Many of you may already be acquainted with Ayaz Jokhio’s workspace. It is tucked away in a compound of attractively mismatched blocks in a central area of Lahore. The place is associated with many artists, and visited by more, and almost as if in respect to this fact it bears signs of the kind of careless creativity you come to recognise artists by. A fiber glass shade covers one of the driveways, throwing a square halo of frosty blue light over the parked cars. A brambly fence guards an annexe on one side. Roosters and hens run distractedly around in a little playing field in the centre. One or two may wander off and trail you as you try to find Jokhio’s studio in all these wings and courtyards. You can see the faded tracings of a badminton court on the lawn. There is a clothesline, too, and the extinguished remains of a bonfire.
But the studio is tricky to find and, therefore, secluded. After navigating me through what seemed like an alley-network out of a Victorian novel, Jokhio led me to a quadrangle in which stood a simple, single-storey structure that is his studio. The studio’s garden and patio display works by some of Jokhio’s former students from the BNU – a set of ivy-covered benches, a shelf of cans pasted with photographs of old and new icons, an eccentrically designed wooden chair. One of the patio’s walls sports an ambitious crayon drawing. A gigantic man with a very small head travels through a surreal land full of floating faces and Dali-esque clocks and happy cats stuck on tree tops. “My son drew that,” Jokhio points out, going on to describe a wall in their house which they set aside for the boy’s graffiti and how, over time, it filled with doodles and became a rambling mural.
But after the unguarded energy of the wall-drawing outside, the emptiness of the studio comes as a surprise. Appearances are misleading though, and once your eye adjusts to the softly lit space, you begin to see how everything there reflects the artist’s offbeat, often puzzling work. A thick roll of brown paper serves as a coffee table and two kites hang in the shadows, amusingly out of element. Cracks in the paint on one wall have been outlined with blue marker so that they look like the map of a crumbling world. Three large canvases lean against this wall, two of them with monochromatic paintings of the backs of two different human heads, and one with only a faint drawing of a silhouette. The artist sits on a chair in front of these, unknowingly (or, perhaps, knowingly) reenacting Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced (an unconventional portrait of Edward James showing the back of his head and its duplication in a mirror). The whole atmosphere seems to be charged with a kind of irony, something that is crucial to Jokhio’s work.
“I don’t stay in the same studio for more than a couple of years,” says Jokhio, as I look around. “Shifting studios allows me to get rid of the clutter that accumulates over time. I give many of those things to my students when I move.” Musing, he adds, “When I come to a new studio, I just put up a canvas and a chair in front of it and that’s it. But, slowly, things start piling up again and before you know it, it’s time to move.” I make an artless comment about the sanctity of one’s studio, about how it becomes the centre of your world and so forth, to which he replies, “A studio is not important. It’s like a storage space. I used to think it was a sacred place, too, at first, but thought processes can happen anywhere.”
“So everything scared is essentially in the mind.”
“Yes,” he says, smiling.
I look again at the rear-portraits (I think they can be called that), more attentively this time, and suddenly realize that one of them shows a platinum blonde head of hair much too familiar to artists. “That’s Warhol!”, I exclaim, terribly excited. Nodding, Jokhio points to the second portrait and asks if I can tell who that is. Now, since I am frightfully proud of what happens next, I feel I need to dramatise it a little. I observe the painted man’s back and notice that his ears are unusually pointy and protrude from a somewhat squarish head. “Kafka?” I venture. Jokhio nods again, laughing, and I stifle the urge to squeal.
But besides providing a boost to my ego, these portraits divulge an important aspect of the artist’s work. References even to specific people, places and paintings are made by him in a comprehendible style, encouraging all viewers to partake in the unraveling of the images. Because when I question him about the specificity of these portraits and whether or not it would impede a more general understanding of them, he says, “They are still essentially portraits. And everyone’s back looks the same at one point. That is how I want viewers to see them. But even if you were to wonder why I chose Warhol, Kafka and Jinnah (the drawn silhouette on the third canvas is his), it would be because these people exist in our memory. They’re our relatives. We know them, even if we haven’t met them in real.”
Elaborating on these unconventional portraits in progress, he remarks, “Backs of things appeal to me.” And he refers to a series of paintings he did of the backs of old photographs, reproducing the captions, annotations and wistful bits of poetry which people jotted there and which often went unremarked. I ask him how he procured these tell-tale photographs and in answering, he reveals another facet of his work. “Some came from my personal collection,” he says, “and some were taken from friends. Because what is personal, after all? A newspaper can be personal, which you purchased for 5 rupees. And once your work is in a gallery, it’s not personal anymore. It’s in a public domain.” I am reminded of his Non-Commissioned Portraits and Landscapes – a series he recently displayed at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. These, too, were a study of the other side of the picture, in a sense. Jokhio, instead of painting sitters who can afford to commission portraits, had painted people who would otherwise go unnoticed, uncelebrated, much like the backs of photographs.
On the second, smaller wall is propped another large canvas. It bears a half-done painting of a black-and-white photograph which, in turn, bears a thin red grid. The enlarged and realistically painted photograph, he tells me, shows a landscape from Khairpur, Sindh. “Sometimes, you photograph different views while on a drive and then forget about them until you stumble across them later while going through the files on your computer,” he explains. “I chose this casually taken photograph and painted it with a grid projected on it.” It is, of course, like so much of his oeuvre, a subversive comment on the practice of art itself. By recreating in paint a photograph of an actual scene, Jokhio deconstructs the formulaic process we make art to be. It is quite clever, really – a kind of Trojan horse of image-making, whereby Jokhio dismantles the very illusion of art by playing fully along with it.
As I turn my head for a final survey of the space, I see a number of books stacked on a table close to this canvas. I read their titles and J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello catches my eye. “This is a boringly interesting one”, comments Jokhio with a cryptic smile, “but I’ve been reading a lot of fiction and poetry these days.”
“You’re a poet yourself.”
“Yes. And poetry makes me understand art better. Or you could say that poetry motivates me more than the gallery culture to produce art.”
“So poetry and literature inform your art, as they should everyone’s.”
“I try and read a little everyday, yes, and it triggers my thought process. It’s essential to compare one art form with another. You can’t look at them in isolation. The relationship between word and image cannot be neglected.”♦
Related: Read ArtNow’s interview with Ayaz Jokhio.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.
All photos by Nashmia Haroon Photography
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