In the 1970s, psychological studies started delving into what artists had already known for a long time: differences in pictorial preferences depending upon culture. Particularly, Jan Deregowski concluded after a series of studies that some cultures were ‘deficient’ in their understanding of images and preferred split drawings to perspective drawings. The former showed the subjects with full information regardless of the viewpoint where as the latter were dictated by mathematical rules of perspective depending upon the position of the viewer. Since then, the methodology of the studies and the resultantly drawn conclusions have been criticized for being ethnographic since Deregowski assumes the existence of a correct answer, which should mean that there is an objectively true way to represent the world around us on a two dimensional surface. However, images run amok of these preconceived notions about what they ought to be. Who is to say that a profile of a dog with two legs showing is more accurate than an impossible view with all four legs when the dog is actually in possession of these very four legs? This inability, or at least, ambiguity of images in transcribing the real was what Rene Magritte termed ‘The Treachery of Images’, but in fact, this is perhaps their most important redeeming quality. If we could accurately represent, why should we stay interested in representation at all?
Ali Raza’s solo show at Rohtas 2, in collaboration with the Lahore Literary Festival 2014, works around this multiplicity of ways in which one can look and represent. Titled ‘Seen From Here, There and Nowhere’, Raza’s lenticular paintings offer a play on perspective that alters the image meaningfully depending on the position of the viewer. Seemingly, his images are bi-polar in both form and content. This could, for example, be the case in Burger or Shawarma? where the two different resolved images are signifying two sources of external influence upon Pakistan and their subsequent ideological standpoints. But Raza’s work is not simply a case of x or y. The two images may at first seem to be mutually exclusive but noting the fact that these works require a viewer to walk around them, it is obvious that the choice to pause and look is at the discretion of the viewer. Shifting along with this physical movement, Raza’s images appear to be in flux offering as many possibilities as the angles with which they are approached. Two of these standpoints are simply more easily recognizable. Quite intelligently, Raza’s images use dichotomy to caution against absolute and/or false dichotomy.
This is particularly relevant to a social milieu that so desperately necessitates taking a stance that we increasingly find ourselves pushed to the extremes, regurgitating readymade opinions without fully being able to understand. Based on the visual and textual news of News, our responses are instantaneous and unforgiving. Similarly, adopt one view through a conclusion that may be rationally arrived at, and you are automatically handed down an entire set of views that define a stereotype too easily and you, only by force: if you sport a beard, you must also be a fundamentalist; if you speak primarily in English, you must also live in bubble, and so on. The duplicity of Raza’s images in such a setting is an important reminder of the failings of our fragmented perception. We always stand in dark of the other side, our truths are always partial.
The gaze of the viewer is already significant due to the physical form of Raza’s images. In a few works, however, gaze is also directed back at the viewers by the paintings. Of mention here is Stalker in which the iris of an eye shifts as if following movement. This seems to signify an increase in surveillance culture which invisibly and sure-footedly intrudes: a viewer inevitably has to walk away and the eye shall follow. Similarly, in Jinnah for Official Use, a portrait of Jinnah with white eyelids clasped shut comes to life when the viewer is not directly confronting it.
An important feature of Raza’s work is that it is painted by hand despite the fact that a similar lenticular effect can be obtained technologically. This stops Raza’s work fairly short from the impersonal trappings of pop art since the images themselves can be mistaken for merely consumerist when examined without relevant context. His paint often streaks exclusively horizontally within a painting, which to Raza is reminiscent of repeated slashes since he sometimes used credit cards as his instruments of application. Their aligned direction, however, also makes for a rather neat affair, thereby reinforcing the beguiling nature of his images.
Raza’s images teach us only to acknowledge our ignorance and move on. Move on and keep looking. The crux is a whole lot more effectively summed up in the following verses by Sylvia Plath:
Well then, if we agree, it is not odd
that one man’s devil is another’s god
or that the solar spectrum is
a multitude of shaded grays; suspense
on the quicksands of ambivalence
is our life’s whole nemesis