March Issue 2013
“I do believe in the power of art. It is a form of knowledge and it does bring change in its own indirect way.”
Violence is the theme in much of your work. How rooted is violence in our society and do you believe art can change human nature?
Violence is visible in different forms all over the world, Pakistan is therefore no exception. It is a prevalent issue in all societies in the world and it is for this reason that these themes resonate through media and art. There is an inherent part of our subconscious which abhors any relation to violence but at the same time is intrigued with curiosity — the underlying hypocrisy is evident and it is exactly this which is explored and translated in my art. Perhaps you are referring to the What Lies Beneath Flesh and Blood series from the exhibition, where known, familiar and admired work of abstract art is recreated by an assemblage of skin and blood. In this series of works and many of my other works, I deal with the entanglement and co-existence of the themes of sex and violence.
I do believe in the power of art. It is a form of knowledge and it does bring change in its own indirect way.
Pakistan is in the eye of the storm. Is that why our contemporary artists have caught the imagination of the West or is it because contemporary art from Pakistan resonates with universal themes?
Both reasons are valid. But I believe there are multiple reasons for this shift. I feel that the global interest in art from Pakistan is a relatively recent phenomenon which has greatly been fuelled by the curiosity derived from the attention that the country has gained under the media spotlight over the last decade — however, this could be only one of the reasons. Generally, this is a time where there is slightly more focus than before on art from developing countries — a shift from the Euro-America centric focus which had primarily dominated the art world. While it is true that we might be of merely temporary interest, it is an opportune time for contemporary artists from Pakistan to take one’s practice to a level where it transcends time and region. I think we are at a time and place in history where art of a transnational nature is being produced all over the world, containing universality of a new kind that does not compromise the individual artist’s identity with regards to his location and unique circumstances.
When and how were you drawn to the medium of the photo mosaic and how do you execute your pieces?
During the 1990s, I became interested in identifying and admitting multiple truths within myself. When I was making the Non-Sense painting series around 1999-2000, I became increasingly against the idea of having one kind of faith (in terms of concerns and ideas) and making a series of works about it. So, I developed an interest in observing paradoxes and contradictions. Contradictions exist everywhere, and within every aspect of life there is a stated reality and a covert one — it is this dichotomy which has provided me with the impetus for my photo mosaics. I believe that similar paradoxes exist inherently within our internal self; this conflict which translates into my work through mirror images, symmetry and the grid structure permeates nearly any topic I choose to explore.
In 2002, I created my first photo mosaic called ‘I Love Miniatures.’ I produced this work for an exhibition entitled Around Miniature, curated by Quddus Mirza. This work was a response to Neo-Miniature, a trend that emerged in the 1990s but unfortunately for only a short period of time. I wanted to respond to it by making a work that looked like a miniature painting, but in fact was made up of something that existed in our immediate visual surroundings: billboards and advertisements. It proved to be an important conceptual and formal device and a framework to present my interest in diverse ideas and references.
With regards to the execution of these photo mosaics, or for that matter any work of mine, I go to any extent, whether it be the use of technology or working with a team of assistants, to realise an idea in the best possible way.
You’ve explored several genres in your artistic practice. Would you like to be defined by one, and are there new mediums you wish to explore?
My work is based on concepts and ideas and does not confine itself to a specific medium; rather, when creating a certain work or series of works I begin with certain ideas which naturally find their own path in determining their execution/fabrication.
I was formally trained as a painter, but in the last decade or so, my painting has evolved into idea-led practice. It is for this reason that I choose not to be labeled as a ‘photographer’, ‘video artist’, ‘new media artist’ etc. For now I am comfortable with the title of ‘visual artist’.
You use varied images from the media, from urban popular culture, from cityscapes, from classic European art. What inspires you to choose from one genre or the other?
My works are based on concepts and ideas, and the human mind is not limited to one category of ideas or visions — it is this practice which allows me to browse through a variety of references which I incorporate in my art, without having to think about restricting myself to a certain theme or trail of thought.
Back in 1995, there was a shift in my thinking and approach to my practice as an artist. I did not want to attract a mere audience of 20 people, but instead, a relatively wider audience. This allowed me to delve into broad visual culture as a potent source of inspiration. I did not want to draw hard lines between ‘personal and public’, ‘emotional and intellectual’, ‘formal and conceptual’ etc. The photo mosaics which I made post 2004 are images available on the internet/ media or appropriated from other works of art and some of the titles of my works were borrowed from movie slogans and mass media. By doing this, I was taking fragments of familiar things to translate them into other familiar things, so when one looks at the micro and macro image together, their preconceived notions about certain phenomenon are challenged. In opposing confinement of any sort, be it of nationalism, religion or culture, there is more room for the natural synthesis which mimics the idea of life and evolution.
What is your fascination with the grid, the cube, geometry and mathematics? Along with an artist’s aesthetic it must take a precise scientific intellect to constitute your work. Please comment.
I believe an artist’s practice is constantly evolving as it becomes a source of discovery and exploration for him/her. I have been fascinated by geometry, particularly the grid structure, since the early days of my journey as an artist. As my practice evolved, I discovered various reasons for this fascination, in particular influences from Zahoor Ul Akhlaq’s work, an artist notable for reviving the ‘Neo Miniature’ movement (1980-90s), post-war American art and life in general. I was interested in the grid/matrix as a pictorial device primarily due to its universality — the idea that almost anything could be formed from a grid. As you will see in the exhibition, the grids used in my earliest work are then repeated towards the latter part of my practice, highlighting not only the evolution of the grid structure in my art but also exploring its attributes as defining space and depth.
Labyrinth of Reflections is a seminal exhibit in Pakistan and will be on display for a whole year. How do you think it will impact the sensibility of Pakistani art lovers today?
I had harboured a vision of a survey exhibition at a public museum in Pakistan for some time and it became a reality because of the joint efforts of curators Hameed Haroon and Naazish Ataullah, as well as that of the trustee, Hamid Akhund, and internal museum curator Nasreen Askari. It took 14 months to put together this mid-career retrospective at the Mohatta Palace Museum, which comprises around 70 works from the last 20 years of my career, making it the largest survey show of a contemporary Pakistani artist to be exhibited in Pakistan till date, bringing together my early paintings, photo mosaics, stainless steel sculptures, photo sculptures and video works, all under one roof.
Besides the desire of seeing my work in a public institution in Pakistan where it could be viewed by the masses, I had another important objective in mind. I hope my journey starting from my early years as a painter to a ‘visual artist’ and my exploration of various mediums and formats along the way would allow the audience in Pakistan to bridge the gap between ‘modern art’ and ‘cutting-edge young contemporary art’ as there is still large section of society here who only admire modern art of earlier generations and are unable to relate to works of a more unique contemporary nature, such as those being produced by young artists graduating from art schools these days.
The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline