Artists do not create contexts; they work within them. Context is the intricate circumstances in which artists work in relation to their physical environment, historical and traditional trents, social movements, cultural values, intellectual perspectives, personal commitments, and more. As such, context is an inescapable dimension of art in its production, reception and interpretation. “Mythologies of the Oppressed” at Rohtas Gallery showcases the works of Khadim Ali and Sher Ali. Both artists speak of oppression, but from varying contexts.
A recent graduate of the Beacon House National University, Sher Ali has not trained in miniature painting as such. He met Khadim in Afghanistan and soon began assisting Khadim Ali in his studio which was his introduction to miniature. It was from there that their collaboration began. It is for this reason that the works seem like counterparts, yet maintain their individuality.
Sher Ali’s work though coming from another domain rings very close to our national psyche. The symbolic meaning of lions, as one might imagine, primarily deals with strength. However, spiritually they are known to carry with them the wisdom of preceding generations. Known as the king of the jungle, the lion is associated with several countries and is most recently and notably the electoral sign of ruling party in Pakistan. Hailing from a nation known as the “Lion Nation”, and his own name also being Sher (Lion in Urdu), the artist questions, “What’s in a name?” He argues that the use of idealist symbols doesn’t change reality. Cynically, he uses the circus lion, tamed and disciplined into a role far from its natural instincts for the purpose of extravaganza. Political rhetoric play a great role in stereo typing nationalist and religious fervor, and in doing so divest nations of their individuality and reducing them to mere a spectacle of nationhood. The repetitive use of the unicycle and the ring of fire are clearly symbols of political maneuvers.
Both Khadim and Sher speak of certain dehumanization. It is the context of the dehumanization that differs. While Sher refers to the dehumanization of a majority by a political elite minority, Khadim refers to the exact opposite. While Sher’s work is evidently political Khadim’s is covert. Sher Ali’s work comes across as unambiguous and explicit Khadim Ali’s work is built of layers of not just medium and imagery, but history, mythology and personal journey which render them a permeability and complexity. Allowing them to be perceived in a multitude of ways.
The political situation of the world renders the work in the midst of an even more pertinent debate. The current refugee crisis has underscored issues of identity, belonging and erasure more than ever. Khadim studies the Hazara genocide through the ages and how it is embedded in our regional history. During his stay in Afghanistan, he noticed the striking similarities between the texts that explicated the infidels and the Hazaras. Thus he draws linkages between oppressive schools of thought. And it is perhaps also where the linkages marking the surfaces with dotted lines come from. The Bamiyan Buddha, destroyed in 2006 by the Taliban was seen as an idol worshiped by the infidels by some and as a symbol of tolerance by others. The silhouette of the Bamiyan Buddha lurks in the background of his works. Almost like a ghost or the reminiscence of a remote memory. The outlines of canons point towards the violence and cultural vandalism. Ironically some of the canons point upwards. The canons pointing upwards seem to speak of self-destruction.
Khadim Ali is greatly influenced by the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), textually and visually. Being one of the few possessions his ancestors carried with them when they migrated to India, the Shahnameh was an heirloom that serves as a point of reference. The demons in his works most simplistically speak of the demonization of his people. The gold braces around the neck, arm and legs of the demons are somewhere between an ornament and a restraint, like glorified shackles. The wrestle between the Demons is a wrestle between opposites and ideologies or may be even identities.
In 2011, Ali’s home in Quetta, Pakistan was razed to the ground by a Bomb blast in the vicinity. Nothing survived. What survived the traumatic incident were the rugs in the house. Hence, Khadim began making rugs. In a way, they might be his way of assuring a sense of permanence or perpetuity. However, there is a sense of perpetuity or predictability to Khadim’s work which for viewers who have been following his works over the years can be disappointing.
‘Mythologies of the Oppressed’ was on at Rohtas 2, Lahore, from 19 to December 2015 to 2 January 2016.
Madiha Sikander is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore.