Deep rooted in the dreamlike landscape of the Swat valley in Pakistan is a vast history of the Gandhara civilization, dating back to the time of Buddha and Alexander the Great. The ruins of the civilization are a remnant to its rich past of art and culture, which unfortunately are now very much in decline and neglect. Hailing from Swat valley, artist Murad Khan draws his inspiration from the Gandhara ruins located along the rivers of Kabul and Swat. His solo show titled ‘Hidden Treasures’ opened at Full Circle gallery in Karachi on 29th June, 2018.
Several artists have worked with the stone-like effect in figurative painting, most notably from Pakistan being Jamil Naqsh, creating stone-faced portraits in paint. Khan’s paintings are also representative of figurative Gandharan sculptures and statues, presumably made out of sand and stone. Majority of his paintings consist of a sand-like colour palette with hues of mostly orange, ochre and brown, as well as red and blue. Being mix media on canvas, the paintings almost look as though they have been painted directly on top of sand paper. The layering of paint with sand and debris furthers aids to the stone-like effect, creating a rugged, glossy effect, which gives a different dimension to the stone effect as compared to Naqsh’s. Another Pakistani artist that comes to mind with the technique of mixing paint and sand is Suleman Khilji. While Khilji’s paintings used sand in certain portions to create a smoother effect, Khan’s work uses more jagged pieces of sand to cover the whole canvas, depicting an edgier mood of ruin and brokenness.
Talking particularly about the experience of viewing an artwork, philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction (i.e. in this case, photographing paintings) leads to loss of ‘aura’ for the artwork. Such is possibly true of Khan’s work. Viewing his work in the form of digital photographs is an entirely experience as compared to viewing it in person. His paintings capture the sheen and graininess of sand and stone, reminiscing the texture of architectural ruins, which leads to the entire essence of the work being lost in translation during the conversion of the physical form to digital. With every step taken by the viewer, the paintings act almost as though they morph with light, creating movement through their uneven, textured surface. Such is not captured or translated well in the photographs, making his work look flat. Therefore, what Khan has also managed to capture through his work is a rare moment that can only be experiential.
Khan’s painting style captures the human form in a statuesque sense, while also possessing a hazy quality that resembles faded photographs. A certain human ease and tenderness is felt in the figures painted, depicting people in embrace, sitting casually, laying down morosely or standing together smiling. The hardness of the sand and stone, and softness of the figurative form seem to be representative of not only the sculptures found in the ruins, but also of the individual experiences of the people living there that are lost in history.
Using a painting style to depict stone figures in a way that makes them look faded speaks truly of the antique heritage being discarded and fading away over time, while also capturing the essence of a forgotten civilization based on not just its physical remains, but of the traces of human presence encompassing that space.