‘It takes me a long time to filter ideas. This show was eight years in the making’[i]
-Michael Esson (February 20, 2018)
Accessible through Karachi’s Mauripur Road and the Mubarak Goth Road, Paradise Point is a sandstone rock projection on the Arabian Sea. Close to it are the sandy beaches of Hawks Bay and Sandspit which also serve as the tropical turtle-nesting beaches where the Green Turtles and the Olive Ridley Turtles come to lay their eggs every night during the months from September to November each year.
My childhood memories are attached to inspecting tiny marine species under highly advanced scientific microscopes, in my maternal grandmother[ii]’s lab, amid the presence of an unforgettable strong and pungent smell of chemicals intermingled with that of sea-life. I recall the long drives to remote beaches, collecting shells, digging my toes in the cool wet sand and jumping over waves. I also recollect witnessing the turtles nesting late at night when my grandmother would allow my siblings and me to accompany her and the crew on such excursions. We were lucky in that way.
Therefore, when I received the invite to the opening of ‘Searching for Turtles in Paradise’ I was filled with wistfulness. The title itself drove me back to my childhood. What intrigued me the most, however, was the incoherent image on the invitation: a silhouette of a rodent narrowly escaping from what appeared to be a human jaw boasting of a set of highly refined teeth. This particular image got a better hold of my curiosity. I kept thinking about the title, my childhood memories of the cumbersome turtles heaving themselves out of the water to lay eggs in the pit, and then the detached image accompanying the title on the invite- a twist in the plot I thought. And so the wait began until the show opened.
Michael Esson visited Pakistan for the very first time during the early months of 2010. In Karachi for a solo show ‘Where All the Butterflies Go’[iii] it was certain that the artist would be touring the metropolis and so he did. Among such visits was a trip to Paradise Point with the hope of being there just in time to witness the turtle-nesting season. He didn’t come across the turtles. He couldn’t have, he was late by a few months. Then again what stayed in his mind was the image of the turtles he was hoping to see.
Eight years later the artist visits Karachi again. It’s February 2018 and ‘Searching for Turtles in Paradise’ opens at the IVS Gallery. The artist refers to his latest exhibition as ‘an itinerant sketchbook’ that serves as an autobiographical archive of mixed metaphors which developed from his trips to China, Russia and Pakistan.
Esson reminisces on his time in Karachi when he visited it for the first time in 2010 to exhibit ‘Where Do Butterflies Go’. Just prior to his first visit and during his stay in Karachi a series of bombings and sectarian tension took place in the city that shook its foundation and deracinated peace. The images of turtles breeding in his mind inexorably started taking on the character and familiarity of grenades.
Its 2018 and Esson is in Pakistan once again for his solo show ‘Searching for Turtles in Paradise’. We discuss turtles[iv] and grenades[v], the human form, the rodents[vi] and the Kalashnikovs[vii]. We do touch upon the ‘feather weight’ rhinoceros[viii], the pacifiers[ix] , the local shaving razors[x] and umbrellas[xi] amongst other allegorical devices employed in the narrative. The butterflies[xii] of course cannot be missed. Do the butterflies form a connection with his first solo show in Karachi? Perhaps!
The artist proceeds to tell me a story of turtle-tears and butterflies drinking these tears. Well no, it’s not a story but a fact. There are certain truths which come across as charming tales as did this. I go home and get ready to settle for the night, but before I switch off the lights, I open my laptop to read more on this phenomenon. And there it is! Deep in the Amazon Rainforest the Julia Butterflies drink the tears of turtles while they laze about allowing the butterflies to the ‘tear feeding’.
The information is quixotic. I could almost hear a distant voice and visualize wide eyed children huddled around an elderly woman listening to her unraveling an enchanted story. Except, here it’s just me reading an article in a science journal vouching for the story I heard from the artist himself. Nor are his drawings like anything coming out of a children’s story book.
