April issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 10 years ago

After his Posternama series in Delhi’s Latitude Twentyeight gallery a few months ago, miniature artist Muhammad Zeeshan journeys on with Safarnama, an exhibition of his latest body of works at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi. Many of the artworks, Zeeshan admitted, were visually similar to those displayed in India, but they have a different theme: the travelling image, explored through a series of eye-catching visuals.

In some ways, the exhibition is a departure from his last major show in Pakistan in 2012, which showcased graphic and grotesque imagery of beheadings: the pelf and power of the throne as represented by, for example, the decapitated head of John the Baptist resting in the lap of a smiling Salome, and bodiless animal heads floating against a stark, white background. From such intense works that had a strong presence of physicality in them, Zeeshan moves to a more spiritual plane with Safarnama.

Mythological figures from folklore are featured with a symbolic animal each, and a single, even-toned splash of colour serves as the backdrop: Jhulelal meditating on a lotus that rests on a fish; Ghous Pak on his battle horse; Imam Hussain’s magnificent Zuljana with the hand of Fatima hovering above; Krishna holding the reins of the divine chariot against a brilliant, blue backdrop and Shani Dev, god of justice, holding an arrow with a crow in the foreground. Zeeshan reveals that each of the animals in the images were modes of transportation for the revered figures, and he seems to have given them as much, if not more, significance in his works. Just as the figures travel from one destination to another with the help of an animal, so too do their stories, by way of the image. And although we instinctively recognise many of the images, it’s unlikely that we have seen them in this particular style before. Zeeshan is recognised as a miniature artist, but he’s not a conventional one, and his works are easily distinguishable because of his method of infusing the traditional painting mediums with laser-scoring, industrial technology. The heads of the humans, gods and animals are painted with gouache on wasli and their bodies are made with the delicate and highly intricate lines created by the laser-scoring machine.

Zeeshan’s canvas also merges seemingly contradictory ideas in perfect harmony: age-old folklore is reinterpreted in a poster/pop art style, and Islamic and Hindu beliefs come together in the shared icons of subcontinental Sufism. Then there’s the irony that the images he ‘borrows’ — like the half-woman, half-horse figure of Buraq, which regularly decorates the back of trucks and buses in Pakistan — is generally considered ‘popular’ and even low-brow, but it’s selling at a gallery frequented by largely a small class of people that can afford it.

When we speak about religion in public spaces, it tends to be about ethics rather than aesthetics, but artists scarcely concern themselves with notions of right and wrong/fact and fiction; they create what they feel. Zeeshan’s work is a celebration of the subcontinent’s shared history and mythologies, which are as rich and colourful as truck art, or Holi and basant, and which pre-date the boundaries we’ve propped up over the centuries.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.