If you recently visited Koel Gallery, you may have been pleasantly surprised. The images that adorn the walls are, at first glance, not what one would typically call intellectually stimulating, highly skilled or aesthetically pleasing. They seem to be a blown-up collection of children’s drawings.
However, if you spend just fifteen minutes in the space and give yourself time to absorb each work, expect your perception to alter dramatically.
Rabeya Jalil’s show, ‘Name.Place.Animal.Thing’, is out of the ordinary because not many artists in Pakistan have delved into, explored and incorporated children’s drawings, or child-like drawings in their work. From sets of small screen-printed images to large paintings in pairs or series, Jalil’s work echoes the cartoonish-ness, imagination and abandon seen in the art of someone very young, hardly touched by preconceived notions of how something (or an idea) should be drawn or represented. With shaky, broken lines, outlandish proportions and an unapologetic use of colour, not only is there the free use of artistic license, but there also exists an investigation of ideas Jalil feels strongly about.
A closer look at the pieces reveals three distinct languages interwoven together that constitute the body of work. For example, Parhay Likay (diptych) and Pursuit of Happiness (set of 4) seem to have been appropriated directly from works of children; those whom Jalil has worked with extensively over the past few years. What is interesting is that by using imagery that children tend to incorporate (perhaps innocently) in their work, Jalil imbues it with heavier meanings: for example, as metaphors for the human condition, perhaps more specific to a desi, Pakistani context. Pursuit of Happiness, with its depiction of material ‘haves’ such as cars and huge homes depicts, what we are really running after: materiality. Parhay Likhay depicts classroom scenes overlaid with crooked taxt and humorous spelling mistakes. An interesting assortment of animal-alien hybrids, perched on the chairs view the strange text on the ‘bluck-bod’ (blackboard) and try to learn. Could this be a comment on the despondent state of education of our nation, where rote learning is a norm, or a statement on how individualistic tendencies are curbed in such a space to make everyone ‘A’ graders, and thus carbon copies of one another?
Jalil’s second method of working is re-drawing children’s images herself, while trying to keep their uninhibited spirit alive. During this process, it takes immense effort to keep spontaneity thriving without thinking too much, which perhaps in itself is a contradiction. In The Proposal, which combines techniques of painting and print-making, one finds an interesting division of the canvas, while The Obsessive Mushroom uses a combination of delicate lines and rough bouts of paint, which resemble crayon colouring, to reveal what looks like a phallic symbol, which children often unknowingly draw. Jalil mentions that she uses ‘inert mundane objects’ to represent the common man often. The Crying Flush reveals delightful and fun colours, but perhaps an antithetically morbid idea. Could this be a reflection of the state of sorrow felt by certain groups of people that are looked down upon in our nation, and are abandoned and mistreated?
The third language Jalil incorporates is entirely her own. A result of her previous studies and attempts, it is far more expressionistic and bold, and reflects her interest in Abstract Expressionism. In The Name Of… is a comment on a number of Jalil’s concerns, with stronger, violent strokes. A man is seen shaving his beard (while seemingly mutilating himself) and simultaneously reading a tasbih. Unwittingly, at first the mind associates with it the clichéd meanings of terrorism and religious extremism in Pakistan. However, it could represent any confused man torn between the world and afterlife, and the desire to conform to what’s important today versus what will (seemingly) take him to heaven. While the wildly-painted Bird Eating Bird could be a comment on power structures that govern our existence, Not The Ghaar-e-Hira Spider questions social values and beliefs stemming from religion that people often use to their own advantage, or when it suits them.Praying For 9 Lives is a diptych that displays, at face value, a Muslim man bowing down in prayer. Again, the idea of spirituality and religion is touched upon, as is the question of what determines success or failure. As represented in Jalil’s previous works, is it material wealth like cars and houses, wealth of the mind that comprises education, or the wealth of blessings brought about by spirituality or practising religion, that makes one successful? Also, is this man genuinely praying, or just bowing down to ‘fit in’ with what is acceptable to his brethren? There is a certain ambiguity in Jalil’s pieces that enable no single answer.
Through her works, not only does Jalil comment on issues of a varied nature, but also makes us realise the interconnectivity between those concerns. She reveals the many stages of life as well as multiple identities of an individual who often conforms to society’s standards. Moreover, the artist successfully turns the often-overlooked, child-like style into artworks that not only delight the viewer, but also make him self-reflect and ponder over the weightiness of what they can convey.
‘Name.Place.Animal.Thing’ by Rabeya Jalil was shown at Koel Gallery, Karachi, from 12-23 February 2015.
Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and art writer based in Karachi. She tweets @shanzaysubzwari