Muhammad Zeeshan’s solo exhibition ‘One for the Birds’ at Gandhara Art Space in Karachi heralded both a continuation and rupture from the previous practice of the artist, perhaps reflecting an important turning point in the artist’s oeuvre. The artist, who was trained in miniature painting at the National College of Arts, has become known for his experimental and innovative techniques in which he utilizes laser scoring on wasli as well as gouache, allowing him to further subvert tradition and experiment with new ideas of space, colour and figure.
The artist’s previous solo exhibition, ‘Safarnama’, focused on the theme of mythical and physical travel in which the artist looked at mythologies in South Asia and recreated depictions of such timeless figures as Jhulelal and Zuljana, who according to him, embodied notions of diversity in an increasingly intolerant Pakistan. The recent exhibition furthers these ideas mythological figures as important metaphors for our time, and dislocates them from their mythical face in a more contemporary form. The artist has also shifted from more localized and therefore subcontinental imagery into a more global visual language. This is perhaps best depicted by the inclusion of the figure of Ganymede, a well known character in Greek mythology in this current body of work. Ganymede, a mortal human, was taken by eagles to Mount Olympus, transforming into a divine figure as they placed him upon that abode of gods, where he became a cupbearer to emblems of Greek divinity. As someone who shifts from human mortality towards a more divine immortality, Ganymede thus becomes a transcendental figure, embodying innocence and hope for humans.
The artist notes that the “commonality shared by each of the characters in ‘One for the Birds’, namely, Lal, Zuljina, AlamDaar, Mohabat Ka Khudda and Ganyemede” are their timeless association with fairness and justice. While anyone versed with Greek mythology would be a little confused as to the direct relationship between the figure Ganyemede and the concept of justice discussed by the artist, one can concede ideas about timelessness which are a shared quality amongst all these figures. All the great symbols depicted by Muhammad, chart great ideas of mythology and therefore allude to shared notions of narrative and storytelling across societies, whether Western or Eastern. It is on their stories that epics are created, battles fought and philosophies contested. In the context of contemporary Pakistan, where there seems to be an ever-present existential battle between good and evil, where epics and symbols are used and discarded, where their meaning shifts course, one can understand the powerful nature of the artist’s work.
While the body of work is different, the viewer then begins to understand that the artist continues to to be engaged with the polarizing nature of Pakistani society, where, much like in India, there is great pressure to revise history by removing Hindu or Muslim elements from the past, depending on which side of the border one’s allegiances lie. One can safely assume that depicting these figures and thus rendering them not only physically but also literally immortal is a way of capturing the anxious nature of this changing polarizing by the artist, as a way to recapture and memoralise histories and ideologies.
In this body of work, as well, there seems to be a rupture from the artist’s previous practice, or perhaps a transition into new experimental techniques. In Laal, the artist has employed his laser technique to depict the figure, but the background acquires its own layers – this time, a dreamy cloudy sky printed electronically, and serving as the base upon which the figures seem to fly across. The image was taken in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, a few years ago, a further dislocation, much like the mythological figures themselves. The name of the exhibition, ‘One for the Birds’, seems to be taken from this particular work, perhaps an acknowledgement by the artist of his own relationship to it, the idea of the figure flying across time and space, and thus embodying the artist’s own understanding of myth and symbolism.
‘Muhammad Zeeshan: One for the Birds’ ran at Gandhara Art Space, Karachi from 23 December 2014 – 20 January 2015. Images courtesy the artist.
Aziz Sohail is Studio Director for Rashid Rana Studio and an independent curator and critic based between Karachi and Lahore.