Old family albums can be a Pandora’s box of unsuccessfully concealed scandals, barely forgotten heartbreaks and rebuffs, belated conscience awakenings. For most, they are sacred relics of a past that must be valued out of a sense of filial duty. For the artists in any family, they are gold mines of stories waiting to be told through a variety of means. In recent years, there has been a surge in art produced around, or inspired by, old pictures pilfered from family albums. A dated photograph, with its autumnal colours and strange fashions, its mismatched interiors and emptier skylines, does offer instant nostalgic charm, especially when selfies without stories are the order of the day. Many of the characters in these albums are no longer around or are mysteriously not spoken to if they are. Subtexts abound. There is rich raw material for an artist to build up on, which is why you may see paintings or drawings doneon these pictures to bring out a certain detail or text added to them to emphasize part of a context. You may even see stray cutouts pasted on them, serving as extensions of their narratives.
But it is not often that an artist decides on a subtractive approach to working with old photographs. In DE-VOID, his latest solo exhibition held at Lahore’sColor Art Gallery, Haider Ali Jan presents us with digital prints on canvas that appear at first to be dehumanized photographs. Jan is known for his flat, unadorned illustrations that have included, among other ideas, references to art history, social customs, political events – all made with a degree of cheekiness. In DE-VOID, he does away with the distinct outlines he has hitherto favoured and works with areas of plain colours and patterns to reconstruct old photographs. His prints are, essentially, scenes formed of simple shapes interacting with each other. They are laconic, coldly graphic. What gives them away as redone old pictures is their palette of harmonious, neutral colours which seems to have been transferred to them intact from the albums.
Jan’s work has often reminded me of Julian Opie’s, with its diagrammatic storytelling and disregard for the third dimension. In this series, his audacity in stripping the family pictures of all their jewels and roses, eyes and noses, can – again – be compared to Opie’s (who, while at Goldsmith’s, produced careless copies of famous paintings for a series titled ‘Eat Dirt, Art History’). Jan systematically robs the sitters from these photos of their identities, and then proceeds to indicate their names or roles with the titles. Aliya Baji, for instance, shows a faceless child standing in front of an unevenly layered backdrop. We both know and do not know this child. We know the knock-kneed awkwardness of her posture, the schoolyard innocence of her knee-high white socks and black sandals, but we do not know her. Or we know her with another name.
Bridegroom shows a similar undertaking in reducing particularities to a kind of abstraction. A groom’s silhouette weightlessly occupies a sofa, the papery room around him a composition in pale-pink and magenta – the unmistakable colours of a 70s Polaroid. His turban and garland, though divested of all details, are still recognizable as ceremonious props, perhaps because of his self-conscious, hurriedly struck pose. The artist seems to be mocking our preference for realism and individuality with these unassuming, cardboard forms that are familiar despite their anonymity. He seems to be questioning the artifice of preserving and sanctifying pictures of a personal past that is, at one level, just like any other. But by doing so, he is also equipping us and our stories with ubiquity.
This duality is also strongly conveyed through Portraits and Studio ll, where instances of documentation and celebration of one’s identity are deflated of all pomp and presented as rather bleak arrangements. Portraits is a large, square print made up of an assortment of minimised passport photos in nondescript colours. The subjects of the photos can be told apart only by differences in the ways they sport their hair, moustaches and beards. A standard procedure for authenticating yourself in the world you inhabit is shown exactly as what it is – a procedure. Studio ll(the artist’s version of a traditional studio photograph) can be read as the disassembling of a similar performance, whereby you seek to assert and immortalize your existence. By presenting that performance or rite without depth and detail, Jan brings to light the frail structure of these photographs. All that meaning they purportedly have, the rich familial history they boast, can be objectified and homogenised.
What is interesting is that Jan admits to having redone these pictures mainly out of a desire to digitally draw new material. But what he ends up offering to the viewer is a deceptively simple take on an existential concern.
DE-VOID was on view at Color Gallery, Lahore, from 3-21 December 2013.
Dua Abbas is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.