Modern art redefined reasons for producing art, thus, changing the role of art and the artist. The transition from being patronized to personalized and eventually publicized, art was reinvented in terms of influence through a journey of social inquiry and commentary. To this day the inquiry has continued and consumed many an artists to explore and enjoy the prerogatives of conceptual discourse offered by post modern art.
Trained as a fine artist from Karachi School of Arts and COFA, University of New South Wales, Danish Ahmed began his career more than two decades ago as an artist and educationist. His early works were as much about the universal subjects of human behavior and society as they were about exploring ways to formulate thought provoking questions through artistic endeavors. Since then he has come a long way and solidified his way of framing the questions, though his quest for more inquisitive dialogue continues. Working consistently within the art academia for 22 years not only as a teacher but as a Program Head at the Textile Institute of Pakistan and later at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture Ahmed has made the most, of the exposure to global art research methodologies at his disposal, to develop his aesthetic and artistic doctrine. Though his responsibilities as an educationist have also prevented him from displaying often, he has practiced art-making behind the scene with vigor culminating in display of unpretentious yet profoundly nuanced works every few years.
Marked for its vivid composure and intellectual curiosity, his work began primarily with figurative studies in 1994. Ahmed’s early canvases depict his eagerness to explore the combination of spontaneity and composure through invigorating exploration of mark making. Incorporating mundane materials from cigarette box as canvas to a variety of drawing and painting media, his choice of medium added to the dynamics of his workspaces through their contrasting visual attributes. Varying in energy and formal detail, the forceful figures rendered in his signature bold and blunt strokes appear much more charged in charcoal due to the compact compositions of his frames.
His ingress into social inquiry initiated with works like Pentagon and Mushroom which reflected on the consequences of state and international terrorism post 9/11. His signature line quality paired with illustrative elements shaped a language reflective of concerns and comments about survival and society. In Mushroom 2003, Ahmed portrays the dilemma of imported battles in the region, it is specifically a comment on atomic weapons, warfare, their instigation and aftermath. Using visual elements like missiles, jets, mushroom clouds and the Pentagon, he puts together a question about our role in international war against terrorism and its effects on internal affairs. His use of primary muted and neutral hues reinforces the subject matter despite defying the use of dark tones which has been the norm for such subject matters. The undercurrents of his workspaces, visual elements and color palette in his work began to take more definitive forms from this time onwards. However, the dualities used succinctly in Mushroom and Aman ya Jang 2003, went through significant transformation during his development process for Karachi 6X6 in 2006.
The untitled works displayed as part of Karachi 6×6 offer renewed use of figures alongside focus on spiritual reinvigoration and brought about significant changes in his workspaces. The collection featured a shift in visual construct while retaining the methodology to develop questions around spirituality, connection and submission. The works appear rather simple yet show movement within the layers on deeper inspection. The language that began shaping through this collection in the form of scale, color palette, medium, and metaphors also featured in his rug series and provided him the platform to build on his vocabulary for his research at COFA, University of New South Wales.
During his research at COFA, he focuses on spirituality and religion with heart, cloud, rain and rug as some of the metaphors to communicate the core and origin of spiritual association, and labor and fruits of this metaphysical connection. The vivid motifs against flat backdrops appear as means to explore the balance in the equation. Spirituality have shaped our culture and our interpretation of religion for hundreds of years, hence a strong focus on the spiritual self and religious acts surfaced in Ahmed’s collection displayed in his solo show at Cross Art Projects Gallery, Sydney in 2009. The qalb acts as the instigator, the prayer rug as a catalyst between the spirit and the higher being, and the tree, cloud and rain serve as the fruits of the labor. The seemingly minimal juxtaposition of the metaphors against flat backdrops allow deeper thought process to come to the fore allowing the meaning and purpose of art making to hold center stage rather than a mere visual to entertain. Ahmed believes that working on and exhibiting a collection so deeply grounded in our regional religious customs in a foreign land did not concern him about the possibility of misinterpretation. In fact it allowed him to witness a whole different set of reactions about it without raising any concerns about changing his expressions for acceptance of his work.
“I believe that when an image is placed in a public domain, it somehow makes it way to the audience but in varied degrees and that is the fundamental beauty of any art form”
On his return, he began exploring the subject further leading him to work with the new face of spirituality after the intervention of conglomerates, thus beginning the exploration of the role of retail consumerism in all aspects of our lives. Ahmed’s aversion towards materialism and consumerism became much more pronounced in his works where he poses questions about the unnecessary association with objects and artificial needs. The dominance of these objects through conglomerates’ role in branding almost all aspects of our lives as active members of capitalist society serves as the core conflict in his investigation. He questions the idea of commercial spirituality as propagated by sponsors to reach wider audiences and how it changes the interpretation of the very notion of spirituality for individuals in our culture. The works displayed at Poppy Seed Gallery in 2011 are reflections of his research on this social conundrum where his visual approach of less is more highlights the irony of the situation even more. The collection comprising Coke Gumbad, Coke Mehrab and other works from this series explores the rise of popular culture; a comment on materialism and artificially induced behaviors as integral moderators of shift in product dependence and satisfaction through unnecessary consumption. The Coca Cola bottle acts as the symbol of consumerism placed in clusters to form mehrab and gumbad to show how the media regulated culture has taken shape of an alternate religious practice.
“Popular culture is not a culture at all – it is commerce which perpetuates the hegemony of capitalism, the function of popular culture is to create a need which can never be satisfied in order to enslave a new set of consumers.”
In a parallel collection displayed at the Gallery of Karachi School of Art, he revisits his discourse through different metaphors within the same framework making art work that unfolds more room to explore the inquisition further. COHF, Deep Throat and Glory Holes use pornographic and retail consumer metaphors to further explore consumer behavior and role of branding in establishing social and individual ideals based on fetishism.
The untitled paintings displayed as part of Botany of Desire at Koel Gallery in 2017 pose the same questions regarding human behavior. His most recent display, was the culmination of what he began a decade ago and simultaneously serves as the precedence for his upcoming solo show this year. Untitled 1 and 2, address this significant point of Ahmed’s established career, which seems to be gaining more energy. The pieces exhibited offer insight into the contradictions and polarities surrounding impact of consumption on nature. The Coca Cola bottle used time and again as a symbol of consumerism and popular culture juxtaposed with an extinct plant against the signature flat backdrop intensifies the dynamics between polar opposites. The extinction of a much needed object and rise in popularity of an unnecessary object sparks a debate about assessing needs rather than wants.
Danish Ahmed has used art making as a meaningful tool to question and understand what surrounds him and documents the changes underlying those phenomena. For some, his works are like mirrors on the wall offering reflection into their own consuming behaviors and for some they may serve as social archives. An artist cannot educate the viewer but each piece from his practice can offer an education on a subliminal level. For Ahmed art is an investigative practice and generates new questions. His practice lends heavily from social inquiry in a holistic sense to contribute to the social and cultural tapestry of the very society and hopes to take up his investigation further in his upcoming solo show.