Over the last century, the mass media has popularized and propagated fictional icons from films, television shows, advertisements, cartoons and comic-books to such an extent that people revere them and elevate them to a god-like status. To supplement their interest, people invest in action figures and toys in order to own a piece of what they love most.
Like many others, artist Adeel-uz-Zafar also seems to have a great interest in collectibles. However, this interest exists as that of an artist aiming to examine them a bit more deeply, not only physically, but also with reference to their nuances and connotations. At his current solo show at Gandhara-art Space, Karachi, titled ‘Stranger than Fiction’ that runs until December, Zafar showcases a body of exciting pieces typical of his style, but with many reinventions.
As one enters the gallery, the first thing that meets the eye is a stuffed toy bunny on the floor, lying in a pool of blood. This mixed-media installation, titled Bunny 3D, garners a confused response from the viewer. The terrified reaction it receives is offset by the confusion of the bunny being a stuffed toy; even so, a toy associated with humour, cheerfulness and ingenuity. Who can forget Disney’s Bugs Bunny, who is capable of outsmarting anyone? However, Zafar makes an introspection into the serious side of the bunny/rabbit, by delving into how this animal is often depicted taking its life in various cartoons, some of the techniques of which include revolving doors, a toaster, a cricket ball, a boomerang, a hand grenade, the shining sun, a magnifying glass, and a combination of various tools. Close by is displayed Zafar’s engraved drawing of a bunny wrapped in gauze on plastic vinyl. As with all such pieces, Zafar’s dexterity and skill is apparent in his unique technique of engraving each strand of the bandage painstakingly against a stark black background.
Nearby is Disney’s iconic character Mickey Mouse (Mickey 3D), bandaged and put up on an embellished frame. Exploring the sinister side of this lovable mouse, Zafar’s placement of it seems to imply a cross between mummification, cruxifiction and reverence. A text that accompanies this piece reads: “Controversial facts…associated with this comical and fictional character making international headlines was a ridiculous fatwa, parodies, criticism, pejorative use of the name and censorship world wide….Even cartoon characters however ambiguous… can represent a world of fantasy, a form of escapism or a harsh reality of a global melt down”.
Looking straight ahead, one is immediately catapulted into their childhood as the characters of Cartoon Network’s popular cartoon series, The Powerpuff Girls come into view. As large blow-up dolls of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, the five-year old superheroes, look on fiercely, a closer inspection reveals that the viewer been deceived; these dolls are, in fact, realistic replicas made with fiberglass. Accompanying the colourful dolls are their bandaged counterparts in the background etched on vinyl. These images are beautiful as they are disturbing. Why are these superheroes bandaged? Perhaps Zafar explores the idea that while The Powerpuff Girls focuses on feminist ideology – the idea that women can be powerful while still being “girly” – there is still a vulnerability to them. They are, at the end of the day, little girls who have to follow certain rules their father has set for them.
The largest etched piece in the show is Ogre, spanning the height of the wall. Displaying a huge, bandaged toy ogre masterfully rendered, the work creates a contrast with a much smaller, yet significant diptych called Kong and Godzilla. The texts reveals the similarities between the two fictional characters as being cultural icons, replicated as paraphernalia and parodied all over the world. Both are also destructive and wrathful anti-heroes, yet sympathized by audiences. While King Kong is American and Godzilla primarily Japanese, an assimilation of the two reveals political overtones as the notions of these nations’ political histories (Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima Nagasaki) and rivalry are touched upon.
A series of Zafar’s wet-plate collodion pieces reveals characters from The Simpsons, Unsung Heroes and Superman. The works are unique, one-of-a-kind images shot directly onto a glass or metal plate – a technical and long-lasting process that Zafar carried out in the USA. Popular TV show The Simpson’ is set in the fictional town of Springfield and parodies American culture, society, television, and many aspects of the human condition. Superman, the most powerful being on earth, is ultimately a symbol of false hope and American influence. While the former show reveals family politics and corrupt politicians commonly relatable all over the world, the latter superhero with his iconic logo is recognized even in third-world countries.
On the second floor, Zafar set up an installation of similar images on transparent etched plates that give off interesting shadows when hit with multi-coloured lights.
Zafar has thus used commonly relatable imagery derived from popular culture to reveal the ‘other’ side of fiction. While we tend to see things as they are and take them for face value, Zafar reveals the varied and unusual backgrounds behind the characters and the concepts behind their making. Moreover, by wrapping them in gauze and hiding/altering their identities, Zafar displays the flip side of the coin to reveal the strangeness of the characters that are fed to us in the mass-media, in his well-curated, thought-provoking exhibition.
Images courtesy Gandhara-art Space.
Adeel-uz-Zafar: Stranger Than Fiction runs at Gandara-art Space until 5 December 2014