March Issue 2015
Two years ago, I went to see my first art exhibition in Karachi at the Canvas Gallery: Pray Tell by the Lahore-based Komail Aijazuddin. With heavy religious symbolism, particularly the use of Shia iconography, mounted on multi-panel church altarpieces or imposing canvases, the works included a story-telling aspect to them, social commentary and political relevance — but more than anything, they drew you in by their sheer beauty. With the use of gold leaf alongside deep, vibrant shades of red and blue, the oil on canvas works had a certain luminosity to them, despite their predominately dark subject matter. Aijazuddin is heavily influenced by the Renaissance and Baroque painters, but his themes remain contemporary and secular.
Once again this year, Canvas hosted 27 of Aijazuddin’s latest works in an exhibition titled Gilt and Conscience. The artist pays tribute to the three painters who had the greatest — even if often unconscious, he admits — influence on his own works. Colin David for his colours and “obsession with flatness,” Shakir Ali’s “monumentality” and Zarina Hashmi’s use of gold leaf and grids. “I want to assert their place in our art history,” Aijazuddin writes in his statement.
For example, ‘Partition’ is made in the style of Zarina Hashmi’s, ‘Dividing Line.’ A striking blue stripe forms a schism on a gold canvas, resonating with Hashmi’s sense of homelessness and having one foot in India and the other in Pakistan. Then there is ‘Birdcage,’ a reinterpretation of Shakir Ali’s celebrated ‘Woman and Bird’ painting. Portraying the silhouette of a woman next to a birdcage, a bird on her shoulder and fruit in her hand, it retains the content and ambiguity of the original, but with more distinct lines. And, of course, the inevitable gold-beaten canvas, constant in all the artworks on display.
Finally, Colin David, under whom Aijazuddin studied figurative drawing, is referenced in ‘After Colin 1.’ A woman (from David’s, ‘Zara and the Cats’) with her back half-turned to the viewer, stares into the distance.
This style is repeated in many of the other works: a solitary figure, or sometimes two, stand in the foreground with their backs turned to us; we observe them as they observe something beyond the gold-tinted canvas. A soldier (‘Salute’), a man in prayer (‘Salutation’), a mysterious man in a hat, clutching his green passport behind him (‘Looking — Passport’) are all part of the series. The works convey a sense of the unknown and are left deliberately ambiguous, as the viewer is forced to impose his own interpretation.
And then there are the children.
Aijazuddin says his latest exhibition is very “personal” for him. Like the rest of his countrymen, he was particularly disturbed by the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which over 140 children and their teachers were brutally massacred. Initially, he began painting ‘Children’ as cupid drawings, but the attack altered his vision. Pointing to a grid of four canvases, one of which is empty while the rest have children painted in red, he says it was made after the attack.
Aijazuddin writes, “I wanted quiet, contemplative images. While opening newspapers to a daily photo of, say, a woman holding her dead child, or figures contorted in grief and agony — both staples of religious art — those poses shifted for me from allegorical to dangerously documentary. It’s a scary thought when your reality resembles the 15th century.”
This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.