With non-representational contemporary art dominating the art scene in recent years, there are increasingly fewer artists sticking to mediums like oil painting exclusively, and even fewer using it for realism in portraiture. Most realistic depictions of the face or the body are usually in the form of the miniature technique and are accompanied by additional elements, or mediums to help drive the narrative. In other cases, the human presence is just a symbol, or a small part of a larger picture. When you walk into Canvas Gallery Madiha Hyder’s “Beyond Innocence”, the large oil paintings you are faced with are strangely exciting and bold.
Much like her previous works, Hyder talks about violence in society, but this time she focuses on our youth. Consequently, the visual focus of her work is solely on children; the subject is the concept here. Hyder’s work has always centred on portraits and figures, but while in the past she has combined them with digital prints and text, in these works we see a shift towards the basics of oil painting and portraiture. The smooth paint and meticulous application is what grabs your attention and welcomes you into the work to delve into its deeper meaning.
Hyder believes the Peshawar attacks of 2014 were the last nail in the coffin of our sanity and morality, giving way to complete anarchy. The terror that it gave birth to now permeates our very existence, making the air potent, heavy with the possibility of sudden death. Her work brings across this idea quite successfully, where each painting contains undertones of fear and caution, disguised in children’s games, toys, and school supplies. It deals with how society has had to toughen itself and strangle innocence in preparation for the worst. Every moment carries the potential of being our last, even as we immerse ourselves in mundanity.
This is most evident in Hide n’ Seek, where a little boy in a school uniform crouching uncomfortably in a cardboard box during a game of hide and seek. What makes the image disturbing, however, is the large pair of scissors in his hand and the grim expression on his face, quite unlike a child enjoying himself a game with his friends. He is a child hiding from danger, defending himself with the only weapon he could find around a classroom. To add a layer of irony, in his other hand he holds a notebook sporting the national anthem of Pakistan.
Another striking piece is Back to School, which shows a child standing before a number of tiny pencils sharpened to within an inch of their lives, aligned on the table so that they resemble bullets. With determination in her eyes she sharpens a fresh one, and her intense stare gives the impression that she might be preparing for battle; the result is quite chilling, especially with the artists decision to keep a black and white colour palette.
Similarly, in the piece A Storm is Coming, the children atop a wall sport toy guns on their backs and keep a look out with their binoculars, while a girl sits and reads her course book, again giving that feeling of impending doom in a seemingly innocent image of children going about their usual activities. The children are instantly transformed in our minds into soldiers defending their base camp.
In Spread your Wings, a small girl in her uniform poses in front of a classroom blackboard as a tough movie-poster spy with a toy gun in her hands. She wears bright and colourful butterfly wings on her back, adding that hint of innocence and mischief. At first glance, one finds the image playful and endearing, but soon one realizes how real that gun looks and how small she is, and a bit of unease creeps in. Subtly we teach our children not only about self-defense along with their Urdu alphabet, but also the idea that guns, violence and killing are normal.
As we mostly see with Hyder’s work, there are contrasting visual elements present. While the figures and faces almost seem photographed, the walls and floors seem to be painted with urgency. Large and quick brushstrokes and the splashes of paint complete the illusion of an imperfect, dirty wall. The contradicting styles do not clash but sit together comfortably, reminiscent of the contradictory meanings quietly held within the works, concealing morbid realities within innocent child’s play.
The success of this body of work is perhaps in the mood it creates without relying on a dark colour palette or surrealism. The subtlety of the presented idea creates that tiny inkling of creeping fear, which leaves a more long-lasting impact. The expressions of the children are all grim, resolute. They stare at the audience with steely eyes, without fear. Terrorism is not new to them; they have witnessed the worst. Now they prepare to face the inevitable. They are toughened young warriors beyond innocence, which in a way is scarier than the fear.