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Dua Abbas Rizvi

Although the Pakistani art machinery keeps churning out many exciting shows throughout the year to which we respond with nice little spatters of applause, there is still that occasional group exhibition that produces in most of us the effect of starry-eyed wonder. I am tempted to use the old metaphor of a kid in a candy shop to describe the sensation that is felt when so many hands, both old and paint-stained and new and itching to be perpetually paint-stained, contribute art for a single show. Lahore’s Alhamra Art Gallery hosted such an exhibition, in collaboration with The Artists’ Association of Punjab, earlier in February.
This was the 27th annual exhibition of paintings, sculptures and graphic arts arranged by The Artists’ Association of Punjab and featuring works by the best of this region’s practising artists. There were portraits, landscape paintings, miniature paintings, drawings, digital art, sculptures and art drawn from the realm of the conceptual. This assemblage of artists was, to quote Conrad, speaking to “our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation”.
Among the many portraits on display were Shahnawaz Zaidi’s richly textured and piquantly lit oil paintings and Mian Ijaz ul Hassan’s Unsung Hero, a portrait of a bravely smiling man, his missing teeth being the only indication of his tribulations. Rahat Naveed Masud’s two idyllic portraits, painted with a softness reminiscent of Odilon Redon, added variety to this group, as did Hasnat Mehmood’s Made in Pakistan, a portrait (based on an original Mughal miniature from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection) of Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, redone with colour pencils in six different hues. Besides a tacit commentary on the reconstruction of a colonized people’s history (done with Warhol-like verve), these portraits offered very basic visual pleasure through their chalky blurriness. The technique lent life and enigma to the face of a long departed Mughal queen.
Portraits by Saeed Akhtar, Ali Azmat and Maliha Azami Aga also testified to the vast range of skills of our painters. A portrait by Farazeh Syed of a female with heavy-lidded eyes and strikingly black hair particularly caught my attention with its allusions, conscious or unconscious, to dark Romanticism, the poetry of Poe and the self-destructive energy that surges through Munch’s work. A painting of a pensive girl in phantasmal light by Ahsen Asif was similarly evocative of Munch’s Madonna and its sense of fatality.
By contrast, the array of landscapes exhibited was mostly sunnier, though even here the styles employed by the artists were far from homogenous. While paintings like Kehkashan Jaffri’s presented the natural environment in an almost abstract way, artists like Muhammad Arshad and Zulfiqar Ali Zulfi took a methodical approach in reproducing pastoral scenes. Paintings by Ghulam Mustafa and Mahboob Ali showed scenes from interior Lahore in a flurry of light and shade. A large diptych by Nasir Ahmed was especially memorable, its overbearing and tropical atmosphere clearly setting it apart from the rest of the clipped and cultivated landscape scenes.
Digital art on display consisted of works like Nashmia Haroon’s Commercial Building I, a looming view of a building under construction, eerie in its grey-faced symmetry with a bright orange metallic crane running down its entire length. Its nagging resemblance to a giant centipede reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ description of the Wingfields’ apartment complex in The Glass Menagerie, a “vast, hive-like conglomeration of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres”. Mohsin Shafi’s Some of My Pretty Things was another remarkable piece, featuring a fantastic clutter of objects in black and white, some very poetic paraphernalia that could serve as a metaphor for any creative mind, where thoughts keep crowding, ideas keep multiplying, whims keep collecting and no tabletop or desktop or shelf space remains bare for long.
Sculptures included Jamil Baloch’s Self II and one of Nausheen Saeed’s haunting Baked Delicacies – a golden-brown, sugarcoated hand made out of bread, resting in a glass case, its fingers tightly clenched. This powerful piece operated on a kind of paradox. Its creation stemmed from pain and horror at our growing insensitivity towards the loss of human lives, but at the same time, its careful placement inside a transparent display-case gave it the feel of a relic and hence a certain sanctity. So while it commented on how disposable a human life has apparently become, how unimportant – like a piece of bread – it also underlined just how irreplaceable it is.
Atif Khan’s digital collages – Landscape of the Heart IV and V – could perhaps be most effectively used to draw a parallel with the colourful assemblage of these artists and their works, which seen together represent the constant flux we find ourselves in as natives of Pakistan. As inhabitants of a ceaselessly changing region, as dwellers on a land that is half awake with modernity and half asleep with nostalgia, we are a people who – like the endearing, inquisitive Mughal king of Atif Khan’s prints – keep trying to salvage some of our lost glory while maintaining an ever hopeful gaze on the horizon for something new.

The 27th Annual Exhibition of The Artists’ Association of Punjab ran at Alhamra Gallery, Lahore, from 2 – 27 February, 2013.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan

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