“A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you to see.” – John Berger, Berger on Drawing
Renowned art critic John Berger equates drawing to a “discovery.” It is the act where the artist absorbs whatever is visually accessible, dissects and assays, and assembles it again. If drawn from memory, it compels the artist to revisit their stored observations, and in doing so, excavate and reshuffle their own mind. However, the crux of drawing as an activity relies heavily on the process of witnessing, seeing, and discerning. A drawing can do what no image software can: it can interpret a thought. A drawn line is the most direct connection between the sensory receptors of the artist and the world of representation visible before them; the shortest route paved between the physical and the personal semantic.
Of course, a distinction needs to be made between a “working drawing” and a “finished work.” The aforementioned primarily addresses the former, as that is what previously marked the frames within which the understanding of a drawing were contained. Students were expected to practice drawing as a mechanical, sidelined exercise for their self; it was a meditation that kept their minds stimulated. It was fairly recently on the vast timeline of art history and education that institutions encouraged a submissive indulgence in drawing as a finished form. Drawing was no longer perceived as a personal exercise, but a communication apparatus – something that may not essentially be a private work catering to the artist’s needs, but also that perhaps has equal potential to greet and parade before the viewers at large. Like most changes in the cultural climate, this evolution bloomed much later in Pakistan as opposed to the Occident.
Art schools had mainly confined the subject to observational drawing (life, still-life, landscapes, etc.) as means to calibrate the students’ proficiency and for them to demonstrate their technical ability. The employment of drawing was heavily subjected to a regimented and inflexible program in a structured academic instruction. However, as the perceived notions around the characteristics of a “drawing” reconfigured, its flexible readings gradually surfaced. The increasing visibility of and acceptance towards the fluidity behind this otherwise congealed subject also led institutions to loosen their rein. New programs and techniques emerged, deviant forms of drawing classes were introduced that adopted a previously alienated vocabulary and application. And more importantly, the shift in perspective goaded an idea in many local and international artists who used it as a driving force to navigate the artistic praxis.
This thought extrapolates into a captivating display under the banner, “What is seen and not seen, with or without seeing.” Held at Gandhara Art-Space, the exhibition is curated by Hajra Haider who pursued her vision circumambulating the indicated concerns by gathering twelve artists from the same institution. By doing so she not just traces the extensive, individual trajectory underlining their drawing practice (that originally sprouted from the same seed), but she additionally documents the shift in what is understood of and defined as a drawing paradigm over the years– within and beyond academia.
In ‘Dirty Linen’ Quddus Mirza stays true to his appropriative practice, layering borrowed images with his own creations. He weaves similarity between the silhouettes of a geographical terrain and the profiles of the human body. This, alongside the images of war, evaluate the real and the unreal. The distortion of lived history emanates from the redefined images – ones in which the mapped borders bend and kink and the human figures are highly stylized. Mirza questions the verity behind the arrived present, which aptly encapsulates what a drawing means to him. In his own words, it is “a way of defining the world and discovering oneself.”
The tactile nature of Mirza’s drawing resonates with most of the other works on display that seep beyond the sense of sight and summon the palpable without the viewer’s physical touch. This is achieved through either the creative use of tools by the artists or through their deliberately rustic presentation that not only celebrates the facets of those mediums but inevitably molds the meaning of the work as well. Ali Kazim’s delicate drawings on a correspondingly frail surface is a commentary on the human skin as a translucent veil that shields the vulnerable inner self from the harsh outside. A performative piece, the perceivable hair strands form a capillary-like structure that is further stratified to cloud ideas of identity and masking. Sarah Khan’s amorphous figures in a milieu of spontaneous marks question the subjectivity in perspectives. The authority behind different point of views can become instantly transient if compared to one another, and at times can come across monotonous which nullifies them as impotent. The phantasmagorical settings engulf the animated creatures in a vibrant chaos which they seemingly relish. Adeel uz Zafar’s installation ‘Cacophony’ invites one to enter a dark room and experience a ceaseless audio of repetitive scratching that occasionally changes its pace. The sounds of excavation ignite apprehensive curiosity. The suspense is answered in the next room, polarly silent, in which an open book lays embalmed on a modified rehal. The engraved drawings on the open pages depict bandages, blinds, and fibrous knots; they reveal yet they hide. The artist etches similar to an archaeological excavation, digging to not just discover the history underneath, but also to erase the crusted present that is on the surface.
