Reviewing Rabeya Jalil’s solo show Of Marks, Moments and Mistakes, that opened at Rohtas II, Lahore on September 22, 2016, after a month, I already ha
Reviewing Rabeya Jalil’s solo show Of Marks, Moments and Mistakes, that opened at Rohtas II, Lahore on September 22, 2016, after a month, I already have the reference of the excellent review Quddus Mirza wrote on the same show for The News in which he compared her work to that of Jean Dubuffet and highlighted the political content present in the work. Describing the violent content in Jalil’s paintings, he writes that the work “seems to invoke the beastly aspects in a culture or within a human being. The desire to attack, tear and control enemy…” Taking this description as a cue I will develop my ideas around violence present in her paintings. However, this violence that I have in mind, is a special violence. It is the violence of the act of painting. Quddus Mirza hints on it in his essay when he writes that the paintings are “composed with abrupt, diffused and frenzied lines”. This violence is what Gilles Deleuze in his book on Francis Bacon calls “a violence that is involved only with color and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation)” (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, x). This same violence finds itself present in De Kooning’s Woman series, for example, or in Edvard Munch’s Scream, who painted not the screaming man but the ‘scream’ itself. Likewise, Jalil has not painted a violent scene but violence itself, however, in her work, complemented with the violence of theme and form, it becomes a double edged sword countered only by the colorful palette and the childlike naivety of the drawn figures (a quality extensively discussed in Mirza’s essay). The paintings which at first seem innocent marks made by a child reveal, at a closer inspection, their darker underbelly. This underbelly is a skin, that is the painting’s skin—the surface that bears, like human skin, the marks of violence. This violence does not represent itself in the paintings but, simply, is. This violence is not the violence in painting but the violence of painting, that suffocates the skin of the canvas with layers of paint.
The characters in Jalil’s paintings, both animal and human, have a painful existence—their contorted bodies constantly battle the paint strokes that whipp them from all directions and threaten to annihilate them. This battle between flesh and paint is eternalized in her work where at some points the paint is threatening the human form and at others it has already begun to engulf parts of it. Thus, the girl who lifts a goat over her head or the man who tightly holds four children close to himself as if something is about to snatch them, saves them not from an invisible threat outside the frame of the painting but from the painting itself (this threat becomes more real in Export Quality in which the yellow and blue pattern engulfs the figure of the man in army uniform). The struggle is most intense at the boundaries of the forms where the figure encapsulated within a contour tries to escape or where the surrounding color field pushes to find a way in. Even the canvas’ edges are not exempt from this struggle, and in many a paintings the sheer force and rhythm of brush strokes makes one believe that what one sees is a glimpse of a scene captured of a flood of color that is sweeping the figures along with it and if one looks away for a jiffy they will be gone. This sensation of a fleeting existence captured in the painting frame is reinforced by the shallow depth of the paintings, since all the drama happens on (or close to) the surface, thus the figures appear as two dimensional and seem to be fighting for existence at the same plane as the surrounding brush strokes.
But, violence is not the only presence that finds itself present and at work in the work. Jalil’s work carries and advocates a deep humanism too. For example the scooter that is being driven by a raging dog threatens to trample a human being the hands of whom place him/her at the front of the viewer. By placing the viewer in the line of danger too, Jalil tries to create a situation in which one is encouraged to empathize with the victim. One even feels pity for the alphabets in the smaller works that are erased and silenced. The narrative in the smaller works is also overtly violent (for example in one of these, the back of a chair which resembles female genitals is being drilled by a drill machine while a fleshy fluid gushes out) as compared to the larger works, perhaps because these are less visible because of their smaller size and, thus, it is safer to expose the narrative in these without shocking the viewer. But if all the characters are suffering and demand the viewer’s sympathy, who, then, is the culprit? Perhaps that is what Jalil is trying to express in her paintings—that existence itself, human existence all the more so, is inherently tragic. Perhaps the only visible culprit in the paintings are the paint strokes that threaten the figures with nonexistence. Even the raging dog, like God’s hand stopping Abraham’s descending knife, turns the handle of the scooter at the last moment.