November Issue 2015
Akram’s recent exhibition at Chawkandi Art Gallery titled Shenakht, includes sculpture and painting.
The sculptures are in the form of relief work on wooden wall frames, as well as on carved wooden chests. The paintings are oil-and-acrylic portraitures on canvas. Grouped together, these varied works create an interesting dynamic with regard to the discourse on ethnicity and post-colonialism.
The wooden wall frames are stained dark. They glow with polished shapes of humans and animals, plants and symbols, which have been lifted off an etched background. The figures are floating silhouettes, softly curved and sensuous. They convey a sense of primal well-being, as if they exist out of chronological time. The symbols represent tribal motifs such as those found in traditional Baloch tattoo-markings. They reinforce the sense of a folk zeitgeist that predates the modern dilemma of defining ethnicity in national terms.
The vintage wooden military chests are sturdy with rope handles. The original polish has worn away and the wood is fissured. Akram has carved stylised faces with large, totemic eyes, as well as animals on all visible surfaces of the chests. His cuts are deep and perpendicular to the base from which the relief stands out. The artist has stained his relief carving with black dye, which prominently shows the carved surfaces up from the pale wood.
These chests have a dual identity. Removed from their original function as storage containers, each chest has been recast as a free-standing sculptural artefact. The worn wood becomes the silent spokesperson for the colonial past from which the chests derive their original context.
As relief sculptures, these chests acquire a second identity that continues the dialogue between past and present. They become springboards for questions that concern ownership of the colonial product and the hand that has reshaped it. As the artist has completely changed the original context, each one of these intriguing chests may be considered a self-contained declaration of independence.
The deliberately naÃ¯ve stylisation by the artist asserts itself against the sophisticated modern narrative that straitjackets identity into an ideological framework.
Akram’s canvas paintings form the bulk of the exhibition. There are small portraits with Baloch faces. The larger canvases have geometricised, semi-abstract faces interspersed with abstract sections. The color palette is dominated by burnt orange and brown, with the occasional blue. These are colors strongly associated with the earth, sky and water — natural landscapes. There are grid lines through which the faces peer. These have been inspired by the warp and weft of carpet-weaving. The eyes are large and the gaze is direct. It is these eyes that encounter the onlooker and create a dialogue on shenakht.
Some eyes seem to hold pools of moisture. Others are aglow like burning embers. These eyes and their expressive geometry are like miniatures landscapes within the canvas in which they are set. They break through the confines of colour and abstraction. The canvas becomes a permeable membrane for mutual self-searching and self-definition between these faces and the onlooker.
This exhibition urges us to reflect on issues of identity — whether it is a given or whether it is a variable in continuous negotiation with itself and the Other? Akram’s beautiful work is an invitation to a discourse. With discourse there will always be hope that shenakht is the outcome of shared experience.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.