Artists often return to some ideas, imagery or technique of their past. They do so in order to investigate and recreate a different dimension and version of their pictorial output. Sometimes revisiting a previous creation is necessary because it adds a new meaning to their work. In most cases, the coming back turns into repetition, reduces the value of both new and old works, and hence jeopardises the importance of the maker. There are many examples of artists here and abroad who have been working out of the same mental mould in order to satiate the market.
If the return to an artwork is a conscious and intelligent endeavour, it provides an opportunity to examine the formal and conceptual concerns. It brings forth the context of not only the singular artist’s ideas but the aesthetics of an age and milieu in which the artist has lived.
This kind of reflection could be described as research, an element that was observed in the exhibition of Samina Mansuri held between December 2-12, 2014 at the Koel Gallery Karachi. Works included in her solo show ‘Shell [Skin]’ reminded of her earlier works, even though the technique and materials were new for the viewers.
The last exhibition of Samina Mansuri in Karachi was at Chawkandi Art, in which the artist had displayed photographic prints with varying degrees of grey tones. These works suggested dark and deserted urban scenarios, in which the absence of human being was substituted with mechanical and industrial constructions filling the pictorial spaces. Mansuri had created these views first in three dimensions, in order to photograph them, which led to dark and gloomy (flat) visuals.
In her new works, the circle has been completed as the pictures of blackened city spaces may have inspired small surfaces included in the exhibition, with complex textures made by gluing together metal shavings, nails and other such tiny items. The artist has coated these tactile surfaces in dark colours, thus offering an illusion of scorched areas/burnt objects. The emphasis on mechanical and industrial products in this process seems most crucial in creating and comprehending these works.
Along with these works (generally titled Steel Scrap), the show at Koel Gallery constitutes of several cut outs collectively called Shell (in different numbers). These forms indicate the presence of a human body, sliced and exposed with internal organs. Layers of laser cut sections evoke a link between natural or human organs and machine parts; certain forms could be read as thorax or ribs as well as components of a complex product, such as car engine etc. Both the outer edges and levels within the piece leave a viewer contemplating and concentrating (but not confusing) on the connection of man and machine. Synthetic polymer paint on these wooden works adds a sense of mechanical presence/process.
These art pieces also echo the artist’s painterly canvases with organic forms exhibited in the recent past. If the imagery in those canvases was linked to graffiti on walls of European and North American cities on the one hand, it was also related to the artist’s works from early 1990s with representation of fruit as components of human body.
In the latest works the body instead of being replaced by botanical things is substituted (or blended) with mechanical tools.
This shift from nature to industry is not surprising because the artist has been living in Canada for several years. If seen from the perspective of her adopted homeland, one can have a different interpretation of her new works. Her experience of being at a place that belongs to developed world, in contrast to a developing (but culturally rich) society such as Pakistan, is instrumental in formulating her aesthetic position.
Thus the choice of metaphor to reflect upon the alienating effect of urbanisation comes from residing in a location dominated with machines. This difference between a culture bent upon human touch and a society based upon using tools in place of human organs is what can be detected in the works of Samina Mansuri, created in the 1990s and now. Her new work conveys the desolation and destruction in the age of industrialisation — with its logical outcome in weaponisation. The natural outcome of which can be sited in her surfaces ‘Steel Scrap’, revealing a landscape after the devastation of war, burning or chemical waste. In a sense, both series of works from the exhibition at Koel correspond to each other as both communicate the pain and pathos of our times.
Samina Mansuri is not the only Pakistani artist living in the West, but her preference in art is unique and independent. Unlike other expatriate artists who are recreating their glorious past or utilising the most popular political subjects, Mansuri has focused on a theme and vocabulary which is valid not only in her original homeland but is valuable in the ‘Other’ location — a region which is considered to be rich and developed but has a growing sense of alienation.
The example of Samina Mansuri and her choice of art are important because in this age of information, the older concepts about displacement from a cultural heritage are not the same. Samina Mansuri’s work signifies this distance, from human touch to mechanical operations, rather than displacement from one culture to another, no matter how exotic the other culture is.