Every year when the Young Artists Exhibition goes up at Lahore’s Alhamra Art Gallery, the excitement surrounding it reminds me of the buzz and drama that must have surrounded those earliest annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts in London which would sometimes churn out a Turner or Millais and would always be hotbeds of rivalries and ambition and the talk of town. And though I am not comparing the strengths and merits of art works contributed to both these large-scale yearly shows, I do find that the intention behind their conception is the same – the promotion or, rather, debut of young artistic talent.
For the ninth year in a row, the Alhamra Art Gallery unflinchingly arranged an exhibition of hundreds of paintings, prints, installations and sculptures titled “Memoirs of the Future”, and the curator, Tanya Sani, must be applauded for her persistence in keeping up what has now become tradition for the fidgety artist community of Lahore. These exhibitions are an excellent way of inducting into the local art world young brush-wielding artists fresh out of art school or about to be, all sorts of rambunctious ideas running around in their heads. They are provided with an arena to practice in, a rehearsal through which they can learn a professional lesson or two. The apprehensions and speculations that are understandably linked with every first-time display of art in a public gallery are all dealt with and assuaged.
That having been said, I will now come to the part I found a little disturbing about this year’s exhibit. There was talent in abundance, there is no doubt about that. A large number of artists certainly knew their way with paint, pencil, clay and an assortment of media. But marring that display of skill was a propensity to regurgitate ideas and images. There were ghosts of degree-shows past. And demons that have been exorcised so many times on canvas still managed to return and possess minds that should have been fresher and spook-free.
From a plethora of works that looked like studio assignments and reworkings of the generic art that follows Google image searches, very few contributions had the power to make you pause in your steps. Some of these were, of course, the ones which had been awarded prizes for best artworks but there were some others too that combined bravura and brainwork. Sana Kazi’s ash on paper installation is a good example of those. The recent graduate of NCA’s Masters in Visual Arts program draws dreamy and doleful faces with ash, dust and graphite. For “Memoirs of the Future” she had worked on the steps leading from the main hall to the upper galleries, and her portraits made my climb up and descent down the stairs a different experience altogether.
The texture of the marbled floor provided a slight camouflage to the sooty faces, adding a subtlety and passiveness to them that made the fact that you had to walk over them really jar. I tried to keep that line from Nineteen Eighty-Four about a “boot stomping on a human face – forever” from surfacing in my mind but it couldn’t be helped. Surface it did, and made – for me – Kazi’s unassuming and quiet installation rather unforgettable.
Another arresting piece was a series of small wire sculptures by Sabaa Naz. Titled Strength, the frieze of flat, steel horses was remarkable not so much for its technique as the striking resemblance the speeding, streaming, overlapping animals bore to their depictions in cave art. White and black with touches of deep brown, the steel horses with their sure, swooping contours looked as if they had galloped right out of the caves at Lascaux or Chauvet.
The miniature paintings on display, though dominated by near-reproductions of historical miniature works, consisted of some promising pieces that flaunted new ways of honouring as well as moving beyond the precepts of the discipline. Qalamkar Ramzan Jafri’s Gulghoh Qaba and Amna Manzoor’s Threads of Being were both cleverly done and had nuances of truths a little higher than the autobiographical tumult that characterized most of the other works. Jafri had constructed a simple, poignant image of a girl’s school uniform using fine texture and paint, almost like a collagraph, and Manzoor’s unpretentious motley of frail, white gouache lines on wasli amounted to a surprisingly celestial image.
The collection of prints was modest, but a few stood out owing to a frankness about them that made them appear less dramatic, less borrowed. Rabbia Ejaz’s I Am Waiting For You to Come Out, for example, had the candour and playfulness of a doodle and it was easier to pore over works like this than some others that seemed to be calling too loudly for viewers’ attentions. This was sadly true of a large number of paintings which, though displaying technical mastery, were so steeped in pathos that it was pointless to try and make something of them. There were a handful of paintings, like Rafia Butt’s mystifying compositions in greens, that were highly evolved in style and imagery. But most were too didactic and deliberate to be captivating.
It is important for young artists to realize that creativity can be cathartic, yes, but that does not mean it should involve direct and unimaginative translations of one’s emotions. There is nothing wrong or shameful in being depressed or insecure but just painting crouching and scared figures is not doing the artist (or art in general) any favours. It must be carefully seen to that artworks have something new to offer. If they continue to show only sentimentality, they will always stand in danger of being just flotsam on the big, grey sea of self-pity. And that has seldom helped bring a viewer closer to understanding a work of art. Rather, it tends to alienate.
Memoirs of the Future: Alhamra Gallery’s 9th Annual Exhibition for Young Artists ran from 8 – 27 April 2013.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.