The principal feature of Esson’s practice has been the construal study and expression of the human form interspersed with concomitant metaphors. This brings us to discuss the presence of the human form in his images. ‘The figure has always got to be there for me. These are my hands and my feet always. It’s practical, so why not?[xiii]’ It’s not vanity or narcissism on the part of the artist but the idea of being practical.
His style of drawing the human figure has often been attributed to that of Leonardo De Vinci and as a student of art Esson was mesmerized by De Vinci’s drawings which he studied at great length and in great detail. However, the artist discloses ‘My hands never quite work. They are never quite right. They are never naturalistic. I mean at the first glance they do look naturalistic but if you look at them carefully then they are not naturalistic at all’.
Bringing together otherwise disparate dialogues the artworks attempts to call into doubt received wisdom about the nature of beauty and ugliness. Michael Esson’s style continues to deploy the iconography of pleasure and disgust with the aim of stratifying the dualistic juxtaposition of what signifies attraction and revulsion. Metaphors that are simultaneously appealing and revolting are vigorously grouped by the artist through a set of techniques and methods to compliment the dyad. The use of seductive visual forms, quirky metaphors, the placement of the ugly with the beautiful, and the presence of his body become a site for the development of peculiar visual narrative.
“What is the boundary of this boundary violation?”[xiv]
The artist deploys the term Měilì ér chǒulòu[xv] to describe the juxtaposition of the ugly with the beautiful. He further employs images and techniques which interlace the silly with the serious, and the aggressive and tough with the soft and gentle. He shy’s away from developing an organic or chronological narrative and prefers compositional arrangement of his ideas. The medium he employs includes a variety of papers of which Arches Satine[xvi] suits his way of drawing the most. Using inks and pens he finds ways of trying to control, manipulate and sometimes incorporate the inevitable accidents prone with inks. The four dominating figures on the main wall are executed on Clayboard onto which he gently carves keeping in mind the vulnerability of the Masonite wood.
Esson confesses to being least concerned with communicating with the audience. ‘Communication with an audience doesn’t interest me. It’s just me being curious about things’. Esson emphasizes that it’s neither talent nor skill, in its true spirit it is commitment and curiosity which makes for a great artist. I am curious about different cultures and I get impressions when I visit different places. It all gets mixed up whilst I am trying to filter the ideas. The confusion of ideas brewing in the artist’s head and constantly sifting through them eventually evolves into evocative metaphorical narratives.
[i] The artist talks about the duration and process behind his latest solo show ‘Searching For Turtles in Paradise’.
[ii] Professor Dr Nasima Tirmizi, Marine Scientist and writer, former Dean of the University of Karachi’s science faculty and Professor Emeritus at Hamdard University. The first woman in Pakistan to have received a D.Sc and was the pioneering force behind research in marine zoology.
[iii] Held at VM Art Gallery in February 2010
[iv] A symbol of longevity in many cultures.
[v] The artist came across physical grenades in Russia and though he didn’t see grenades in Pakistan he does symbolize the threat of terrorism and bombings in Karachi through grenades.
[vi] The artist came across rats as edible item in China and saw them displayed at eateries.
[vii] Seeing guns and Kalashnikovs as regular features on the streets of Karachi and Russia was a unsettling experience.
[viii] Is known to display aggressive behavior but for the most part is a passive creature
[ix] Symbolizing the children maturing a bit too soon.
[x] While at a local barber shop in Karachi, for a shave, there is an electricity outage the minute the barber places the razor on his jawline. Esson’s amuses himself by assuming it to be a close encounter with his paranoia about terrorism during his first visit to Pakistan.
[xi] Symbolizing old age.
[xii] Symbolizing the soul.
[xiii] Michael Esson in conversation with the author on February 20, 2018 while in Karachi.
[xiv] Michel Chaouli discusses the idea of disgust and the grotesque, in visual arts, on coming across a novelty item ‘Van Gogh’s Ear’ at a shop. Roles of the Grotesque in Contemporary Visual Arts by Éva Török
[xv] Chinese term for the beautiful and ugly.
[xvi] A hot pressed paper.