May Issue 2008
Man, Woman and Art
In the last decade, the neo-miniature has acquired the status of a genre of expression for South Asian artists who have been trained in the traditional technique but seek to converse with the world in contemporary lingo. Whereas its earliest protagonists, Shahzia Sikander and Aisha Khalid, adopted the neo-miniature to assert ethnic identity on a postmodern platform, currently the neo-miniature is replete with issues ranging from personal narratives to international politics. The subject of critique is no more the degree of affinity with the traditional medium or the extent of hybridity and cross-cultural coding that the neo-miniature exhibits but, rather, the success with which individualised meanings are conveyed through neo-miniature paintings. The ‘miniature’ in neo-miniature is thus divorced or liberated (however, the reader’s perception permits) from its historical significations of imperial identity, collaborative endeavour, animated narrative, patterned meditations and connoisseurial standards. Instead, its meaning is limited to a reference to size, vasli and method of brushwork. The very postmodernism that had ushered the neo-miniature on to the world stage has effectively resulted in the subsequent loss of its meaning. Once this shift is acknowledged and its causes and results embraced, we can begin to see the neo-miniature on its own terms.
‘Associated Metaphors: An exhibition of Neo-Miniatures’ marks this new phase in interpreting the neo-miniature and re-frames the parameters for its critique.
Curated by Sumaira Tazeen, this exhibit brings together the work of five neo-miniaturists, chosen particularly for the way they address gender issues. A debut project for Sumaira Tazeen, the exhibition presents the work through the lens of Freudian discourses on symbolism and gender. According to her, the artists’ works usually address issues of the opposite gender but, in effect, it is really a reflection of their own complexes. The themes of repression and projection are thus best queried through an examination of the artwork along gendered divisions.
In Mahreen Asif Zuberi’s work, the hand drill is used as a metaphor for a vibrator. Drill bits, framed individually in pristine cerulean halos, lead to the hand drill itself, which lies without any attached fixtures. By placing the bits in heroic seclusion, juxtaposed with the “impotent” drill, Zuberi celebrates female sexual pleasure and simultaneously capitalises on male castration anxiety. In another instance, the drill stands outside a wire mesh screen which encloses a set of plush red arm chairs. The colour of the arm chairs, and the comfort they exude, insinuate sexual opportunity to which the wire mesh denies access. Despite its instrumentality in affixing the wire mesh screen, the hand drill itself becomes a redundant outlier in the situation. Zuberi thus playfully rejects the primacy of the male counterpart in a sexual encounter since it is the agency of penetration that vests the male with the power of domination.
Aisha Rahim’s work, however, seems to accept the active and passive roles in the sexual encounter without reading any power play in them. Most of her compositions follow a dyad organisation, with a male and female element. The elements read as male in one painting are cleverly transposed as female in the other. For instance, in ‘Theory of Love,’ which is an earth-toned diptych, a wreath of cactus appears in opposition to a delicately delineated lotus. Although both are circular forms, the prickliness of one and the softness of the other makes the former male and the latter female, resting in perfect harmony, laced together with criss-crossed string. However, in ‘Reflection II,’ the silhouette of a flowering cactus hovers over a realistic rendition of it and dons a Mughal prince’s headgear. The impulse to read the cactus as a male because of its thorns is suddenly thwarted here by the presence of its flowers which testify to its female fertility. So the cactus becomes the female part, and its silhouette, “ridden” by the headgear, becomes the male element.
Based on the suggestive mushroom form, Hadia Moiz’s work takes the organic motif and contorts it into intertwining bodies which are reminiscent of the mithunas on Hindu temples. Drops of fluid leaking from red mandorla shapes are set against a background of pattern in some cases and newspaper clippings in others. The inclusion of text works well in ‘Intimation Overlapping,’ which is an essentialist article on the Post-Impressionists and their inspirations, as it begins to hint at the cross-pollination of artistic ideas as well as the exclusion of any mention of eastern influences in the formation of the western canon.
Naveid Iqbal also takes the explicit approach, but the imagery acknowledges the reciprocity of pleasure. Iqbal fuses the mushroom with thonged sandals which rest erotically between a woman’s toes. An allusion to female arousal, the centrally placed slippers in his compositions, however, carry a phallic significance. Despite the androgynous colour choices, male dominance on the picture plane is not neutralised. It is as if the presence of female responsiveness serves only as an affirmation of the centrality of the male in the discourse.
Shoaib Mahmood digresses from an anatomical interplay but uses clothing to query the differences in gender and their preferences. Although Mahmood, himself, sees his work as a commentary on the growing commercialism in Pakistani society as manifested in the brand culture of today, the sexuality implicit in the clothing depicted brings to the fore gendered attitudes. His most interesting pieces are ones which show contemporary youth and Mughal courtiers standing together, each clad in their own paraphernalia to highlight their masculinity. Again, the picture plane is dominated by male characters.
Coming full circle, it is hard to agree with the statement that artists vent their own issues through the veneer of the opposite sex. In each of these artists’ work, one finds an open confession of their own issues rather than those of the opposite sex. What is interesting, though, is how the male artists perceive and use the male form as a neutral collective normative whereas the female artists consistently employ metaphors and literary allusion to suggest rather than represent male and female forms. Most curious is the fact that whereas the work of female artists investigates or rebels against inequities, the work of the male artists does not engage with gendered im/balance at all. Unlike other Freud-inspired artists such as Dali and Margritte, these men do not evidence a fear of the opposite sex but are so secure in their positions of privilege in Pakistani society that they do not seek to delve into the psyche of women and their issues.
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