The two words ‘sacred’ and ‘scared’ often get mixed up due to a slight typing error. They are related in meaning too. Sacredness attached to religion tends to induce fear; the followers are scared of indulging in sin, to save themselves from punishment in the form of eternal hell.
Those around us who belong to creative disciplines, particularly a fiction writer, poet, painter, sculptor, singer, dancer, actor and film director, are afraid their work may offend people’s religious sentiments. Often, they resort to self-censorship.
A group of artists has addressed the idea of sacred at the show The Sacred? (May 25-June 11, 2018) at ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore. It includes works of some of our leading artists such Ayaz Jokhio, Salman Toor, Ghulam Mohammad, Ali Kazim, Mohammad Zeeshan, R.M. Naeem, Adeel uz Zafar, Sana Arjumand and Mudassar Manzoor. It’s interesting because such a group has come together perhaps for the first time and that too in the month of fasting when the art activities are generally sluggish. The question mark at the end of the title of the exhibition is intriguing.
Spanish writer Javier Cercas holds that a novel or a work of art is not about providing answers but invoking questions about art and our existence. The question in the title is addressed by the participating artists who interpret the notion of sacred in different manners. Some works created before the exhibition are seen in a new context. For example, Ayaz Jokhio’s through his ‘Miniature Painting’ (1’x1’) made in 2015, the image of a human skull inside a 22-k gold frame, announces that “Death is sacred”. It is scary too because human skull invokes a sense of awe: fear of death.
The elaborate gold frame around the image painted in gouache on paper also has a spiritual quality like the use of gold in Christian religious paintings (replacement of sky, thus signifying heaven) and in Quranic manuscripts as well as in calligraphy on the border of Kaaba’s cover.
If some artists such as Sana Arjumand and Mudassar Manzoor have settled for simpler, superficial solution to the theme (a woman with a flower in her ‘beak’ and a blue halo at the back of her draped head in the case of former, and a man sitting in praying position amid a red and dark background with a few lotuses for the latter), other participants approach it with a higher creative intelligence. Some refer to religion, for others the idea of scared is not restricted to faith.
Ghulam Muhammad and Salman Toor have both employed element of language: words, letters, script. Torn, scattered, glued in a rectangle (like the page of book) in the work of Muhammad, and superimposed in an irregular fashion on the outline of a face (with two right eyes — one cornea green and other in saffron colour) in the painting of Toor, the two art pieces allude to the sacredness of spoken not the inscribed word. The holy text was not transmitted in written format; it was communicated orally.
Shifting shades of texts and words converging into one another connote the way one speaks, in contrast to the printed/written language which follows a uniformity, linearity and straight order.
In Muhammad Zeeshan and Ali Kazim one locates element of sacredness in their recurring concerns. Zeeshan has been investigating the vocabulary of popular imagery, vis-à-vis pictures of saints, shrines etc. executed in laser cut drawings. In the present exhibition, figure of a Buraq with a patch of colour on her eyes and in other frame the silhouette of an upside down horse suggest the link between heaven and earth. The difference between two hemispheres or a distance is not measured in miles or light years but in the good deeds of a human being.
The link of sacred to celestial points of reference may be decoded in the work of Ali Kazim: a rock (in fact a ceramic piece) that resembles a meteorite, with a tiny heart coming out of it or sitting at its base connects to the concept of sacredness attached to stone (all across India one sees unhewn stones as objects of worship). It also reminds of another side of sacredness — “I think it is my workplace and work, which is sacred for me”. This is often forgotten in the debate about religious matters.
An important part of a religious debate is about covering the body. The awareness of being ‘naked’ was how mankind began its journey and hence the idea of sin, sacredness etc. R.M. Naeem picks an essential element from that legacy, of draping oneself, so one is in the presence of a holy being. A girl rendered in an immaculate fashion is covered with a robe of unstitched cloth next to a Cyprus tree. This is another reference to religious iconography from Persian painting, with seven circles of varying shades of blue, painted as if in movement. The reference to seven skies can be read but is not so obvious.
Reading is one of the most important parts of faith. The first revealed word of Quran that Archangel Gabriel spoke to Holy Prophet pbuh was Read. Adeel uz Zafar, concerned with “books or scriptures with no specific answers at many levels: personal, social, political, religious and philosophical”, has created a small work with two panels, one with a continuous fabric and other a torn stitch. Marks which look like lines of text, contort and converge, thus questioning the sacred (or secret) power of words can be read as something significant, covered and revealed at the same time.
Perhaps, the best thing about the exhibition is that most works are not strictly connected with the theme. Some have been picked and appropriated for the exhibition; yet they become part of the narrative. Many had produced the works prior to idea of the exhibition but they fit well with the theme due to the curator and viewers’ expectations and interpretations; reminding one of Paul Valery’s quote: “It’s never the author who makes a masterpiece….. Only a reader can make a masterpiece”.