It can be sufficiently claimed that at Pakistan’s inception, the budding country created the early art masters whose struggles went on to pave a way for the next generation of the finest artists that the land could produce. After art pioneers Abdur Rehman Chugtai, Ustad Allah Bux and Anna Molka, a tremendous wave of western-inspired modern art cornered every gallery, championed by Zubeida Agha whose modernist work Karachi by the Night (circa 1956) opened up revenues for artists to infuse their personal creativities with the western style of Art. National College of Arts alum Zahid Mayo’s latest venture at Sanat Initiative in Karachi brings to mind the similar energy that late Pakistani masters brought to light, much to the delight of the art audiences and the history of the country. Only that Mayo has tried to achieve a social consciousness by superimposing renowned Western works of art with themes and imagery from our very own social strata.
Choosing Western art works or art styles for the canvas is not a new notion. In fact, such a concept has been explored by artists many times who inherited western styles to convey direct or subtle meaning. Even today in the contemporary times when art knows no narratives, artists use stylizations of past eras to radiate their works with existing themes. Sanat’s Annual Residency’s Qadir Jhatial (2017) has painted objects in bold silhouettes, resembling the art of Andy Warhol. Mayo, however, has put his energies into striking an impact with imagery which intends to question our social dynamics. In Khairat we see Mayo paint his version of the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo which adorns the Sistine Chapel in Rome from the Renaissance Times. Done in brush strokes of pallid greys and monotone yellows, the hand of ‘God’ extends to hand over a note to a person sitting on the road with a drum, clad in shabby clothes. Is it God or is it the social dominance of the powerful individuals who are in control of the system today that really controls the flow of the money in the society? For the power struggle and the money games are far too real to ignore and it is always the lowest class that is undermined in every walk of life.
Madr-e-Millat brings to mind Whistler’s Mother (Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1) by American artist James McNeil Whistler. Mayo’s Mother of the Nation sits in more bluish tones of gray than the American original and has rugged walls with her dress gown showing conspicuous etching and brush strokes. The struggles of Fatima Jinnah were hard and real. The ordeal and the sacrifice which the people Quaid’s family went through to achieve Pakistan was inconsolable yet necessary. Our Madr-e-Millat does not pose still like Whistler’s Mother whose origin has seen different shades of life altogether, but here she sits with poise and elegance yet with a hint of movement, marking the struggle of her life gallant and real.
Taking inspiration from French artist Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People where a topless woman embodying the Goddess of Liberty holds the flag of the French Revolution amidst fallen bodies, Mayo paints the brutally slain social media star Qandeel Baloch whose glamorous videos and photographs entertained a few and shocked many, but nevertheless, opened up an open discussion on free speech in the country. A woman of exceptional confidence and the only bread winner for her sisters, Qandeel has been painted by Mayo as the face of the Goddess of Freedom who holds the flag of Azaadi in her right hand and a staff in her left. Titled Azaadi ki Devi (Goddess of Liberty), the work follows the palette of Mayo’s entire Begaaniyan Moortan De Anjaane Vaasi exhibition.
Perhaps Mayo chooses to bring forward these themes and others through Western Art as the starting point because we already have seen and understood those works before with respect to the histories that have witnessed those times. For Mayo has showed us that as history writes and rewrites itself, human cores remain the same. Contemporary times can shift laws and introduce bills but human nature often stays indisputable. Naturally we might prefer an artist to reflect upon the society with a fresher eye and not through a Western lens but Mayo engages the audience with his carefully chosen groundwork and skillful paint.
Zahid Mayo: Begaaniyan Moortan De Anjaane Vaasi was shown at Sanat Gallery, Karachi, from 28 March to 6 April 2017.
Images courtesy: Sanat Gallery.