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Great Un-Expectations

The whirlwind that is December in Lahore is over and there is space enough and time for introspection. The NCA Degree Show, or simply ‘the thesis’ as it is colloquially known, is something I look forward to all year, the January highlight that sets off the new year. This year it seems, is all about the unexpected. The element of surprise is carefully imbedded in the masterworks and high doses of sentimentality are artfully disguised in an impressive level of skill and execution. Nothing is quite as it seems and anything is possible. This happens to be just what the doctor ordered and the heart desires. The best course of action is to dive in, headfirst.

There is the piece that everyone is buzzing about, from the first room to the last floor, to all proceeding conversations about the thesis, days after the opening. It is Mohsin Shaikh’s mammoth, four by ten foot, old-school green chalkboard. Oh but wait – it’s oil on canvas! Overflowing with numbers, words and figures, a war between the left-brain and the right plays out on the ‘chalkboard.’ The message to follow your heart tucked away neatly under an excessive mess of academia. The chalkboard serves as a metaphor for the social conditioning of childhood and early adolescence. Mohsin believes all societal truths to be lies, for if everyone believes their version of the truth to be true they must all in fact be untruths. The underlying naiveté in this logical rebellion is what makes it fascinating. The art of the unexpected has just begun.

This brings us right to the master of this method, Ahsan Memon and his deliciously deceptive sculpture art. Metal that is not metal, brick that is not brick, wood that is not wood, coal that is not coal, a colossal collective of naan bread that is in fact freakishly naan-like fiberglass. Sculptures so realistic that they challenge the viewer’s judgments – this is Ahsan’s nod to the nature of human behaviour, of first impressions and preconceived notions and the realities that they belie. His unexpected art is the bull’s eye that hits at the heart of the show.

From the unexpected to the sentimental – Ifra Mahmood presents nostalgia at its best with her photorealistic homage to her grandfather’s migration from Srinagar, Kashmir. Old family photographs and letters, replete with postage stamps, worn out, tea-stained and tattered. Sepia memorabilia drenched in the innocence of a time past. Her paintings serve as a proof of history, retracing her family’s migration from India. A photo album painted back to life. Nerda Waqar takes this a step further with a powerful tribute to her mother whom she started losing to Alzheimer’s disease when she was eight years old until she passed away five years later. Her art is the heart-breaking and audacious insertion of herself in every meaningful moment of her mother’s life. She paints herself into the photographs that chronicle her mother’s journey and in this way attempts to deconstruct it and reconstruct the memory itself. Like following a trail of breadcrumbs she finds her way back home.

Just as the comfort of the familiar begins to seep in, Sameen Agha reminds us that the show isn’t over yet. The height of sentimentality is juxtaposed with the epitome of despair. Imagine replying to Dorothy’s ‘I want to go home’ with the finality of ‘It doesn’t exist’ and the acute claustrophobia that comes with it. That is Sameen’s intentionally futile search for the concept of home, though more pensive, even sad, than claustrophobic at first. Like all good artwork, the more you indulge in it, the more it consumes you. White houses in sculpture and chalk exalted on bamboos and mounted in ornate frames respectively, irony reigns supreme. Again the image of Dorothy trapped in the anti-utopian Oz springs to mind. No magic ruby slippers here I’m afraid, just the deep disappointment of reality. Beautiful nonetheless, in its dream crushing wake.

At any art show of scale there are murmurs about the exhibit that ‘sold out’ at the preview. So you can only imagine how good it is or how well it engages the audience. It has that je ne sais quoi quality that by definition cannot be explained, but when you see it, you get it. This year that honour belongs to Faraz Aamer Khan. His site-specific charcoal, metal and mirror installation of reflection and resonance is a show unto itself. His deep, dark charcoal sea-scapes and cloud-scapes act as a mirror to the viewer, leaving the interpretation of his art as a mere reflection of themselves. Moreover in the reflective space, the viewers can only view themselves from one vantage point; their multiple images are un-viewable to them. We are thus out-played by the artist. His art is a game of chess that cannot be won.

From one master to the next, Hoor Imad Sherpao is a powerhouse of an artist. Her paintings are striking – ornamental renditions of women, with a hint of the demonic in their ghost-white eyes. On closer introspection, you begin to understand that these women are not possessed at all; instead they possess a power that is unnerving. They are beautiful in their lack of need for beauty. As Hoor explains the women behind her work, I start smiling in my head. It is one of those thrilling moments when you realise that the artist is in fact her own muse. She could not have asked for a better one.

We come now to Arslan Farooqi and his moving miniatures. Frozen moments of history, taken from the Jahangirnama and Badshahnama, are brought to life with a level of skill that is a testament to the artist. This is the nontraditional miniature. Pieces taken from historical sources assembled as seamless works of digital art, acting as a map through which history passes. It is not about the images at all but about the experience that Arslan has created. Through his neo-miniatures he rewrites the traditional narrative. Noormah Jamal follows the same principle with her symbolic portraiture. Her work is about the personal baggage that people carry. The starting off point for her paintings is people posing for photographs. She instructs them to assume ‘bland expressions’ in order to strip them to their bare physicality without any trace of visible emotion. Through these human blank canvases she sculpts her narrative with her trademark use of symbolism. Noormah is both the author and the protagonist of her story; her art has a contagious confidence about it.

Speaking of artists in control, I would like to introduce Sadqain. In meeting him, I discovered the pleasure that comes from meeting a true artist – whatever that term means. Sadqain is the real deal; his work exists in a realm that is just his and it just as inimitable as he is. Of course he pushes boundaries, but he does this with a deliberate and delicate deception. His work is executed so subtly that it is almost invisible to the naked eye. His art is a suspended razor blade, a wall collapsing forward in the slowest of motion, oil dripping from an invisible and infinite nozzle, a rotating pivot etching the diameter of personal space in the ground, a mirror rotating anticlockwise so slowly that it tricks the viewer into believing it is motionless. Which brings me to how we met. His Untitled (mirror and electric motor) got the better of me and better yet, he called me out on it. ‘You know that’s moving right?’ He caught me by surprise. ‘You got so wrapped up in your reflection that you failed to notice the mirror’s movement.’ He said with more than a hint of satisfaction. His art had proven his point. My reaction – guilty as charged and truly impressed.

Unexpected sentimentality and all the combinations and permutations of it, even every exception – that is the NCA Degree Show this year. Perhaps it is an allegory for life but it does strike a cord. Just when you are getting comfortable with the familiar it smacks you with the unexpected. And just when you are growing cynical, even smug, with the predictability of expectation, it surprises you with a secret romanticism that catches you completely unawares. It is the twists and turns that keep life interesting. And though it can be a little unsettling, it is undeniably exhilarating. What makes it even more exciting is that the artist is shaping the story, at times allowing for interpretation and reflection, but always dictating the terms of the experience. The truth is, we wouldn’t have it any other way. There is trust in the knowledge that this is the artist’s narrative and we are willingly along for the ride. It reminds us that this is the way young artists and good art should be. And in this way it exceeds expectations.

The National College of Arts Thesis Display was on view from 10-22 January 2016. Images courtesy the author.

Seher Tareen is a writer and curator who graduated with distinction with a master’s degree from Central Saint Martin’s, with a thesis focusing on artists from war zones and conflict areas in Pakistan.


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