Does one need to have prior academic understanding of Visual Arts or the professional art world before stepping into a gallery or can Art be enjoyed regardless of the history one has with it? Should an untrained eye take as much pleasure while experiencing an art exhibit (or any formal creative space) or is it just the domain and prerogative of the literati?
Such notions are questioned and shaped when artworks are exhibited in open venues or public spaces. Hurmat-ul-Aim and Rabbya Naseer bring together, ‘Society of the Spectacle’ an unconventional, cross-media ensemble at Satrang Gallery, an art space located at a central space in a five star hotel in Islamabad. To its advantage it pulls a diverse audience, especially one that is far from the confines or sophistication of artistic jargon. And to be able to connect with a wide audience is perhaps the real challenge of any work of art; to be able to hold something for the un-usual suspects in a gallery (beyond regular visitors; artists, designers, curators, gallerists, art students, patrons and buyers). This show is one of them. Appropriating Guy Debord’s seminal literature as the title of their exhibition, Ain and Naseer further the idea of reality and representation through crisp artistic metaphors and sarcastic undertones. Through their signature wit and performative acts, they re-affirm Debord’s Marxist comment on late capitalism; turning appearance, outwardly sophistication, and worldliness into a commodity. The artists’ primary focus deals with repercussions and implications of this phenomena on young South Asian women who are to transition into married lives. Zahra Khan conceives the show. For her, Ain and Naseer’s visual language is loaded with irony. “They invite the audience to join them in their secret judgment of… detrimental societal behaviors”.
Many artist duos around the globe have shaped art history; Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jane and Louise Wilson, Eva and Adele, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Marina Abramovic and Ulay and Gilbert and George are some of them. Hurmat-ul-Ain and Rabbya Naseer, alongside their independent practices, have been working since 2007 as the first visual artist duo from Pakistan. This exhibition marks the tenth year of their collaborative projects. Both of them have a BFA from the National College of Arts and a Masters from School of the Art Institute of Chicago as Fulbright Scholars. Their collaborations as well as independent practices have been shown in Pakistan, India, USA, Dubai, China, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Australia. Their work is also part of the feminist art archive shown in thirteen countries across Europe.
As a person who follows their practice regularly, the strength of their working relationship hasn’t dwindled, in fact their creative pre-disposition and risk-taking instincts have sharpened in this decade despite gaps in work due to a few consecutive months of geographical distance. It seems like ‘the same itch, different scratch’, as Jake and Dinos Chapman describe their duo work relationship.
Ain and Naseer always watch out for new possibilities and alternate materials to talk about a preoccupation with outward experiences and the external spectacle. Over the last few years, their artistic considerations have aggressively overlapped their socio-political and cultural concerns. This body of work, nonetheless an independent entity, perhaps is best understood when seen through their previous artistic repertoire. Their assemblage of ideas is projected through a range of mediums, while maintaining a core. This time they make work using objects, or their representation (through drawings, photography and video), that offer multi-modal meanings. The images present vernaculars of womanhood, morality, virtuosity, marriage, conformity, regression, oppression, festivity, wedding congregations, objects of desire and sexuality. The artists critically examine, and oftentimes explicitly condemn, the contaminated societal practices that reinforce “the role” of young “naïve” suburban women.
Deploying images of traditional canopies, now mostly used on low-budget congregational events or wedding ceremonies in community grounds or residential streets, Ain and Rabbya reduce the idea of public gatherings to a collective audience ogle at the sight or state of a newly wedded bride or bride groom. The mundane reconstruction and repetition of canopy patterns in work series titled Variations of a Congregational Event and Shamiana I & II are pun-intended; they signal the conditions of collectivist behavior, unpack cultural memories and also scratch surfaces of personal nostalgia.
White As Snow and Candy With A Hole are two distinct works that play on clichés of gender representation. At the expense of reinforcing stereotypes (oftentimes the myths on ‘’South Asian women” and the misconstructions of Islam) that the duo blatantly attack, ironically, they are also performing, translating or establishing their identify as Pakistani Muslim women. White As Snow, made in 2008, is a pun on the understanding and didactics of the ‘ideal devout woman’ in a particular culture. The video is about two women rhythmically and repetitively reciting the merits they possess to qualify as women of high morals and regard. The sound thus created hints at the traditional tilawat recitals of young boys memorizing holy verses.
One of my favorite works, titled Spectacle, is a series of four, rendered with enamel on steel sheets. The word ‘spectacle’ is painted in Urdu nataliq with bright garish neon colors. Kitsch in nature, the three-dimensional illusion of the word suspended in a cloudy nuanced blue backdrop is illustrated through four vantage points (right left, frontal and backwards), alluding to the various angles with which social nuances of class, taste, aesthetics and language are viewed and judged. This time, the word spectacle, in itself, is being inspected.
This Is An Art Object negotiates space and gender representation through a blend of object making and performative gestures. In the midst of a conventional line up of works on gallery walls, one unexpectedly experiences interspersed stock-still humans as frames to display a series of gotta-kinari dupattas. One questions – are they being seen as humans? as females? as fictitious characters? as entities who can feel, think and speak? as commodities, or as mere props?, to install the different shades of pink fabric beautifully embellished with golden embroidery that reads “this is an art object” in Urdu. Facing gallery walls in a chockfull audience, the human figures (or living sculptures) are subtle interventions, yet very daunting; they are un-interactive and immobile; very low on theatrical play or any kind of formal linear narrative. They ignore the expectations and reactions of an audience; yet communicate through utmost silence, calm and stillness. The relationship between the performer and audience is constantly being re-negotiated. Here, the female human body is carefully and wisely orchestrated, as a non-traditional means, to be sensitive to time, space, the performer’s body, the act of looking, and presence in a medium.
Most of the works are a kind of meta-spectacle. They, for a few moments invert (or add a third layer to) the roles of the spectacle and the spectator by configuring us – as the art audience – and as integers of the cumulative gaze. Hence, the phenomenon of the spectacle, itself, comes under speculation. A successful work of art engages – or ought to engage – diverse viewership (trained and un-trained in the field of Visual Arts) to feel, participate, see, react, critique and draw conclusions. This show too, creates an agnostic space that nurtures a range of aesthetic, sensory and reflective experiences for a wide audience.