The art of printmaking is a double-edged sword. While there is unlimited possibility of picture-making, the technique compels you to experiment with numerous effects offered within the genre. Several of our known artists too are trapped in textures, impressions and accidental results. Often the process takes over, and one subsequently forgets and forgoes essential concerns both in terms of imagery and ideas. What is left are a few blobs, bites, and scratches on a grainy surface that are amazing for their retinal appeal but difficult to enjoy on a complex or conceptual level.
One wonders that some leading artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol practice as printmakers but there is hardly a prominent ‘printmaker’ who is known as a mainstream artist — not even S.W. Hayter. In our midst, Zahoor ul Akhlaq produced a number of prints, and in diverse formats. Anwar Saeed has also worked in printmaking. For them, making a print was as natural as rendering a drawing or executing a painting. Their works surpassed any categorisation of medium, material or method when it comes to art making.
This was strongly felt at the opening of a printmaking show: ‘Signature’ at the O Art Space, Lahore, by 12 artists, all included in the box print project initiated by the Department of Fine Art, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. The variety in their works can be seen like a bridge between different disciplines, as well as among multiple styles, approaches and, importantly, generations.
The exhibition (October 26-November 5, 2018) presents a range of prints, from traditional etching, aquatint, screen print to photo-etching and digital prints. In some works, theme, image and technique merge in such a scheme that one tends to concentrate more on the visual, its meaning and relevance. For artists like Anwar Saeed, Naiza Khan, and Mohammad Ali Talpur, this was an occasion to explore something different from their usual art practice. In Talpur’s, ‘Untitled’ (photo-etching), the print of a radio on top of the sky filled with clouds is transformed into dots as if it was an enlarged version of a newspaper photograph. The transistor radio, from a certain era and in that position, connects to ‘Kalluri’s Radio’, a short story by the Marathi writer Vilas Sarang (from ‘Fair Tree of Void’), in which Kalluri, the villager, finds a transistor radio, switches it on and hears transmissions from different stations. “Listening to their voices and observing the repetition of many sounds, Kalluri came to believe that they had a language of their own. He felt that if he could make out the sequence of various sounds and their configurations, he would be able to grasp the language of the spirits.” Hence he treats radio a sacred item.
But apart from being sacred, Talpur’s work may refer to another power (almost divine), attached with media today. It also reminds of what he had said in a 2010 interview: “To me, an artist is like a radio. If I take it to Mexico, it will catch the Mexican channels. Likewise, if I were to take it to Papua New Guinea, it will automatically tune in to the local network”.
In Naiza Khan’s ‘Anatomy of a Toilet’, one can see this link between human beings and locations. Print containing photographs of two public toilets in Manora Island — composed next to each other on a graph paper, along with a demarcation in thick dark band — narrates the divide between spaces and genders. Actually, both the restrooms for males and females are identical, except for a small detail: the ventilator for gents is square while it is round in the ladies room.
The issue of gender is a major problem in a male-dominated society, where humanity is viewed from a standard conventional male perspective. Here, the worldview is extremely limited when it comes to gender, faith or preference in sex. These constructs are questioned by Anwar Saeed in his ‘Untitled’ (Digital Print on Archival Paper). Torso of a male nude is covered with a sheet of fabric, but on a closer look one detects the face hidden behind a piece of underpants. Varying shades of light red for drapery and blue for the figure and the backdrop conveys a feeling of other worldliness as well as sensuousness.
Saeed’s work reinforces the aspect of normality in practices which are considered odd or even sinful. The work suggests a sense of freedom, a flight (the main figure resembles a large-winged bird) from the limitations of ourselves and the society. The artist quotes poetry by “Gennady Trifonov, (1945–2011), the Soviet Union’s only open homosexual poet” as introduction to his work. But one feels that beyond gender liberation, the work is more about transcendence of human heart — a possibility only in dreams. His work, even though created in digital format relates to his earlier acrylics on paper, depicting sleeping men which could be described as nocturnal landscapes of mind, senses and soul.
Printmaking, as explained by Zarmeene Shah in her catalogue essay, is “… one of the oldest forms of expression in the world, with engraving (or etching) techniques dating back thousands of years to cave art, executed on walls, bone, and stones”. However, in today’s sensibility it is associated with hard work, almost labour. The process of preparing a plate, inking, wiping and putting it in press for multiple editions is tough. Yet a number of artists manipulate the medium to attain their particular vision. Examples are seen in the prints of Meher Afroz, Michael Esson, Laila Rahman, Rabeya Jalil, Naazish Ataullah, Atif Khan and Nurayah Sheikh Nabi.
Although in some works, one finds a fascination with found impression, linear drawing, a reference to Mughal period, but a few works in the group stand apart. For instance, Afshar Malik’s etching (‘The Dream Now and Then’, 1986) maps an artist’s real and imaginary life with the delicacy of line. Train, station, bicycle, body parts, tiny domestic items and portions of houses indicate how the life once experienced continues to exist in memory.
The distinction between actual and imagined is also witnessed in the etching of Adeel uz Zafar, with his unmistakable shrouded figure, drawn in detail; of a human presence hidden under layers of fabric. Zafar delineates each and every line on the cloth that protects and covers the standing body, presumably of a toy or a cartoon character, but both substitute a human being. In the work of Zafar, these figures can be traced to those bodies which were abandoned in the parking lots, cabs and other public sites in Karachi after the political and ethnic extermination.
A project like this compilation of art pieces is called a box print because it combines prints of all participants in a folio, distributed among all those who take part in it as well as for collectors, a unique opportunity and meeting point across age, standards and sensibilities. Hence you see Meher Afroz side by side with Saad Ahmed.