December Issue 2014
Art Review: Muhammad Ali
The excitement generated by an unconventional art show is palpably stimulating — but in the most exceptional fashion, because it exposes the audience as much as the artist. The element of censorship is introduced even before the show opens and the gallerist and artist are immediately at the receiving end of intimidations that they cannot ignore, given the unpredictable tinderbox we exist within.
Muhammad Ali’s recent show, A Rainbow of Y/our Own (Canvas Gallery, November 6 to 15, 2014) constituted a series of large canvases, some depicting well-known film icons like Madam Noorjehan and Meera from Pakistan and Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh from across the border. Muhammad Ali has long used portraiture as metaphor, and audiences who can read the inferences in the iconography will be regaled by the allusions. Both Deepika and Madam Noorjehan recline in the languid posture of Manet’s Olympia, which itself was a wry reference to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Both these paintings have histories that insinuate their way into Ali’s contemporary version. Titian’s Venus was commissioned by Duke Urbino for his wife as a lesson in learning to be an idyllic wife and mother. Manet’s Olympia was the representation of a prostitute, his sardonic version of the Venus of Urbino that enraged prudish audiences of 19th century Paris not by its nudity but by its subject. Two guards had to be employed to keep watch for vandals when the painting was unveiled. Although it is not precisely these reclining paintings by Ali that prompted indignation in some circles, we cannot let slip the deep irony of the situation. Manet’s Olympia was first shown in 1865. This is 2014.
Chinese contemporary installation artist Ai Weiwei’s comment that “I always want people to be confused, to be shocked or realise something later” should be the aspirational response of every artist because it reflects the role of the artist as provocateur. In this case, the shock has been a little more than stimulating.
The carnal association between food and sexuality is an obvious but shallow reading of Muhammad Ali’s work. He admires the feminine grit and fortitude, and chastises men for their crass objectification of women, and the obvious link between the lusciousness of the fruit and flesh is exactly the male visual equation that Ali is attempting to expose and thereby demolish. In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger explains the male gaze in art and advertising: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Feminist historians balked at the suggestion of female passivity but it was true for the 1970s and is true even now for advertising and fashion.
Ali takes great pains to create the visceral floral and gastronomic orgasm of the paintings. Often the connection with human skin is slimy, like spaghetti and ragu and squid and body fluids. Other times the fruits are juicy and succulent: grapes, honey-dew, peaches. The flowers interspersed among the fruit are also significant. The anthurium is suggestively sexual in its form, as is the lily.
While there is so much regeneration in the paintings, the darkness is never far from Ali’s works and suggests the dystopia that is relevant to our zeitgeist. A girl sits in her plush drawing room where a cloudburst rains upon her, suggesting that her predicament within her home is perhaps as painful or worse than what she could encounter outside. Women in black, their faces obscured, mourn the death of a loved one whose face is laden with chocolate confectioneries — paradoxically enough, dark chocolate is known to contain levels of serotonin, a stimulant that produces elation in humans. A beautiful woman lies obviously dead in a water-filled bathtub but is surrounded by objects associated with the living and prospering — pearl necklaces, bunches of phallic-like bananas, white tulips signifying purity, and bees swarming as if to draw nectar from her sweet but very dead mouth.
In the midst of this tableaux vivant, this panoply of narratives, Ali interjects a burst of guilt-free, unadulterated laughter. The tantalisingly seductive Bollywood hero Ranveer Singh sits on the commode reading a magazine and relieving himself while cupids waft about his head waiting for his ‘Immaculate Ejection,’ as the painting is called.
Viewers squirm and wince as they desperately try to contain their disbelief, distress and even disgust at the provocative images. They claim the artist’s only goal is to seek attention through sensationalism and shock. While we pride ourselves on being able to speak freely due to the hermetic nature of the art industry — by any other name, a synthetic bubble — we disagree on the paradigms of those freedoms and are unwilling to give full leeway to any artist. Perhaps such responses are universal. In the West, where unconventional art is more common, the outbursts are even more vocal and the horror and dismay louder. However, even the Mapplethorpes and Ofilis of the world find galleries to exhibit, as has Muhammad Ali — and fortunately so.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the headline, “Artist Provocateur.”
Nafisa Rizvi is a writer and independent curator. She was founder editor of ArtNow, the first online magazine on contemporary art.