January issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 7 years ago

Marjorie Husain is one of the most recognisable names in the world of art criticism in Pakistan, with scores of reviews and a handful of definitive books on Pakistani art to her name. And Between Dreams and Reality, her latest book on painter Tabinda Chinoy, provides valuable insight on both the artist and her artwork.

Photographs of Chinoy’s paintings and sculptures are supplemented by biographical essays, excerpts of art reviews from publications around the world and even a poem inspired by Chinoy’s paintings. A verse from the poem, penned by Ghulam Farid Riaz, reads:

‘Canvas after canvas was stretched
And covered with shapes, transfigurations,
Bodies in purple embrace…’

These few lines capture Chinoy’s aesthetic with its vibrant colours, bold brushstrokes and stylised female figures. The checkerboard parquet tiles that often appear in her work are revealed, in the afterword by friend and fashion journalist Zurain Imam, to have been derived from childhood memories of her parent’s home. The elongated necks of her female subjects, glamorously dressed yet with forlorn expressions, are drawn so because Chinoy, as stated in her interview with critic Niilofer Farrukh, finds them elegant. These details accumulate to provide an intimate look at the artist and her style.
Moving in chronological order, Husain begins with Chinoy’s childhood spent in Bangkok, Rome and Sierra Leone — moving frequently because her father was in the diplomatic service — and looks at how the art and culture of each city influenced her.

In subsequent chapters, Husain chronicles how masters such as Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez and Bashir Mirza guided her transition from an art student to an artist. These chapters not only reveal how Chinoy overcame initial self-doubt to become a mature artist but also show how close-knit the artists’ community was in Pakistan. Established artists nurtured emerging ones by gifting their works to them and at times even working together with them on canvases. In fact, a few pages towards the end of the book are devoted to paintings that were gifted to Chinoy with a sketch of a flying dove by Sadequain and a painting of two women, rendered in bright blues and warm yellow, by Mansur Aye among them. The bird motif from Sadequain’s drawing and the vivid, bold style of Aye’s painting echo in Chinoy’s work and therefore the reader is able to examine Chinoy’s paintings in the context of the greater world of art in Pakistan.

Husain deftly balances personal anecdotes from the artist’s life with scholarly art criticism, thereby revealing the different sides to Chinoy — socialite, activist, feminist and teacher. The book also displays the diversity of Chinoy’s oeuvre and how her evolving style reflects the changing dynamics of the society she lived in. During the rising conservatism and rigidity of the ’80s and ’90s, Chinoy used strong lines and vibrant colours to express her frustration at what was going on around her, and describes her work during that time as “disturbing.” In her more recent years, she has employed less morbid imagery and introduced a more serene quality in her work. The book provides photographs of Chinoy’s sculptures, which employ a variety of materials such as bronze and terracotta, as well as her paintings through the decades. These paintings depict everything from fantastical, Chagall-esque scenes rendered in a mix of oil and acrylic to still-lifes of flowers in vases that, with their expressionistic, bold brushstrokes, are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s famed sunflowers.

The only small complaint about an otherwise exhaustively detailed book is that the paintings could have been annotated with dates to help the reader keep track of Chinoy’s evolution as an artist. But all in all, Between Dreams and Reality is an excellent resource for art lovers and Husain has lovingly compiled all the information into a highly readable, as well as visually striking, book. There is a sustained commentary on the role of women in society in Chinoy’s work and the combination of her feminist slant and bold style make her an important figure in Pakistan’s art world. This collection is more than just a coffee-table book and hopefully Husain will document the work of other major Pakistani artists in future tomes.