A department store is one of the most mundane sights in today’s consumerist world. It is a huge organized space, categorised by type and sells numerous items to its customers that range from necessity to frivolity. It has become such a common sight that, like many other developments, has blended into our everyday and eventually forgotten. So when Initiative displays a group show titled, ‘Department Store’, it raises the question: what is this show about?
Internationally acclaimed artist, Muhammad Zeeshan, has curated a number of shows these past years. He can be noted as having worked with several emerging artists, providing them with a platform into the new art world. What is also interesting about his shows, are the rather unique titles he uses. Most recently, Zeeshan curated Sanat’s fourth residency show, which was titled; ‘Dil To Pagal Hai’ and many drew connections with the famous Bollywood movie of the same name.
It seems like each time one enters a show curated by him, the question of why pops in their minds. So yes, why ‘Department Store’? Zeeshan explains that his idea for the name came from the artists themselves. All those participating are emerging talents, which means that they are part of a group of former students who have left behind an institution they have known for four years. These newcomers are now pushed out of the nest and forced to venture into the new art world. They have departed from an old phase of their lives and entered a new professional one. ‘Store’ hints at the commercial scene of the gallery that these fresh artists have to face. Similar to a department store that has specific aisles and categories for their products so too does the work in this show. Each artist presents a unique response to the medium they’ve chosen, each one using it to effectively display their interests. Therefore, every one of them is rare and has the ability of carving out their own distinctive niche in the art market.
A line is one of the most basic rudiments of design. It is simple, extensively used and highly overlooked. Noshad Ali, however, notices this element and makes it the focus of his work. Using this form, he creates intricately complex works, sometimes with contrasting hues and other times monochromatic. The unframed paintings are diverse; from thin gray repetitive swirls to overlapping curves. He also allows a circular movement of the brush to glide along the paper and produce irregular forms that create a visual of the simple transforming into the complex. His oeuvre does not bother with multifaceted concepts but rather the medium and process of making art itself. The repetition is therapeutic and the slight inaccuracies of the work ground the paintings, reminding the audience of the human element existing within. Though the paintings may have spiritual connections with artist as they allow him to pen out his emotions and state of mind, the end result of his work is clearly something that gives the viewer visual contentment by its mere existence.
Following Ali with similar visuals of abstraction were paintings by Jazib Jacob. Displaying an evident obsession with alchemy, which is the transmutation of metals to gold, his work is greatly inspired by four stages of the science, namely: nigredo (a blackening or melanosis), albedo (a whitening or leucosis), citrinitas (a yellowing or xanthosis) and rubedo (a reddening, purpling, or iosis). During these processes the metal continues to evolve and watching this transformation is what influenced his work. Observing the constant change under a microscope, Jacob illustrates his findings onto paper. The end results, like the aforementioned body of work, are large, abstruse yet visually exciting paintings forcing the viewer to dwell deeper in an attempt to understand. Using only homochromatic colours, the artist allows the renders of the unknown form to stand out and take control of the paintings. His dedication and indulgence of the subject matter is clearly noticeable from the great level of detail put into each piece, which amplifies the aesthetics of his art.
Speaking of detail, an artist that stood out for cleverly producing both a lack off as well as an immense level of detail was Salman Khan. Yes, though it may sound like a contradiction, Khan exhibited exactly that through his paintings. What looked like just loose yet powerful washes of gouache, were so much more. Coming up close, beautifully fine forms come in to focus and a painting that seemed like a dull grey from the distance, is actually rendered with shades of light and dark. Khan deals with the concept of two opposite entities existing simultaneously: light and dark, chaos and harmony. The work begins with a wash covering the surface of the wasli. The abrasive strokes show an obvious kinetic energy that is full of emotions; uncontrollable rage and bottled up anger spill onto the surface. But just as the painting shouts at you, so also does it whisper. The intricate workings, also in gouache, soothe the uproar of the background creating a space where both peace and belligerence exist. His work becomes an insight into the complex of the human psyche. A person is never fully good or evil; they exist with both sides of the spectrum, though proportions may differ. Nonetheless, there is more than meets the eye just as is evident in his work.
Moving away from abstraction into the fields of realism was artist, Muzammil Khan. Suffering the tragic loss of his home last year left the artist with a void that he used in his art. His works, smaller in comparison to the rest of the show, are miniature styled paintings of the demolition he documented through photographs and memory. The initial response to his landscapes is awe for the great level of detail and physical effort put into each one. Khan creates visual metaphors for loss, showing us the aftermath of destruction and almost displays the emptiness he felt through his paintings of hollowed out skeletons of buildings. As the work is small, it forces the viewer to come much closer creating an intimate space between the two. An interesting aspect of his work was the formal decision of layering the wasli, so as to have the foreground, middle ground and background all on separate plains thereby generating an illusion of depth and three-dimensionality within the structure.
Living in Swat, Noshad Ali witnessed, firsthand, a prevalent problem in much of the world, the subjugation of women. Using his experiences, the artist produced large-scale paintings of nude males on canvas. Stripped of clothing or features, the figures possess no cast, ethnicity or socio-economic background and therefore nothing to pride themselves over. They become mere objects in the images in much the same way women are made to feel in real life. The bodies are postured casually, given no importance like the furniture around them. As the audience progresses from one canvas to the next, the male body loses even its form becoming nebulous and undistinguishable from his surroundings. His colour palette is depressive, adding to the suppression and disregard for the male nude. Ali’s images become an example of role reversal and allow one to see what the other sex experiences. However, life is not as black and white as that. Certain levels of gender discrimination also occur to the male sex within a patriarchal setting and in a society where inequality prevails neither gender is content.
A stand out among the rest, perhaps because of the vivid hues and enticing imagery, were the canvases by Amna Rahman. Similar yet different from Ali, Rahman too used figurative imagery but of the female kind. Coming from a matriarchal society, her work is influenced by the intimacy shared among women. Each canvas houses two women, side-by-side, staring straight back at the viewer. The subjects are unabashed faced forward and allowing themselves to be seen. Their clothing and postures are comfortable and there is fearlessness in their eyes. In one canvas, the artist herself put her arm around another, a gesture of familiarity and protection. The portraits are painted in warm tones successfully achieving the shades of Asian skin. Their faces are real, with bags under the eyes, dry lips and leftover makeup that escaped cleaning. Both portrait duos sit against plain, white backgrounds, which not only make the subject matter stand out but also call for absolute focus with no concern of where they might be.
Sanat brings together an interesting group of artists each one unique in their own right and though, there is no obvious theme running through the exhibition, one can not deny the great level of talent all these up comers have displayed. Showcasing all kinds of work (from abstraction, expressionism to representational) generates a holistic show. Possibly their different fortes is what connects them after all.
Department Store was held at Sanat Initiative, Karachi from May 9-18, 2017.