December Issue 2016
Art Review: Muhammad Atif Khan
By Nusrat Khawaja | Published 5 years ago
Sanat Gallery marked a significant milestone in November by celebrating its 50th show in just over two years. Sanat’s dynamic trajectory has distinguished it as an interactive space for contemporary art practices. Characterised by a generous ethos under the stewardship of owner Abid Merchant, the Sanat Initiative fosters dialogue within the art community and encourages emerging talent. A signature feature of every exhibition at Sanat is a catalogue containing essays and images that is available for the viewer to carry away as a souvenir.
Sanat’s 50th exhibition featured a solo show of Muhammad Atif Khan’s prints. The walls of the gallery were abloom with his series titled ‘Gardenscape.’ Khan has been a faculty member of the National College of Arts, Lahore since 2005. He is also responsible for the towering site-specific installation called ‘City within a City,’ which has transformed Istanbul Chowk in Lahore.
Khan’s work in ‘Gardenscape’ foregrounds the evolution of the art of miniature painting in the digital age. He has created lush compositions entirely by computer manipulation of borrowed imagery. The traditional Mughal atelier with its tiered hierarchy of production is a distant ancestor to the 15 works in this series that have been printed in archival inkjet on Hahnemuhle paper.
Khan selects motifs from his library of appropriated images and manipulates them to create mosaic-like topographies. He creates strong geometrical associations by multiple reiterations of units. One such unit of composition, used to create mass, is a segment of mango tree canopies which is “borrowed” from Pahari painting, especially from the more naturalised style of the Kangra region. This motif is variously used to create a framework as in ‘Charbagh (i)’ and in ‘Gardenscape;’ it appears as a lattice in ‘Charbagh (iv)’ and as units of receding perspective in ‘Gardenscape (v).’
The distinctive chequered pattern of the Middle Eastern keffiyeh (headcloth) with its roots in antiquity is used to represent water with waves as in ‘The Lost Garden (i)’ and ‘Deep Dream (ii).’ Scroll clouds and scalloped fields further contribute to the sense of outdoor space. However, this landscape is highly stylised. Naturalistic elements have been reconstituted to create highly ornamental topographies that seem akin to the geometrical complexity of mandalas. The four largest prints in the series called ‘The Lost Garden (i-iv)’ can even be “read” from top to bottom like a vertical scroll. The complex arrangement of visual elements is balanced by open spaces and there is no information overload.
In other notable differences from traditional miniature painting, Muhammad Atif Khan has done away with hieratic scaling. The human figures are very small in proportion to the segmented topographies.
The devils of anachronism, incongruity and absurdity lie in the carefully selected details. These details serve as subtle coded references for the ironies that permeate human existence. There are recurring motifs; brightly coloured metallic fish and little flying creatures that have been adapted from truck art; a tiled ceramic artefact, observed by the artist at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, is reconstituted as a bridge or aqueduct.
The most significant recurring motif is that of a noble character dressed in attire from the Mughal period. He is drawn in outline form without colour and always shown in profile as is typical of Rajasthani miniatures. His presence in surroundings which are atypical of his Mughal provenance establishes him as a time traveller of sorts. In this role, the nobleman traverses the centuries and bears witness to the altering landscape that contains echoes of the past. He is shown engaging in varied activities such as riding a bicycle with a cargo of busts of the Queen of England, photographing a dancer, etc.
One of the most enigmatic images is in the ‘Deep Dream’ series. The four prints in this series have an elliptical format similar to planetary orbits. In ‘Deep Dream (iii)’ the nobleman is astride a large fish and holds a red parasol. The churning water is rendered keffiyeh-style in black and white. The inferences are left open to the viewer’s perception, but it is hard to avoid making an association with this image and the legend of Khwaja Khizr riding the fish.
In ‘Deep Dream (ii),’ the possibilities of inkjet printing is stretched to yield the darkest, most saturated blue. The depth is captivating.
These riddling scenarios become even more surreal in the prints which feature a large human heart. The heart is anatomically correct but much larger in proportion to the nobleman who is shown in a variety of interactions with the enigmatic depiction of this symbolic organ which quite possibly represents conscience or compassion.
In the micro-universe of borrowed imagery, the question must be asked as to what role originality plays. The artist’s synthesis of appropriated material opens space for conceptual enquiry. The past is reconstituted in a new matrix of suppositions which hold no promise of certainty. We are invited into a heterotopia, that counter-site described by Foucault as a place “outside of all places.” The ‘Gardenscape’ is a domain for thoughts to wander under the shade of the mango trees.