Two little shalwar kameez-clad children run hand-in-hand atop the green, lush mountains that stretch afar. The sky is blue and covered with a blanket of beautiful cirrus clouds – a perfect day for play. Suddenly, the younger boy spots something in the sky and points at it excitedly – “Look, a plane!” There is a distant whirring that grows louder and louder, till the flying object swoops down and lands with a deafening crash in the distance. “Oh no, that’s where our house is!” screams the older boy, as a thunderous explosion shoots up clouds of debris and smoke, contaminating the air and raining down upon the helpless duo.
Such a scenario has, unfortunately, become all-too-familiar in areas of our war-torn nation. For artist Sajid Khan, whose solo exhibition, ‘Benumbed,’ opened at Sanat Gallery recently, these ideas play an important role in his work, stemming from personal experience. According to Khan, “during our childhood we used to play games in the peaceful landscapes of my village and used to go up on hills without any fear…. One aspect of my work is the drastic change which has occurred over time…when the beautiful landscape was replaced by the horrors wrought by war.”
A graduate of Graphic Design from the University of Peshawar and Fine Arts from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Khan has his opaque watercolour pieces on display at the show. A general look at his work from afar reveals off-white or grey backgrounds sporting (what seem like) random abstract shapes put together. A closer look, however, reveals much more.
The imagery of Hayat Bara e Mout at first reminded me of my childhood, when my father would often bring home a bag full of toys. However, ironically, the “bag” in the painting depicts the polar opposite: loss of innocence. Firstly, it is a gunny bag – commonly found in Pakistan containing the remains of murdered people. Secondly, the objects strewing out of it are not toys; they seem to be the belongings of people whose lives have been turned over and destroyed. The painting also reminds us of the worthless nature of materiality – human beings, when living, are defined by what they own, but these very objects are rendered useless at their death.
In Landscape, one can see a text-book-like lined surface depicting scenery of sorts. Rendered such that they somehow fit the boundaries of the lines are silhouetted images of what look like broken, strewn parts of drones, little explosions and cropped human figures. It is interesting to note that Khan has used the lines as a base for this artificial landscape he has created, where the little explosions resemble clouds, or shrubbery at first, and the artillery seems like rocks/land formations. This is a deception not surprising to the viewer once Khan’s experiences are relayed, as he mentions: “Clouds, landscapes and the sky are no longer symbols of peace anymore. They represent carnage”. Things that once represented beauty and innocence, now speak of the polar opposite. Also, the lined surface perhaps suggests that we have become so accustomed to violence, that it defines how we fashion our daily lives; we grudgingly accept it as we did the information on our textbooks during our school days.
In his Up, Down and In Between series of about eighteen 20 x 28 cm paintings, Khan explores a number of interesting visuals. Each painting, with the foreground in dark earthy tones, depicts silhouetted imagery that varies between enigmatic and sinister. One can see people in shadows, parachute-like forms, debris strewn about, prosthetic legs, overlapped images of drones/military arsenal, children playing (resembling demon-like forms), dolls with hollowed-out eyes, vortexes, rag dolls, rag pickers, gunny bags, clouds, floating figures in limbo (or an in-between state) and land-mines. What do these represent? Apart from a sense of foreboding and fear that seems to haunt the children, the paintings depict a sense of loss of beauty, childhood, innocence, peace and so on. Just as we do not see the details and only the silhouettes, we realise that the true picture is seen only by those who experience these horrific instances, those who bear the brunt of violence.
In They Are Proud, graphite on wasli, one sees a mushroom-like image. Is this a rocket shooting up, billowing up in smoke? Is this a nuclear explosion? A missile? Or is it a figment of our imagination, where our incumbent fear makes us see danger where there may be none?
The title of Sajid Khan’s show tells us that while there may be fear ever present in our lives, the onset of terrorism and deadly acts of violence, so regularly in the news, have made people numb to it. Khan writes. “Not only does it affect people living at that particular time, but it also has devastating lasting effects on future generations.” Nevertheless, the artist still sees hope in the situation, as he continues, “Despite that, human beings still stand against adversities and struggle to live in this time of fear and despondency.”
‘Sajjad Khan: Benumbed’ ran at Sanat Initiative, Karachi, from 12-22 June 2015. Images courtesy Sanat Initiative.
Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and art writer based in Karachi. She tweets @shanzaysubzwari.