Kamal Hyat is back after a two-year absence from the Islamabad exhibition circuit with a self-titled show at Nomad Gallery.
The first impression of his work for this show is that it is uncomplicated. Uncomplicated in a way that is so refreshing; as a viewer you are free to read into the work as much or as little as you like. You are not asked to assume there is an underlying meaning, but there is depth to the work, so that if you are looking for an underlying meaning you can find one. The work truly reflects the artist’s assertion that “a painting is a visual experience to be seen rather than discussed. A painting is either appealing to your senses or it is not.”
One of the most eye-catching pieces in the exhibition is a grayscale style work of a woman wearing glasses, a hat, suit and tie. Everything about the dress of this character, the muted colors, the striped tie and shirt, give the impression of a guarded personality, severe, professional; unfriendly. But that is not what we actually see when we look at the woman. Hyat has rendered the glass of her shades in such a way that it’s as though the woman is looking right at us, Mona Lisa-like, wherever you are in the room. The slight curl of a smile on the woman’s lips belie the harsh exterior, hinting at a welcome for friend and stranger alike. The painting is visually very arresting and the type of work you can stand in front of and absorb for a long time.
Another beautifully simple piece depicts a woman in blue, staring off into the distance with a vine and leaf motif in the background. Hyat’s naïve style of painting is the perfect medium to capture this thoughtful portrait; we can extrapolate ad infinitum about the look of wistful remembrance on the woman’s face, whether she is thinking of a lost love, a life half lived, perhaps a child grown or a friendship failed. Or we can take the image at face value and see a balanced composition, simple and honest in its renderings, allowing the viewer to feel his own sadness, or remember his own past when looking on the woman’s face.
This painting is almost repeated in a second image, although the woman’s face is rendered in blue. The same vine motif is in the background, and two birds play about the woman’s head. The immediate reaction to these new elements, the color, the birds, the close-up, is to try and find the symbolism. What do the birds mean? Are they signs of hope in her blue world? Are the leaves of the vines symbols of regrowth and regeneration? They could be, and they may be as per the artist’s intention, but there is no reason in the work to force us to give the images a definite meaning. These images are more open to interpretation, more honest and simple than any I’ve seen in a while.
This is the beauty of Hyat’s work in this show; he gives the viewer space to interpret, add meaning, or simply appreciate the visual qualities in the image without reading deeper. This aspect of the work brings to mind Hemmingway’s self-assessment of arguably his most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea: “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks and no better and no worse…. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
In the same way Hyat offers up images that are honest renditions of his subjects; not realistic, but honest in that the artist hasn’t tried to be clever in layering meaning or overlaying with symbols. “The sea is the sea.” If the viewer sees something more, then this is “what you see beyond when you know.”
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan