July issue 2016
Art Review: Group Show at Canvas
Canvas Gallery put on a delightful show of four young and very talented artists — Syed Hussain, Heraa Khan, Umar Nawaz and Veera Rustomji — under the title, Figuratively Speaking.
A single entry by Umar Nawaz was the only installation amidst the painted artwork by his co-exhibitors. This installation is a slender, four-sided column made from iron and painted white. The top is unevenly torn and its jagged edges reveal the eggshell thinness of the moulded iron. A fine crack runs around the lower fifth of the column. The disruption invites a comparison between fragility and strength. Umar Nawaz lets form define content by the manipulation of the material.
The piece is untitled and rather abstract. In contrast to Umar’s formalist work, his peers’ work is highly narrative. Their figurative paintings deal with social issues concerning status, identity and family history. These complex phenomena are handled with sensitivity and maturity. Each artist’s style is distinct from the others’ and this adds to the viewer’s engagement.
Heraa Khan’s six miniature works are done in gold leaf and gouache on wasli paper. They are highly ornamental: floral motifs rendered in gold leaf which shimmers like brocade on a deep background. Roses, tulips, dahlias and other flowers almost cover the surface in all-over patterning. Towards the central portion of the paper, a woman’s figure morphs out from the ornamental surface. In some miniatures, the figure is faceless and in others there is a precision to the portraiture. The wittily titled ‘Summer Breeze’ shows a woman using a hair dryer. She reappears in ‘Poise.’ Her direct gaze at the viewer seems to measure and judge. Heraa has used the miniature style to create a commentary on contemporary society, and specifically that of Lahore’s elite who are highly status-and fashion-conscious. She says her work concerns, “… a tale of absurd, frivolous indulgences as well as limitations and loneliness.”
In contrast to Heraa Khan’s sensuous horror vacui, Syed Hussain’s work is deeply personal and angst-ridden with a subdued colour palette. He has worked with opaque watercolour on wasli paper to explore the problems of identity. As an ethnic Hazara, Hussain has felt a strong sense of “otherness” by the way he is looked at by people. This discomfort caused him to feel “anger, dissociation and then isolation.” From the vantage point of the periphery, he has tried to sublimate his angst by searching for his ancestors’ stories through legal documents.
Hussain has painted ration cards, passports and identity papers with photographic accuracy. The precision gives an almost tactile quality to what represents aged documents. The individuals in the documents include a baby, children and adults. Hussain has deliberately blanked out sections of the images to detract from the wholeness of the individual identity. Hussain says: “One of the biggest challenges for me is, what not to paint, rather than the other way round.” This technical challenge is reflective of the much deeper predicament that Hussain’s ethnicity presents. The void in his paintings is a no-man’s land — a guarded and often hostile space in which no reassurances are forthcoming.
Hussain investigates ancestry through the relentlessly impersonal medium of bureaucratic documentation. Veera Rustomji continues the investigation into ancestry — but through the entirely personal medium of family photographs. Working in oil on canvas, Veera has painted old family photographs in sepia hues. Her painterly strokes add texture to the monochromatic palette, enlivening the images with impressionistic touches.
Veera follows her family history through the receding timeline contained in family albums. She explores the transition in which recognisable characters are replaced by unfamiliar ones. The trajectory of personal family history transforms into something unknown. The links become complex, difficult to trace and uncomfortable to assimilate. Eventually the sense of the unfamiliar boomerangs to what it means to be oneself in light of how much of the past is retrievable. Veera asks herself: “How many trajectories can one family have and when is it appropriate to draw the line and say, ‘No — they have nothing to do with us.’”
The artists exhibiting in Figuratively Speaking engaged the mind and the eye with their well-executed and keenly observed discourse on the notion of selfhood in a society that wants to dissociate with pluralism.