On the 1st of March, Sanat Initiative brought forth a trio of recent National College of Arts Lahore graduates to put together the show titled Unfold, Retell, Refold.
Even though all three artists have a discipline in miniature painting, their approach towards their work reflected a heightened sense of individuality; each of their voices spoke clearly, and uninterruptedly, their paintings smiling back at the viewer with confidence. As a whole, what is generally striking about the exhibit is the complex dialogue packed within each artist’s body of work – diverse yet all derivative of the same source: culture. Perhaps this is exactly what the title of the exhibition aimed to unpack; familiar conversations that are revisited, forcing the viewer to delve deep into each artist’s train of thought, a more grounded ‘retelling’ of that which we are already culturally aware.
As soon as you enter the gallery space, what is evident is the similarity in aesthetics of all the paintings; all the subjects are left isolated amidst the white of the wasli paper, directing unwavering attention towards the matter. Among the varying subject matters, Muhammad Shahid’s paintings were foremost recognisable as they were reproductions of iconic paintings such as Vermeer’s girl with the pearl earring and Klimt’s lovers, but as crumpled pieces of cloth. Shahid’s approach of painting with flat colours further added to the distortion of the image, making the familiar almost unfamiliar. The heightened distortion prevalent in his work is reminiscent to that of violence, his use of popular subject matters articulating the widespread media coverage of such barbarity and its consequential ordinariness.
By exaggerating the folds and simplifying the grandeur of these media centric paintings, the artist disturbs the viewer’s cocoon of the familiar, urging them to look beyond the overly gratified moment that is captured. What happens after the moment has passed? Where does the society’s voice stand in the silence that ensues?
While Shahid speaks of silence amidst terror, Ali’s work voices the silence in culture’s power over the defenseless – young children. Finding a strong interest in the way children absorb social and cultural norms, Ali is drawn towards a child’s constant companion – their toys. His entire process of creating, destroying and reimagining these toys by exploring fabrics and manipulating their body language conveys to the viewer the haunting conformity that comes with being human. The artist uses these toys as references for his paintings, skillfully recreating the disarray of fabrics, patterns and shapes, exploring the complex dynamic of the average individual. Ali makes use of identifiable characters from television to incorporate into his stuffed toys, perhaps commenting on the overriding role the media plays in reinforcing and manipulating customs and societal behaviour, unsuspecting yet undeniable. By exposing children as victims of societal pressure, his work echoes with a helpless obstruction of innocence, cringing with absurdity and yet implying its inevitability in shaping personalities.
Interestingly, Muhammad Sulaman finds that clothing is the conveyer of individuality and personality. In a time where clothes are no longer found as basic necessities and, quite contrarily, are vital expressions of self, Sulaman pairs body language with floating articles of clothing, instigating the viewer to ‘read’ people’s identities through them. Sulaman’s meticulously painted clothing find themselves crumpled, isolating it from being lived in yet incorporating various human elements to breathe an aura of life into them. He doesn’t shy away from exposing the labels of clothing, bringing forth the element of wealth in creating or depicting one’s character. In the diptych Patience and A bit more, Sulaman mimics the body language of the two figures in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam questioning whether the clothing has the authority to change the discourse of the interaction between God and Adam. In Hallucination, a hand bent in the shape of a gun emerges from a crumpled pair of expensive looking trousers, the thumb angled as if it is about to pull the trigger. The viewer is reminded through this particular painting that clothes can be just as deceptive as they are expressive.
In unison, the artists bring forth a multitude of questions to make the viewers step back and contemplate their own stance amidst the silent happenings that bring about the evolution of culture, but within such a subjective context, it is obvious that there will never be a definitive answer: Unfold, Retell, and inevitably, Refold.
Unfold, Retell, Refold, Sanat Initiative, Karachi, 1-10 March 2016. Images courtesy Sanat Initiative.
Fatima Nadeem is a fine art graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She is a visual artist and writer based in Karachi.