As he laid back on the charpai of his family home in Ranipur, the little boy’s eyes dreamingly traced the brush strokes of the magnificently large scenic paintings hung above him. It was a window into another world, a picturesque place full of infinite possibilities and wonder. The boy closed his eyes and let his dreams take him there.
Recalling this time as a child, artist, Aqeel Solangi, produced immense scenic paintings which have been on display for his third solo exhibition at the Koel Gallery since late March. Titled, ‘The Sites of Myth’, the body of work is full of bright hues and captivating imagery.
The viewer is drawn to the work at first glance; though realistically painted and composed, the vibrancy and palette that Solangi has chosen to use immediately give off an air of other-worldliness. The paintings all depict some kind of scenery, including the smaller works where paint has been applied to found postcards. On closer inspection one realizes, however, that these works don’t exactly represent normal scenery.
‘The Frisbee Players’ depicts children playing near the pier, a pier which originates from Scotland, while the sea and children come from images taken while the artist explored the Gower beach in South Wales, England. Therefore, this scene, in its absolute completion, does not exist but in fact is a deconstructed image which, ironically, is also perfectly constructed by Solangi. In much the same way, the other exhibits across the gallery are realistic constructs of a time and space that does not naturally exist.
As many others, Solangi too understands the importance of preliminary sketches before creating an artwork. Subsequently, when creating these other worlds, the artist first creates digital collages bringing elements from different places— be it his own photographs or found imagery— to generate new, unseen atmospheres.
“…site reborn in a new site.”
Freud’s concept of ‘uncanny’ is what Solangi deals with in his work; the idea that something is familiar (Heimlich) yet mysterious and uncomfortable (Unheimlich). The work also deals with the experiencing a space, whether for permanent residence or temporary visits, such as airports and railway stations and the feeling one undergoes when they step into a new land. He aims to display the sheer beauty of a place, without having the history behind it cloud the visitors’ thoughts.
These non-places that necessitate travel can be seen as connecting two lands; a correlation between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Interestingly, this is also what Solangi’s works illustrate and, in a way, can be understood as spaces of convergence.
‘The Abandoned Boat’ is a unique piece among the rest. The work narrates three people interacting around a discarded boat kept inside a building. What is interesting about this painting besides the size and composition is the collage that went in to making the work. Unlike the other pieces that merge two different places together, this work resulted from an amalgamation of multiple images of the same exact place. Therefore, apart from the broken umbrella in the foreground, all the elements of the paintings come from one exact place and it is the different time periods that are montaged. Solangi noted that he captured three-hundred and thirty-three photographs of interactions surrounding the boat. Eventually, it was narrowed down to five photographs from which the movement of the people and objects were chosen to paint.
The whole image seems as a paradox within itself. A boat meant to move across the water and allow travel, sits useless within a four-wall building now a spectacle, an illusion of its former self. The light above creates a shadow that the rest of the objects don’t seem to have. Of the three people surrounding the boat, two are unconcerned about where there are, engaging in solitary activities and on the left side of the surface hang s a CCTV camera, something meant for surveillance, looking away from the place of activity. Finally, the umbrella lies abandoned like the boat, inverted and destroyed, no longer serving the purpose it was manufactured for. The painting is uneasy in its illustration, questioning the functions of spaces and their relations with those around them.
On a separate wall, hang postcards, blacked out with paint allowing only certain elements to show through. Here, the relatable found images are recreated; the isolation of certain elements by artist removes the context and instead produces imaginative places hovering in a space on non-time. Opposite this hangs ‘The Reader’, a much smaller painting in comparison to the rest of the exhibition. With her back to audience, a girl, who comes from Solangi’s fascination with Henry Moore’s famous ‘Reclining Figure’, lays in the grass, reading an unknown book. Apart from the green background that resembles grass, there is not much knowledge of where the girl is located. Accompanied with that is the question of what book is being read, where it was written and the place it was written about. Everything is left to the viewer’s imagination and it cause one to question their relationship with different places.
Besides providing the imagery, the collages also provide interesting shapes for the artist. In ‘An Anonymous Day’ the table and chair are painted with an unnatural vertical cut on the left side, abruptly separating it from the rest of the visual. Now, instead of just being placed there, the objects create a cut out shape on top of the rest of the surface. The illusory is further emphasized in this work by means of the unusual background. Though shadows define a specific time, the silvery covered background reflects a dreamlike state of imagination.
Just like the collages he creates, the paintings too, have layers added onto them, not only by means of imagery but also by the tactile medium as well. Solangi’s art is also an understanding of the importance of paintings, drawing and composition that have been studied over the years. The imagery creates movement and visual pleasure for the viewer. The brilliant compilation of thick brush strokes and translucent drips allows the artist to push back some elements of the paintings which making others stand out. The two dimensional surface is worked on to such an extent that the space created almost becomes something solid, something touchable.
As the audience stares into Solangi’s fantastical world, they are made aware of their own existence, relations, surroundings and history. They go from a feeling of wholeness to a fragmented vision; a breakdown of their own realistic vision and thoughts. Romantic notions of travelling to these utopias are slowly pushed aside to unveil the dystopian truth about them. His works, through its colour, composition and concept marvelously sheds a light of consciousness that is guaranteed to stay with its viewer for a long time.
 Interview with Aqeel Solangi.
Non-Place: Coined by Marc Auge, non-places are anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”. Marc Auge, ‘Non-Places’, Verso, 1995.