In 1981, American artist Sherrie Levine re-photographed the works of prominent photographers Edward Weston and Walker Evans instead of creating her own ‘original’ photographs. In 2001, artist Michael Mandiberg further added to the ramification with his series of scanned reproductions of Levine’s photographs of Evans’ work, once again drawing attention to the issues of originality and authenticity, particularly in an age of unrestrained digital multiplication and manipulation. Mandiberg did not just appropriate Levine’s photographs, but their historical narrative as well. In both cases, purpose was essential to the act of reproduction.
Appropriation in a broader sense is not new in art. Artists learn by copying, borrowing and using styles and forms from what came before. Improvising ideas or existing works of art and borrowing imagery motivatethe viewer to reinterpret and renegotiate the meaning of the original in a different or more current context. And in choosing a particular image or object (and not others)with the intention of rearranging or re-contextualizing it, appropriation acquires a certain performative significance.
Taqi Shaheen and Aamir Habib’s recent exhibition at V. M. Art Gallery, Miniature Matters, isan attempt to approach appropriation from different perspectives.
Shaheen presents his work as a blend of influences and is keen to reject notions of ‘originality and authenticity’. Fragments of images from traditional miniature paintings of different schools are amalgamated with pictorial noise. The use of visual static has perhaps entered his conscious vocabulary through his involvement in electronic media. It is recurrently used as a background, hindrance, disruption or interruption in the visibility of the underlying image in sharp lines and at instances as repetitive patterns. In Cubically Yours, Shaheen appropriates Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise, surrounding it with the same noise pattern. Ironically, a darker or perhaps deeper silhouette hangs over the image. The composition strikes a chord with the many permutations of duality mentioned in the artist’s statement and a recurring thread of dialogue in Rana’s works. Shaheen’s work is made in relation to other artist’s works and is in his opinion “a conversation with other bodies of work”. His use of renowned photographs and images of acclaimed works of art such as Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise is an attempt to thwart notions of originality, creativity and authenticity. However, whether the artist intends this as sweeping criticism, appreciation or humor, is hard to tell.
Karachi-based artist Aamir Habib invokes references from popular sources guised in individual concerns. His display was comprised of two sculptural works. In Vision is Scary a relentless wolf looks ardently through a pair of binoculars at a picturesque scene of a utopian landscape. Its iridescent colors, lucid waters and blossoming foliage create an idyllic aura. One wonders if the wolf if searching for prey – perhaps the oblivious cow. In literature, visual imagery and colloquial language, animals are often used to symbolize specific human characteristics or vice versa. As receivers of our anthropocentric projections these creatures are generally not able to willfully confirm or deny the characteristics we attribute to them, most of which have evolved from the way we observe and think we understand the behavior of an animal. Sometimes, the attributes have developed through use in fiction, myth or rituals and have simply been passed down by tradition through language.
Though interpreting the world as an oppressive place, where survival is possible only at the expense of others, and reacting to the cycles of life and death and profit and loss is a social phenomenon, the cycle of life, however brutal and inimical, is natural. Using the wolf’s carcass in his installation, the artist completes this sequence, challenging viewers to review their part in the whole. After all, it takes all to make the world.
In The Ghost, Osama Bin Laden’s ecclesiastical posture indicates that popular culture has endowed him immortality. Exploiting his image to re-create an episode for recreation in kill/torture-Osama-yourself video games and villainous roles in thriller movies have enshrined his place in history and the future.
Sometimes motivation is derived from a prevailing situation and results in the use or improvisation of an existing image or idea. Other times, an image or art work becomes the motive of the dialogue itself. Either way, what eventually matters is the purpose.
‘Miniature Matters’ ran at VM Gallery, Karachi, from 10 – 23 April, 2013.
Madiha Sikander is a visual artist and writer based in Karachi.