Noor Ali Chagani uses miniature concrete blocks as his pixels. For him the structured matrix resembles the high rise buildings and the ever-changing skyline of the metropolis he grew in. The influx of apartments to serve the burgeoning population has driven people from certain social classes to incarcerate themselves into metaphorical cells. The piling responsibilities on the common man not just perilously stack his fears and doubts but also crush the dreams underneath them, which the artist showcases through the use of (quintessential) lifeless grey bricks. Rehana Mangi incites the abject within by subsuming dead human hair as her signature tool in her work. Mangi’s visuals trespass back and forth between life and death while recording the passage of time. Her representation of domestic lattice work and intricate embroidery through the use of fallen hair make a stark reflection on the role and the assigned status of women in domestic households and the position they hold in an androcentric society.
Both Hammad Gillani and Ayaz Jokhio critique the socio-political climate and the rising intolerance that we have become accustomed to. Gillani’s gestural strokes may seem unrehearsed, but they are cleverly choreographed and are, in fact, a multitude of strokes that remain hidden to the eye from afar. He opines that much like the spotlighted disasters and attacks, every small incident that alters the social condition is equally venomous in spreading hate and fear and should be treated such. After all, even a tiny drop has the power to create ripples in the stagnant pond. Jokhio, too, inspects the inhumane treatment towards minorities and the incidents that trigger violence. He assimilates the textual with the visual and recreates a realistic portrayal of the back of a photograph. Signed on it is “Gojra, August 2009.” The artists demand the audience to question their desensitization and susceptibility to the growing volatile situation at hand.
Sometimes rigid and often rhythmic, Mohammad Ali Talpur’s drawings have grasped the ability to take the shape of poetry, hand-written letters, or even mind-stirring illusions.His interest in calligraphy led him to gradually sieve color out of his images and solely attend to the font. Typographical in nature, Talpur situates the characters in a network, disintegrates the alphabet to examine its geometric form from up close and uses his process to unravel their complex attributes. Fahd Burki focuses on the geometrics as well, where the orchestrated lines explore the semiotics. Symmetrical and precise, his unpremeditated strokes, diagonals, arcs sand intervals create an eccentric arena in his prints which evidently embody something organic yet something very mechanical.
Anwer Saeed continues to raise personal and social narratives that were, during the political strife under the military occupation, too controversial and challenging to speak about. The stunted men in his visuals exude a grand display of machismo; they display a child-like blithe as they engage in personal conversations. Insouciant about the societal expectations, the half-naked men are unashamed to be themselves and battle the society’s dismissal of alternative lifestyles. Their untamed body hair as well as the presence of animals reference the feral side of human nature. The gush from the phallic fountain and the heavy downpour illustrate not just the societal struggles but also the stringent practice of censorship. His late mentor, Zahoor ul Akhlaq absorbed the concepts that stretched from tradition to modernism in a time that was heavily influenced by post-modernism. He abnegated a definite stance between the vernacular, traditional, and modern, and instead chose to render a merged language. His extensive knowledge and profound interest in the fusion led him to use the manuscript page format –framed within a frame, which also suggests the common imagery of a Mughal courtyard. He deconstructed the classical miniature genre, and rethought the elaborate borders, the color palette, as well as the basal grids peculiar to that practice. Having experienced the partition in his childhood, a painful sense of nostalgia, loss, and separation emanates from his drawings.
The twelve artists – all graduates from the National College of Arts, Lahore – present a variegated understanding of the term ‘drawing’ while respecting their distinct styles and personal concerns. The audience is drawn to ingest the conceptual alongside the visual representation. By incorporating a gamut of media, the exhibition surpasses the multi sensory cognizance to tap the visceral. The diversity instigates the intellect to reason how the process, the lexicon, the idea, as well as the representation reshape and challenge the preconceived impressions of drawings, especially in the prism of contemporary art.