Paul Cezanne wanted to make Impressionism into “something solid and durable, like the art of museums”. Sehr Jalil literally put her paintings in a museum — Iqbal Museum — a space, not only far from the art centres of Lahore but also removed from the entire art ‘establishment’.
Her recent solo show ‘Stray Reflections’ that concludes today (Dec 23, 2018-Jan 6, 2019) was held at an old building, Javed Manzil, (once the house of Allama Iqbal) now converted into a museum with items of the poet’s personal use like letters, books, caps, vests, suits, shirwani, walking sticks, family photographs etc. Alongside these objects, the paintings of Jalil were spread on the floor and leant against a wall and chairs. The display appeared temporary. Arranged in different rooms, a common aspect was the informality in exhibiting the works. In fact, ‘exhibiting’ is a far-fetched idea; it was as if someone had just left the work over there.
On the opening day, I followed a study tour of small children and their teacher, listening to a guide informing them about various articles on permanent display. Obviously, the guide couldn’t ignore the sudden emergence of freshly painted colourful pieces, so he described them as “pictures for some other purpose”.
One expected the children to be attracted to bright and vivid visuals, but the power of programming is so strong that they were responding more to historic things. To me, what was there before Jalil’s show had little or no importance, except the open book of Iqbal’s poetry, with a print of A.R. Chughtai’s watercolour.
The question remained: Why choose Javed Manzil to showcase art. Sehr Jalil had a simple explanation: “Once I worked at a card company in the vicinity and used to spend time at the Javed Manzil”. However, one suspects something more profound and rational than that. Jalil knows and recognises the relation of history to her aesthetics and its idiom that, due to its formal features, exists in the ‘now’ in contrast to its surrounding historical artefacts from the Iqbal Museum that belong to the last century. Her eight pieces in multiple mediums, scales and formats, with one notebook from the personal archives of the artist, reflect an artist’s mind that is not fixed in a limited time, and which, in the words of Susan Sontag, “can be in the past and the present, or the present and the future”.
The work of Sehr Jalil deals with the division of time, since most of her imagery stems from her memory, family photographs, references to her grandfather’s pictures in the British army, art history. But the manner of painting is so current that one does not need a date to know that these were created in this day; nor is one required to search for the artist’s signatures, because since her graduation from NCA (BFA 2006, MA Visual Arts 2014), she has been employing this style: not bound to a technique or even a regular format or structure. She displayed one huge work at her postgraduate degree show with “an old thin tree” attached to her painted canvas.
In comparison to her past pieces, the recent works from Javed Manzil seemed contained and controlled. Probably the artist’s intention to base her imagery on specific visuals from the past restrained her into making ‘museum pieces’. Seeing her work next to other exhibits, one feels that a historic museum could be the ideal place for her creations. Here, a discoloured manuscript, torn pages of a book, dusty garments, crumpled cap, fading carpet, tattered rug, and broken sandal are like marks of authenticity. The work of Sehr Jalil suited a place like this, even though these paintings would have been ignored by Sir Allama Iqbal, as was the case with his young fans.
But the paintings had a strong link with history and a past that was shared by the great poet of Urdu and Persian, who embodies the glory of heritage in his lyrics. Sehr Jalil excavated the past from an individualistic and private point of view as her choice of imagery denoted the theme of war, struggle and expeditions. In her set of images, one came across animals, a dog (‘If Wishes were Dogs’), horses (‘Between Horses, Homes and River’s’; and “and so …”). She had also inserted segments of art history, two figures from a canvas of Pablo Picasso (in her ‘Letter to Picasso’) and the profile of a girl from Gerhard Richter’s painting (in her ‘Whenever I Go’). The work was adorned with personal, political and art history references, all serving to communicate a new way of looking at history — not as a dead object in a showcase but a source to be inquired, investigated and explored for new meanings.
As a matter of fact, all of us carry our personal museums — of innocence, shame, boredom, brilliance etc. — within us. Sehr Jalil constructed her private museum inside the museum of a ‘national poet’. This might be a subversive act for a few but, in reality, it was a way to blend the world of art with the realm beyond art — the larger public which too has witnessed the same plight of past.
One wonders on the inclusion of animals — dog, horses — in her paintings. Arguably, these stem from her observation and recollection (photograph of her grandfather on horseback, used for her triptych “and so…”) but the fascination with animal can just be an excuse for her way of making marks with paint and brush. Jalil is one of the few painters who treat their surfaces as a living entity and not like a dead wall — putting and leaving only those strokes which are necessary and letting the viewer complete the whole picture. So, what we see is a vibrant interplay of paint in a speed that can only match a runaway horse — in all directions and dimensions.
Beyond history and past connections, Sehr Jalil’s art would still be enjoyed because of its unexpectedness and extraordinariness; qualities as rare as the act of exhibiting at Javed Manzil.