‘Chinese Whisper’ is an internationally famous game and usually refers to when one announcement or news becomes garbled along the way. In this game the first player comes up with a message that every player has to pass on to the other one by one. As it reaches the last player, the message differs from the actual message that was delivered from the first player.
A Lahore based artist, Zainab Aziz, related her paintings to the Chinese Whisper in her recently opened first solo exhibition ‘Zara Se Baat’ on the 30th of August, 2019 at O Art Space.
Looking at Zainab Aziz’s conspicuously large canvases, cleverly composed with monochromatic oil paint images of women, one could not help but be reminded of the ‘Gibson Girls at the Beach’ of Charles Dana Gibson, the 19th century graphic designer. His iconic images of beautiful and independent American maidens, ahead of their time and almost flirtatious, also shared a secret one still yearns to discern.
Aziz, a graduate in Fine Arts from the Punjab University, College of Art and Design in 2017, made her way in oil paints choosing a limited colour palette to paint women. The women that Aziz painted were much more contemporary and unlike Gibson’s girls, the protagonists are oblivious of their loveliness. They seem to have shadows of a serious, more intimate concern weighing on them. One could observe them huddling, conspiring, and whispering secrets much darker, and never see them beaming directly to the spectator or to each other.
Victoria Selbach, a realist artist from New York, is famous for painting women the way she understands them. She says: “The power to show real women, honest, present, and complex and complete….. One of my greatest joys is working with women who do not usually dwell in this side of their beauty and yet in the work recognise themselves completely as they are and magnificent.”
Aziz’s chooses ‘trust’ as her subject to paint which she depicted by painting women and highlighting the belief that a woman cannot keep a secret that could be precisely observed in her work. Aziz’s women are all of that, barring honest.
“Our expressions and feelings are at the mercy of those to whom we pour our heart out. Trust is a very precious word rarely understood; easy to utter but difficult to maintain. Unfortunately, one tends to fall into a pit where one has to face one’s own feelings in a rather mocking way. One may relate my work with the idea of ‘Chinese Whispers’, where something shared at an intimate level will keep on being distorted and may end up in the most misconstrued way,” explained Aziz.
In ‘Zara See Baat’, the artist seemed to be living her worst fears – the betrayal, dangerous intentions, and tattletale amongst those considered trusted friends and allies. Her characters in twos and groups of more are always avoiding looking at each other. There is no eye contact.
Grief, sadness, hopelessness and loneliness could be observed on the faces of the characters Aziz painted. Instead there is always guilt of having betrayed a trusted friend and having wronged a loved one hanging in the air of all her canvases. “A thought once leaves the mind of its creator, may turn into a fire in the woods. Hence, I refuse to give out my beliefs, ideas and emotions, for trust is nothing but a lie,” she added.
Her style, a combination of almost photographic realism with a minimalistic design format was captivating. One sees some bleached out silhouettes being embraced, heaviness of distrust and heartbreak.
In a canvas titled An-Kahi (Diptych) an uncomfortable conversation between the two protagonists is taking place. It seems the two characters are in the middle of some accusations and confessions. “I want people to understand the importance of little things which if ignored for too long, result in something big. From my work I want people to get to know the value of trust and how breaking it can make a person’s life colourless,” Aziz explained.
The canvases were solely relying on monochromatic, ivory white, grey or black hues to convince the viewers to observe the hollowness of the characters. Yet, an orange ring in the middle finger keeps making appearances canvas after canvas, a beak of a bird printed on a woman’s shirt, an earring of another, an expensive looking string of pearl on a third – are the only colours used which pointed towards the materialism among friends.
In another frame, titled ‘Mera Maan’, Aziz beautifully depicted two friends sitting side by side, one’s head resting on another’s shoulder, a motif from one’s clothes etched on the nape of the other. Despite being physically close to each other, they still seem far apart. Despite appearing to be supporting each other’s physical and emotional weight, they seem torn apart and melancholic.
The artist’s practice revolves around women and against the backdrop of the recent resurgence of feminism at the global level and in art; this display of women-centricity by her is refreshing considering it has been a neglected view in Pakistani art scene in the recent past.
Despite the absence of colour, details on Aziz’s canvases are almost startling; the fabrics, the tussles of hair, the jewellery, and the texture of skin – all are very real considering its oil paint that she prefers as her medium. It demonstrated her mastery on the craft, especially considering this was her first solo show. Her visual approach is also modern. Aziz, according to her own admission, is inspired by the work of contemporary Pakistani artists such as Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Ali Kazim and Imran Channa, all of whom she feels are making waves in Pakistani contemporary art at International level. Going by the display of talent at Zara Se Baat, Pakistan may already have another global contemporary well on her way.