The origin of mirror is ambiguous. Nobody knows about the first human who may have looked at his reflection in water while standing on the edge of a pond or a river bank. We may still like to go back to the mind of the man who ‘saw’ his own self — an image that belonged to him yet was not a part of him.
After the fabrication of a mirror, man must have remained fascinated with this device which reproduces his self in reverse. Today, when we look at ourselves in mirrors, we confront a familiar and yet unknown figure — a contradiction between a mental idea and physical actuality.
Works of art, too, provide an occasion to know ourselves through multiple means. Film, theatre production, dance performance, painting, novel or a poem, these all make us connect with other realities, to humans belonging to far off lands, cultures, and times. Somehow, we share their situation, feelings and emotions and that’s the mark of a great work of art.
In the case of Ali Sultan, the camera lens turns into a mirror in which the viewers can glimpse themselves through shapes, forms and spaces that lie beyond their physical location. Looking at his photographs — outlines of houses in a narrow alley, contours of animals, fragments of a framed photograph, beam of light on a dark street, a busy petrol pump with crowded public vehicles — we come to know that these realities which exist in our surroundings hold some other meanings that are relevant to us.
Sultan captures — in the real sense of the word — this parallel reality. As human beings, we experience the world as unedited and uncropped. It is only our eyes, and mind, which take this decision of what to see and notice and remember from the world spread like a continuous scroll in front of us.
Our retinal experience does not permit us to omit anything; though we can ignore something, we cannot erase it. The camera provides this facility and power to view reality (since photography is supposed to be a realistic art form!) and to manage, rather mutilate the normal existence. Looking at a photograph, we hardly know the parts that are deliberately left out by the photographer.
In most cases, it is not what is presented but what is omitted that decides the worth of a creative personality. Not only in photography but in every art practice, the artist’s preference for not using certain material/content work determines the impact of the work. Hence, silence is necessary in music, and a writer leaves much to the imagination of his readers.
In Ali Sultan’s work, this peculiar approach is at its best. We see images, mostly black & white, which like a newspaper photograph present a personal vision. We recognise that these are all a result of his visits to various places, yet his camera seems invisible.
Sultan’s pictures do not reveal merely an outside surrounding but the personal vision of the artist who has opted for a lyrical view of the harsh environment. For instance, a section of a family photograph on a well-lit red wall, or a dog lying on a street next to some debris, and strong blue light on an urban site, apart from describing the everyday occurrences also convey a pleasure in the distribution of tone, textures and a visual drama heightened by contrasts.
Likewise, the recording of marks left by individuals on a wall and electricity pole outside a house add on to the making of a common expression that can be classified ‘art’, although not accepted generally.
This divide between art and reality, fact and fiction, within documentation and deliberation is perhaps the main concern, if not the major content, in the work of Ali Sultan. He creates (photographing a situation is an act of creativity since you select, crop and compose the outside entity into an image that suits your inner self) visuals which suggest elements of desire, desolation and differences. His imagery is inviting because it is accompanied with another visual; thus two images complement and complete a statement. Actually, the combination of two visuals turns and transforms a special scene into a complex series of narrative, as observed in the work with the fleeting image of a petrol pump next to the shadow of a person with plant and parts of plastic chairs and tables laid outside.
The artist infuses a sense of beauty into these common places, not only through his careful selection of his pictorial material but by connecting the pictures which enhance their desultory aspect. This reminds one of Edward Hopper’s paintings of American cities with their nocturnal light and the air of alienation.
How to deal with this alienation? One way is to seek the wealth and warmth of nature. This is what one finds in the work of Naveen Naqvi, the other artist showing with Ali Sultan at the T2F, Karachi. In her photographs, you come across trees, forests, shrubs, branches, which make you lose the sense of time and place as well as the difference between humans and nature (a distinction, which is superfluous since human beings are also part of nature!).
The eyes, following Naqvi’s camera, walk amid the cluster of huge trees, shafts of light, trunks and branches lying in the way, and step on leaves gathered on the ground. While in that passage, we realise that these timeless elements of nature are not distinct from our own bodies which are destroyed but then recycled in multiple forms.
Naqvi’s views of nature are not merely of a photographer focusing on trees and light, but of a person who investigates the hidden beauty in the detail often ignored. In that sense, both artists showing at the T2F are closely connected because not only are most of their works in black & white (strangely, their coloured photos, due to the sensitive division of tones, seem monochromatic too!), both have discovered poetry out of plain stuff.
Through their views of solitary lanes, night scenes, streaks of light filtered through huge, heavy and dark tree trunks, and sensitive surfaces from an unkempt earth, we start seeing ourselves and outside of ourselves the way both Ali Sultan and Naveen Naqvi have shown us: That there is always poetry and pleasure at places we presume as plain, placid and private.
(The exhibition remains open till August 9, 2017)