“How long is forever? Sometimes, just one second.”
This thought replays as an infinite loop upon entering Shanzay Subzwari’s recent solo exhibition at the Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore. Aptly titled “It’s always tea time”, her latest body of work is perhaps an inspection of time itself. A further exploration in her continuing trajectory, the artist appropriates iconographies from Mughal miniature, currency notes, Disney, but more importantly from the influential tale of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Doing so inevitably taps into the issue of history, nostalgia, and popular culture.
Subzwari incorporates the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel that accompanied the Lewis Carol classic, and she further borrows elements from defunct currency notes or uses them as surfaces to intervene in. Characters from ancient Mughal miniature paintings also surface in some of the works. Nostalgia prevails as the artist melds the gamut of sources from bygone era to create something that possibly could not have existed. She admits to reminiscing a time she personally has not experienced or witnessed. The act of wishful thinking and fantasizing is evident in her visuals.
In “The sea was as wet as could be” Subzwari paints a diffused image from a 1950’s currency note. The boat brim-full of migrants is an image highly pertinent to date. In many of the works the artist paints a dystopian alternative, one that spans across the past, the present, as well as our possible future. Spread around the gallery, the vibrant and alluring colour tones deceptively embellish the otherwise morbid, grave narratives. She comments on popular culture, media, economy, and politics, all of which surreptitiously misinform the masses. She highlights the sensory overload from the abundance of information that we gluttonously over consume, ultimately leading us to seek semblance of and from the surround, much like Alice during her adventures.
This also extrapolates the question of what is real and unreal. In the hyperactive, eventful times of today it has become increasingly difficult for one to discern the false from the truth. Subzwari denotes this idea through the frequent reappearance of the chameleon in her illustrations – camouflaged, misleading, and illusory – often in positions of power such as in “Why is a raven like a writing desk.” The use of political icons, national identities, and their respective denominations, inevitably targets the discussion around socio-political hierarchies and the inter-personal dynamics of those in positions of power, and the respective imbalances amongst them.
Subzwari also touches on the idea of existentialism, and the daily human condition where one often questions their current state and situation in life, even if momentarily. She uses Alice as a metaphor for life and its everyday discrepancies that are bestowed upon us – unsolicited, of course. While it may not seem so at first glance, the work deeply resonates with the artist who uses this process to look back on her growing up, in particular those personal instances where she questions her decisions, and the reasons to why certain events in life happen. We often don’t step back to take an objective look at ourselves and at our journey, much like dead fish in the river, we instead choose to go with the flow. Subzwari’s work not only lays out the importance in practicing otherwise, but also provides a platform for us to do so. Questions are raised: are we really living, or are we undergoing simulated experiences? Why and how do we exist? What is our history, and what is our future as a physical being as well as a metaphysical existence? The mundane experiences we encounter re-perform themselves every day without our realization. She beautifully captures the reality of our submissive adaptability through the peculiar tea party scene from Alice’s adventures in “Would you like a little more tea” where the most basic of gestures and circumstances keep orchestrating themselves in a time loop.
References to our Colonial and Mughal history are also visible in most of her works. The artist informs that there came a time when Mughal miniature was enveloped under the influence of Venetian paintings; which introduced a measure of realism to an otherwise flat application and imagery in the traditionalist practice. The winged Mughal figure is one such example. The concoction of the East and the Occident and the discord it creates is showcased through a whimsical, almost absurd, arena. In one of the pieces Akbar endearingly looks on to the Royal Queen Elizabeth, in another a Mughal woman venerates and presents an offering to Jinnah. On a five-dollar bill, a black eyed and bruised Lincoln rests his head on a bolster. In fact, many of her works illustrate literal acts of luring and temptation. While a man pleads before Dodo from Alice’s adventures, the evil witch from Snow White serves a poisoned apple to Jinnah.
The Eye of Providence and the rose are two features Subzwari often employs in her work to reinforce the notion of deception. The arresting red rose attracts; demanding attention and reverence from the characters it interacts with – its thorns and jarring roots hidden from their vision. Paradoxically, while it provides hope and romanticizes longevity, the rose itself is transient: a fleeting moment that is showcased as the everlasting. The blue rose does not and cannot exist in reality. A false idea is propagated, made attractive and palatable for the public at large to unquestionably consume. The all-seeing pyramid overlooks all these systematic mechanisms.
For this particular show, Subzwari has chosen to be a lot more spontaneous. She makes decisions as and how the work in progress responds. Since the process dictated the outcome, many of her works are riddled with stains and splashes that elevate the sense of mayhem the characters are placed in. She highlights an actual misprint in one of the currency notes and conserves the damages and stains in others.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason as to why the story of Alice in Wonderland has resonated with people of all ages for so many years. Her influence is visible to date in fields from literature, theatre, across fashion, film, advertisement, and of course, art. that has undeniably gained a cult following, with many who are retuned psychologically after their encounter with this masterpiece. But just who is she and what does she awaken in us? Provoking many elaborate theories, Shanzay Subzwari, amongst many others, continues on the search for the meaning behind Alice’s fantastical excursions.