What next? This short phrase becomes a long, unbearable sentence for the recent graduates of visual arts. Four years spent at an art institution provide a sense of security, satisfaction and self-confidence that fades as soon as the students leave their alma mater.
The world beyond art schools or the real world is different, difficult. Dealing with galleries, buyers, critics and hoping for curators’ attention are arduous but necessary tasks in order to make a name within the art circles. Many disappear with the dust of time, and a few manage to make their mark. Politeness, connections and school-of-thought matter but, more than that, it is the newness, originality and excellence of an artwork that ensures their future survival.
We are witnessing that stage in the lives of some artists, especially in the group show ‘Beyond Today’ that included Ahsan Javaid, Ehsan Memon, Hamid Ali Hanbhi, Syed Hussain, Unab Sumble and Usman Khalid. The exhibition held from March 31-April 14, 2017 at O Art Space, Lahore offered something important than art: a drive and desire beyond the protective membrane of an art institute. The fact that these artists who graduated from the NCA and the Punjab University not long ago have been working regularly, and exhibiting frequently is appreciated, but it is their attempt to expand their visual vocabulary and formal concerns that is more crucial and significant.
Actually for a recent art graduate, the real challenge is to maintain a balance between his identity formulated in his graduate work and the need to produce something new. Somehow, the artists in ‘Beyond Today’ found interesting solutions.
Hamid Ali Hanbhi astonished the viewers last year due to his remarkable skill in rendering stills from movies with English subtitles along with a conceptual sophistication through joining two visuals to make a single narrative. In the present exhibition, he kept his craft and observation intact and moved away from his previous imagery. Here a large canvas is composed of (Afghan) burka-clad figures in varying hues, which also remind of Chinese artist Fang Li-jun, who paints identical faces with smiles that verge to grimace. (His, and several other Chinese artists’ choice of making identical features could relate to the way outside world perceives all Chinese people as uniform, as well as the boom of Chinese industry that has spread cheap and affordable ‘similar’ products across the globe).
In the context of our situation, a woman in a burka that completely conceals her identity is like someone without any features. So Hanbhi’s canvas with burka heads of same size, yet in varying shades alludes to how the real personality and character of a female is jeopardised once hidden underneath that attire. The shift of colours suggests the way society or male eye views the change when it comes to women is merely cosmetic and superficial.
This issue of diffused identity is also addressed in the work of Syed Hussain, a painter trained in the discipline of miniature (2015) and belongs to the Hazara community from Quetta. In one work, the meticulously rendered drawing of three figures — looking like a black and white photograph — the central character is blank. Likewise, in two other small works, one sees yellow surfaces with portrait of two individuals. Each resembling some kind of picture identity card (even though the execution reinforced that it is a ‘drawing’), since these have official stamps, letterings in Chinese and Hindi, and a number of signatures, all alluding to the remains of those who were lost due to natural causes or for political reasons. In fact the issue of ‘disappearing’ is different for a member of the Hazara Shiite community who if not kidnapped has to shield his face, since the features betray his sect, hence making him an easy target.
Religious sects out to exterminate each other is an aftermath of General Zia’s military dictatorship that perpetuated religious differences within the Muslim population of Pakistan. Ahsan Javed in his painting composed the folded posters of General Zia, so one is able to discern the outline of his face and traces of his army uniform. The work serves to connect the present with the past, but more importantly it added a major point in the artist’s imagery. Javed painted folded drapes of different draperies including those with scared texts and for sale outside of shrines (2016) but in his recent work, using the same strategy, he points to the essence/cause of culture instead of its mere outcome.
Another artist, a former class fellow of Javed and Hanbhi, Ehsan Memon made a dark shape of a roti along with a composite image of multiple sections of a naan completed in black and grey. Only if a person still remembers his immaculately fabricated breads, he would be able to connect current works on paper to his past pieces, but failing that, these appear more like exercises in tonal separation.
Probably the problem lies with the artist’s association rather bondage with his pictorial matter. During his degree show (2016) Javed was replicating reality into art in such a way that one was unable to distinguish between the two. A formal concern in the art of 1960s but in our local circumstances the choice of continuing as artist or opting for another profession is as crucial as the academic debates about the distinction between art and life.
However, in the current exhibition that frame of reference (previously seen in his cardboard box, bars of wood, collection of coal) is lost because now it is the outcome — the roti which assumes the main point of interest — more being a decorative device than a deeper concern to reflect upon reality.
Often our conceptual concerns are deep inside us, like our veins and arteries, without us being aware of them, yet performing their tasks. The work of Unab Sumble indicates the scheme in which an artist blends diverse pictorial expressions for concocting a narrative about one’s existence. Normally an artist adopts one peculiar language and continues expounding in it, but it is rare that he or she inculcates multiple modes of descriptions into one work in order to formulate a narrative that depicts our situation and state.
Sumble combines naturalistic depiction with selective application of patches of colour to create visuals which affirm that what an artist is making is not a replication of his immediate optic response, but his idea of reality with its varying dimensions — initiating from personal observation to art history.