The broken telephone: displacing history and making meaning
An evidently vintage photograph hangs on display – a group of jubilant youngsters distributes bananas amongst themselves, few of whom coyly gaze at the photographer (and subsequently at the viewer) while savouring the fruit.
Bananas are said to be the most popular fruit in the world today. During the Second World War though, as imported perishables, they were impossible to get and most children in Britain did not see their first banana until after the war when it was first brought in. In fact, the iconic photo captures that very scene from post-war Britain when the first batch of bananas was dispatched and dropped before those who could not remember having tasted the fruit before; which explains the overjoyed expressions in an otherwise aura of bleakness. The cautious colouring of the visual further shrouds the desolation the scenario is saturated with. Those unfamiliar with history would easily misplace the context behind the photo, and in doing so successfully exercise the artist’s intention.
Muzzumil Raheel’s solo exhibition “Hearsay” at the Canvas Gallery is an extrapolation of his conceptual concerns. Raheel has always been fascinated with viewer’s interaction with the visuals – how and why they interpret something as they do, and how it inevitably exposes their acquired predisposition. He has regularly adhered to elements of humour, trickery, and whimsy in his creations.
History has had a history of moulding itself, either involuntarily by nature over time or wilfully by various man-made agents. It is presented and represented with a new face recurrently and is constantly undergoing re-examination and evolution. Perhaps, Raheel’s body of work could not have surfaced at a better time. In the current age where the term “alternate facts” is callously fired in the Occident, and an entire historic regime is erased from text books in South Asia; where significant contributions are selectively highlighted and blame ricochets off defensive parties, where it takes decades to acknowledge proven narratives let alone confess accountability, the membrane between the real and the unreal has become severely permeable. This pervasive phenomenon has made it difficult to extract semblance and to segregate the truth from the false.
Raheel revisits this metaphysical climate where the spectrum is blurred and the scene presents itself as an illusory deceit. He appropriates popular imagery from entertainment media and journalism, which he then re-contextualizes through comical captions or creative visual edits. He further envelops some of his images in a landscape of calligraphic verses that reiterate the veiling of history.
“A golden chance” is a photo documentation of a gilded ram. The artist has referenced one of the more known stories from ancient Greek mythology where a golden fleece – the skin of a holy winged ram of Zeus – had to be retrieved to escape war. The story grew popular and was handed down across generations, so much so that it’s imageries are in use to date. This gilded ram was one of the numerous trade-signs, which, centuries later, hung above the doorways of businesses to identify the goods being made or sold in that region. Such signs helped people find their way around the city and described where buildings were located. It became a widespread symbol of wealth and abundance.
The artist makes a possible allusion to the dethroned Shah of Iran in “Maindakon ka Badshah.” Cut out letters in the Arabic script accumulate on the floor; their muddled state challenges the viewers with a perplexing job to decipher the words and phrase for themselves. Wooden letters on the immediate wall spell out “Shah”, observably signifying the former ruler’s supremacy, his influence, and the disparate hierarchy against his discarded cult followers who assemble before him like a herd of sheep.
The artist individually captions a trio of images out of context. A cut out of a ballerina in motion mid-air is posted on a serene landscape and referred to as Bo Beep. Two figures perilously sit on a wooden pole while engaging in a pillow fight. An iconic image from 1970 depicts a soccer player leaping over the other and is cheekily titled “Ice cream”. By incorporating satire through the quirky subtitles that Raheel borrows from colloquial and popular rhymes, the embedded history and the narrative of some of these images as well as of those phrases are purposely reincarnated.
Some of Muzzumil Raheel’s work is void of any faces and unrecognizable identities. They inherently come across as a geographical documentation; a visual map of sorts. With a forceful encounter between the negatives and the positives, the well-defined shapes firmly establish their presence and chalk their parameters. Cartographic lines trickle down the visuals, thread across the canvas, and slither around the text, and in doing so introduce a moving timeline in an otherwise still, embalmed image. The use of calligraphy tethers the entire body of work together while representing the quintessence of Raheel’s practice.
The blankets of intricately written text engulf as land and seascapes – plentiful and daunting with their ocean of darkness. The overwhelming number of microscopic individuals conglomerate with unabated confidence to disturb, disrupt, and frustrate similar to the noise and grain distortion on televisions. But instead of chagrining, they mesmerize and stupefy; a trance-like state that teleports the viewer into an alternate reality orchestrated within an intangible space.
In “Mis-understanding” a cropped portrait of the Russian Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich rests against the wall, albeit upside down. The grand duke did not believe in human virtues and preferred the company of amusing, witty people regardless of their ideology or background. Furthermore, he was interested in artistic and intellectual pursuits; the duke was appointed the President of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and performed as a patron of many artists during which he grew a valuable collection of paintings and old icons. This particular portrait, however, lost the name of its creator as well as the date of its production somewhere along the course of time, an irony in the face of someone who was a devoted aficionado of the arts. The artist consciously chose to recline the digital print upside down in a corner to recapitulate the notion of neglected, forgotten history of otherwise valuable keepsakes. The placement confronts the viewer as a final (and hence an abiding) reminder just before the exit.
Raheel’s adept use of subtle interventions and shifts in the sought images reinforce his vision of how the archived history today is questionable – a haze suffused with doubts. He blurs faces, conveys the subjects to a different setting and time, and uses a weave of text as a tool to obscure identities and transmute context. It reaffirms the polemic on how the spoken and written word – the oral as well as the formal logging of history and its passing to the next generation – is a procedure vulnerable to manipulations and exploitations. Similar to a game of Chinese Whispers or The Broken Telephone, it is bound to undergo amendments and unwelcome alterations – either accidentally or deliberately. This not only makes retracing time and the cause of the shift in history an arduous process but also presents a deceiving arena, disjointed from reality, that we dogmatically convince ourselves to be absolute and irrefutably accurate.