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Marvels of Illusion

 

An invention during the early Rennaissance, anamorphosis obeys all laws of perspective, usually more strictly than any other forms. However, it is an extreme form of perspective in that an anamorphic picture is usually distorted in some way. For one to remove the distortion and to bring back the view of the image they would expect it to naturally be in, they would have to view it from a raking angle. This form of art has been in production for centuries. A much-cited classic example of such art is Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1523). Meant to be a visual puzzle, a skewed skull rests on the centre bottom of the image. The cranium is rendered in anamorphic perspective and the viewer must approach the painting nearly from high on the right side, or low on the left side, to see the natural form of a human skull.

 

Anamorphic artworks are widely active on the global stage – especially in public spheres where they are practiced by graffiti or street artists. However, the presence of interactive art, primarily of those anamorphic in nature, is fairly dormant in the Pakistani art scene, and its visibility in the gallery premises is next to none.

 

Internationally acclaimed artist Obaid ur Rahman’s recent solo exhibition kindles a hope for a major shift in these dynamics. Rahman’s anamorphic wall drawings – most of which he would exercise and document at the rooftop of his residence – never fail to amaze the spectator. They have been lauded internationally and widely covered by the press, which also invited a lot of international opportunities for the artist to showcase his talent. The local fans, however, were deprived of physically savouring his creations until finally “On my way to Wonderland” opened. Held at Sanat Gallery, Karachi, the exhibition is not only Rahman’s first solo show in a gallery frame, but it is perhaps also the first time that a gallery in Pakistan display three-dimensional illusionary murals, the character of which is often perceived to befit the side streets and the public corners.

 

Upon entering the gallery space, one quickly discerns the context of the title since the artist truly creates a fantastical arena by transforming the walls and floor with his psychedelic illusions. By intervening in the infrastructure of the room Rahman imbues the air with whimsy and further directs the enthralled visitors to let their inner child out and interact with his creations. He teleports not just the place into another world but also transports the audience who resonate with Alice from Wonderland, after having entered a fictional realm by passing through a portal. Rahman choreographs situations that can only be classified as chimerical. His unreal visuals draw an enthusiastic display of awe from kids and adults alike who queue next to the markers to view the illusions in their glorious forms.

 

Obaid ur Rahman attended to the individual pieces as well as to the space interventions for almost a month, during which he used the venue as an open studio and welcomed any visitors who wished to see the process as well as to interact with the artist himself. A formal opening reception is held once the artist had finished work.

 

A woman in a seemingly Mughal attire stands immortalised; striking a dance step next to a life-sized peacock. The artist appropriates from the past and renders the silhouette in the style of miniature paintings. Part of the image bleeds on to the floor however, the breakage slips undetectable from a specific viewpoint. In another work, a feral tiger leaps out of the frame to directly accost the viewer. Further ahead, a geometrically composed maze is illustrated in a three-dimensional form on a canvas that camouflages itself in the walls, thus elevating the effect of its illusion.

 

Large mural spreads across another corner. A scallywag teddy bear gazes the viewer back while remaining half hidden behind faux walls and passages. The steps and tunnels disrupt the room’s infrastructure and connect the space to fields unknown. Like a child’s getaway, this naturally evokes a sense of inquisitive playfulness as well as of amazement in the audience who interact with the image to maximize its illusory effect.

 

Rahman realizes another architectural reconfiguration by building a swimming pool in the centre of the floor. The pool anchors the depth of the ground when viewed from a certain angle, and like a mirage, tricks the viewer into believing the presence of contained gallons of water. Visitors respond to the phantasm by dangling their feet in mid-air above the drawing as well as by enacting theatrical scenes to become one with the work.

 

Interactive art develops a peculiar engagement with the viewer that is not achievable through other forms of art. It looks forward to the audience’s response to those elements of unanticipated strangeness and familiarity that is evoked from the pieces. It catches them by surprise and reveals its true face and meaning upon closer inspection. Unfortunately, such physically intimate interactions are rarely witnessed in the local art sphere, let alone inside galleries. However, despite a dearth of interactive art in the region, Rahman continues to focus his time on pushing the boundaries of such genres of art – whether that be creating new techniques, novel illusions and compositions, or studying what it means to interact on a deeper level. Voluntary participation is indispensable in his artistic process; he relishes the aspect of viewers feeling a sense of belonging and investment when they engage with his works.

 

Obaid ur Rahman, who spends days and weeks on a single artwork, pays particular attention to the meticulous details in each of his drawings to ensure the illusion is successful. He tactfully modifies his usual practice and reassembles his process for an otherwise commercial space. In doing so, the artist proves that such forms of art can be equally accommodated in a gallery premise, and can be well received by the public. One can only hope that this is not a rare case in isolation, but a conscious step that is further pursued whereby other galleries are also encouraged to welcome street art and interactive art exhibitions. Hopefully more experimental artists, graffiti artists, interactive artists, as well as muralists siphon motivation to step forward and flaunt their abundant talent on various local platforms, which will consequentially engage discussion on the kinds of art that is often overlooked and not aggressively promoted.

 

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