Fresh Paint

December 24, 2010

Viewing art was once a bracing experience; it gladdened the heart and lifted the spirits. With changing times, however, art sensibility too has undergone radical shifts in thought and content. Today, for an art enthusiast the thrill is in deciphering the twisted, the oblique and the barbed, decoding the innuendo, or assimilating the risqué and the gory that emanates from the current social, cultural and political atmosphere of the region. Galleries here have been dispensing this ‘reality check’ art prescription through individual exhibitions for several years now, but public reception has been variable. The general acknowledgement that Pakistani art has arrived is still elusive.

The current Mohatta Palace exhibition, “The Rising Tide,” examines new directions in art from 1990 to 2010 (see gallery below). Will this wide-ranging, large-scale, composite show on a public museum platform be able to generate the awareness needed to ground Pakistan’s new art on a firm footing?

Curator Naiza Khan points out, “The new millennium and what it means for Pakistanis has been presented through the modalities of media, music, fashion, politics, religion and civil society. However, it has not found resonance in artists’ voices: how we experience art today and what making work means for artists at this point in our history.” What are the social and aesthetic issues that have forged a new set of conditions for the artists to function within?

The average viewer, weaned on traditional art forms may feel thwarted by the unorthodox vocabulary, media and modalities of this art, but it is so essentially about the here and now, that the effort to engage will not be in vain. Among the relatively direct works, Salim Mansur’s painting, ‘Old Ilaco House’ will stir memories of old Karachi, but the portrayal of life in the urban centres through the eyes of young artists is decidedly different and needs to be accessed on another wavelength altogether. Roohi Ahmed, commuting through strife-ridden areas, creates route maps of Karachi to establish her relationship with different aspects of life in this megalopolis. Similarly, Farida Batool’s lenticular print about Lahore, ‘Ek Shehar Jo Udaas Hai,’ carries conflicting images of brick walls and scenes of daily life. This juxtaposition critiques the presence of newly erected barriers, gates and obstructions in Lahore city which curtail human freedom just like the walls of the walled city restrain the life of its inhabitants. From the Balochi perspective, Jamil Baloch’s ‘World Plane’ installation — a downed aircraft with its tail end jutting out of the ground — is potent with meaning in a country experiencing drone attacks. One draws a blank on encountering pages of a strangely worded Qaida (primer) as art work, till one discovers it is a learning aid produced by Sara Khan, a Pathan who has apprehensions about her identity as she is not familiar with the language of her ancestors.

A tryst with history to extract new meanings from old relationships was an obvious inference of Melbourne-based miniature artist Nusra Latif Qureshi’s digital print on clear film, comprising a photo of herself overlapped with images of Mughal royalty and British colonial gentry. Yet another miniature artist, Aisha Khalid, has resorted to an eight-sided mirror installation riddled with bullet holes and wound marks, to invite self-reflection when the onlooker is confronted with several personal images. This prompts speculation on the multiple nature of killings taking place in this country. Who is killing whom and why?

Among the complex and the intriguing, Rashid Rana’s installation, ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise,’ a colossal checkered cuboid in stainless steel, glass and wood, has all the sheen and shimmer of a glitzy Dubai monument, but the paradox lies in the micro images of crumbling structures, shanties and ghettos embedded in the matrix. He plays with dual imagery, the apparently glamorous but inherently ugly, to unveil the contradictions and inconsistencies woven within the fabric of life. Another installation/sculpture piece with a captivating exterior but a sombre premise, is Huma Mulji’s ‘Twisted Logic.’ Constructed from mirror pieces, this dazzling but inverted object is “a mutant minaret-like form, a large origami bird or an abstract form of failed architecture.” Bold and beautiful, Faiza Butt’s art expression, a dot-to-dot, vibrant and intensely worked technique in ink on polyester film straddles both worlds, the miniature mannerism and the new age pixilated graphics. Building her art on the power of media and the printed image, her work is current and topical. Two male Taliban embracing/kissing is among her more explicit pieces.

A gamut of expressions by as many as 40 artists spread over the entire first floor of the museum invite conjecture as much on the workmanship as on the conceptual range of the pieces. In a post-colonial, politically chaotic Pakistan, the search for a new artistic language and dialogue has driven young art­ists in pursuit of multiple lines of inquiry, and the postmodern western construct of New Media Arts has surfaced as the most favoured vehicle for articulation of these diverse concerns. Deconstructions of the Mughal miniature initiated the new discourse phase, while the digital arts, installation, assemblage and video came later but are now gaining ground.

The transition from the conventional and the modern to the postmodern is already underway among Pakistani artists, and “The Rising Tide” is a manifestation of that crossing. Not entirely as vast as one thought a 20-year span of work would be, the exhibition nevertheless does manage to present a representative selection of new directions in art.

Click any photo to begin the slide show: