotism and hatred for the neighbouring nation, in history, literature and other related subjects using Urdu as the medium of instruction. One can imagine the classroom with the blackboard where a bored teacher is trying to maintain order among noisy and naughty boys. The two blackboards represented two different worlds or classes. The English menu scrawled in chalk signified a relatively privileged section of society while the anthem in Urdu and the knots and crosses reminded of a class that sends its kids to state institutions. In a sense, both belonged to same class since the classroom blackboard was a remarkably convincing image painted in acrylics on canvas and had a price tag attached to it. The exhibition included six other paintings which were successful replicas of school blackboards. Made by Agha Jandan, these paintings (titled Fatwa, Encore, Holy Day, Diary I, Diary II, Diary III and Untitled) deceived an informed viewer due to the incredible skill in reproducing reality. The most impressive part of these works was how the acrylic looked like a chalk scribble. The surface of blackboard, wiped-out areas and other details were also recreated in a convincing manner. To capture this sort of a subject is difficult because not only it requires a great deal of observation but a high level of skill to produce something that is not easily identifiable or normally picturesque. However, Agha Jandan was able to trick the spectators. On one level, this was not about his pictorial power alone. It also alluded to the way our education system is based upon fabrications force-fed as facts to children. What took place in Jandan’s canvases is a phenomenon that happens in classrooms as well as in society at large. Whether it’s textbooks of history, ethics or sociology or a newspaper report and media coverage, truth is transformed and actuality amended to suit specific agendas — official doctrines or market demands.
In that scenario, a viewer of Jandan’s paintings ceased to be a viewer; he became a participant in witnessing a process of deceit, indicated by the artist by choosing words such as ‘to rulers’, ‘wear uniform’ ‘something about lie’, and outline of the Star of David next to a line that translated as ‘difficult words’. Admirably, this politically-charged content was conveyed in a subtle scheme. On surface, Jandan was copying ordinary blackboards but in reality his work served as a comment, rather a critique, on dogmas projected by the state, religious forces and other such entities. Perhaps, subtlety was the connecting concept to curate this exhibition of four artists, because one realised the varying levels of indirectness in the artists’ expressions. Shaukat Ali picked a language that was minimal yet effective in its impact. Using cotton buds, he prepared a number of canvases with different tones of greys in such a pattern that it led to a strong optical experience. Employing a familiar product like a cotton bud, Ali created canvases which, like music, communicated without any prescribed message. Dots of varying shades were arranged in such an order that a visitor had a sense or feeling of seeing not a static object but a scene that seemed to be moving perpetually. Points painted in multiple hues and placed at a regular distance conveyed a sensation of flux within these works. Not only the choice of Ali’s palette, reduced to greys, but his pictorial sensibilities remind one of the art of Mohammad Ali Talpur and all others inspired from Talpur. Yet Ali managed to imbibe an element of activity through his careful distribution of tonal scale in which the dotted lines appeared to be turning in different directions.
If the paradox of static and movement was the case in Shaukat Ali’s work, poise was a feature evident in two other participants’ pieces. Both Momin Zafar and Tehmina Ahmed displayed their photographs, which revealed how the nature is not just a physical entity but could be a stimulus for contemplation of serene thoughts and sensitive feelings. Mainly shot at several sights in Sri Lanka, Zafar’s digital prints showed surroundings which could have been from anywhere, thus inviting the viewers to recall and reflect their own experiences and encounters with places like these. Images of sea, walls with residue of rain and decay, foliage, and lonely individuals on paths and stairs impressed a viewer with the selective approach of the artist, as nothing appeared extra in these extraordinary images. Likewise, Tehmina Ahmed focused on the essence of an environment that seemed unusual due to the sensitive and sophisticated placement of tones in her monochromatic and slightly coloured prints. Whether it was bathers on seashore, fragments of statues carved at old tombs or views of rocks and plains, the minimal approach in recording them had maximum impact. Despite being pictures of physical surroundings, these conveyed an effect of lyricism. Although the exhibition (held from Aug 27-Sept 5, 2015) was titled, In Silence, Sound, each artist’s work appeared an ode to colour black. An observation which could make a viewer realise the potential, power, pleasure, and pain of art or artists, within limits and beyond.