Throughout millennia, artists have continually portrayed men in a gamut of ways. These depictions of the male entity, both in the physical and metaphysical sense, are influenced by not only elements such as culture, religion, the artists’ individual identities, but also by key players like techniques, mediums, artists’ style, and other formalities including the movements which the artists were yields or conceivers of.
The Greek gods have always been represented as hyper muscular brutes. Their scale, posture, and expressions reinforce their formidable authority and grandeur. The unrealistic proportions are deliberate; it dissociates them from real life as celestial beings. Michelangelo’s extensive work with the male body extrapolates from this representation of muscled bodies by romanticizing his subjects and adding beauty and grace to the male figures in his visuals.
However, during the feminist movement which gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, artists began to not only challenge the traditional roles of women, but also began to address masculinity. This included the subversion of gender stereotypes traditional to art; it drastically shifted the male gaze on masculinity. The twenty first century witnessed a growing number of artists who investigated how societal pressures and mass media inform and shape our expectations of men. By showcasing susceptibility, strength, exploitation amongst other traits, these artists captured men and masculinity in ways that the current generation is more familiar with; in far contrast to the stale representations as providers, protectors, and warriors.
Sarah Lucas’ practice compels viewers to consider the tenuous state of masculinity in her perversely brilliant artworks and illuminates her wry subversion of the patriarchal art historical canon. David Hockney’s array of works from the hushed and sombre to the evocative and bold presents a dichotomous view on life as a gay man before and after homosexuality was decriminalised. And Marcel Duchamp and his female alter ego introspected on self-conscious masculinity. He raised questions on male psychology and subjectivity, and offered refreshing views to the masculine-oriented sensibilities that pervaded modern art. All of this was of course made further possible because of a growing acceptance of many disciplines as forms of art and a drift from non-representative illustrations. Artists gradually began to explore other media and imagery to address masculinity. Some of these representations seem to contradict those of others; however, they are all depictions of alternate masculinity.
The recent show at Sanat Gallery, “Walking Blues” assembles seven male artists to tackle masculinity in the twenty first century. The artists individualistically portray how masculinity is performed in modern-day Pakistani society and share their experiences as well as observations of men struggling to navigate in, and negotiate with, a society that not only functions in ways that are ostensibly conducive to them (due to the patriarchy that propels it), but also unfavourably affects many men in ways that are hidden from plain sight.
All seven artists, with varying degree of experience amongst them, have specialised in miniature painting. Historically, miniature painting is known for its finesse and delicate intricacies that poetically juxtaposes the robust nature of men who are socially programed to have a rigid mind and to be emotionally stoic.
The realistic portraits in Ahsan Jamal’s works are of skilled labourers who he encountered. The artist invited them into his studio and built an acquaintance. This allowed him to not only know them personally, but also view them as sentient humans outside of their usual settings; a reality that we neglect when we regularly witness them as workers of service. By showcasing men of various ages, Jamal narrates the societal expectations from men to become at service and provision, a notion that is instilled from a very young age. Despite their socio-economic background, the men seem content. Perhaps they foresaw their current status as the only achievable goal. By displacing them on a gold background, Jamal not only pays respect to these individuals but also highlights the reality of how a life of opulence and security is a foreign setting for them even though they facilitate in making that environment. The butterfly is Jamal’s way of symbolising endurance, change, hope, and life. Following a similar trajectory, Usman Mukhtar’s photographic portraits capture labourers who moved to the UAE for a better future. The pressure to provide their children and family, as well as the building economic crisis pushed them to dislocate and separate from their family. After arriving in the Middle East through loaned finances, the migrants realise the harsh realities of the gruelling and prejudiced life waiting to welcome. However, the vicious cycle of having to stay to pay their debt entraps them to spend decades in a foreign land with a flickering hope to eventually return. Their arresting gaze back at the viewer is sufficient to silently narrate their hardships. The speckled skin from the sunburn, whitened hair, wrinkles and bags under the eyes expose their continuing victimisation in this unacknowledged form of bonded labour. Azher Khan’s criminal series are detailed renditions of real-life victims of various mob lynching incidents. By publicizing their botched face, the artist calls attention towards the grotesque reality of our irascible nature. The incidents of mob-lynching in Pakistan are many, and they expose our collective and individual need to serve justice and urge to take matters in our own hands. The tumorous, smoke-like renditions make the image vague, which is a deliberate attempt by the artist to insinuate the obscure truth behind these incidents. He further criticizes the state of affairs that lead us to our actions and leaves viewers to decide who the actual criminal in this scenario is and who we should hold accountable.
Rehmat Hazara’s elaborate gouache paintings demonstrate various Kama Sutra positions concealed under a translucent paper. When Hazara moved from his birthplace of Quetta to Lahore to pursue art he encountered a culture shock that left an imprint on his conscience. Coming from a conservative background, he realised that the inhabitants of this city were more culturally exposed and subjects or behaviours which were taboo in his hometown were relatively normalised. This led him to question how one’s rearing regarding morality, ethics, and religiosity affect their predispositions and how they vary amongst persons. The moral grounds we establish remain bolstered for a long term, almost like permanent scars. Hazara illustrates this through the creases, tears, and layering of paper over the erotic imagery that historically is a produce of the Indian subcontinent. Imran Mudassar captures his observations of the human consequences from war and conflict. He is driven by the political turmoil in the country and the increasing sectarian skirmishes that we have been witnessing since a long time. Men killed in any warfare become mere statistics and no regard is paid to its drastic effects on personal lives. He replays the trauma and the battle between life and death in a cacophonous accumulation of various elements. The vintage armour, the human heart, and the Mughal arches create a discordant tension. The strenuousness mimics the clash of two polarities and the ambivalence and incapacity it fuels.
Both Shoaib Mahmood and Hasnat Mehmood inspect masculinity and gender from a post-colonial lens. Shoaib Mahmood critiques the tethering influence of colonization that Pakistan is still trying to break its shackles from. The residue of colonization recurrently surfaces in the form of globalization, despotic sanctions, influence of western media and disparate economic development. This inadvertently has further instigated the inferiority complex where we obsequiously act towards the white race and seek their validation. Mahmood takes symbols from century old Mughal rulers such as their apparel and weapons and incongruously melds it with the popular imagery from today’s youth culture. In doing so, he not only commemorates the potent rulers of the sub-continent who personified the ingrained notions of masculinity of that time, but also questions the current clash of cultures that have convoluted our identity. Hasnat Mehmood’s participatory mixed media installation invites viewers to appear before the mike and to speak impromptu in a language of their choice. This social experiment caught the unanticipated viewers to present a story in front of an equally uninformed audience. The work is derived from the artist’s research on the effects colonization has had on our local parlance. He is interested in the participant’s choice of language, the narrative and the style of delivery that they opt for. By dissevering the participant from the audience, Mehmood presents them as the ‘other’ in this speaker-listener relationship. He not only lends them the power by providing them a podium and a platform, but also makes the unsuspecting speakers feel vulnerable by exposing them unprepared before the audience.
The systemic cultural ideologies in a highly patriarchal world that situates men as the superior sex, does not allow men to be expressive, be vulnerable, or feel deflated. Indeed, this patriarchal mind set lends vast benefits – a fast track so to speak – to men in order to establish, control, and function, but it also adversely hinders many men from independently and organically developing their identity. In this contemporary light, the artists consider the theme of male image, identity and appearance and divulge those narratives that distance themselves from the pretentious aesthetics and masculinist authorial politics.