October Issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 5 years ago

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise,” said Voltaire.

Jamil Dehlavi found out the hard way when his feature film, The Blood of Hussain, was banned even before its release in 1980. The film chronicles the story of one man’s stand against a powerful military establishment, drawing loose parallels with Imam Hussain’s struggle against Yazid.

Once martial law was imposed in 1981 — and with it, the worst period of state censorship in Pakistan’s history — Dehlavi left for a decade-long exile to England. Thirty-four years later, the film (or even a pirated copy of it) is still extremely difficult to get a hold of. Many have heard of it, yet few have watched it, and it remains an obscure classic of Pakistani cinema.

Titled [dih-still.ed], Inaam Zafar’s exhibition at the Sanat Initiative comes at a time when the nation is, once again, talking about military dictatorship, soft coups and veiled power politics that take place beneath all the rhetoric of democracy.

He paints ‘stills’ from The Blood of Hussain, “drawing inspiration from the idea of ‘Eigengrau,’ which refers to the colours in a uniform, grey plane formed by the absence of light.” The stark, white walls of the Sanat gallery are contrasted with Zafar’s dark, grainy oil on canvas works, and his use of thick, layered strokes in soft greens, muted browns, dull greys and blues, gives his art a murky quality.

The subjects — a distant vulture perched on a hilltop (‘The Soothsayer’), the portrait of a blank-faced monkey in a uniform (‘Beguile’), a partially-shrouded deer on a foggy night (‘Bambi’), soldiers lined up to shoot on command (‘More or Less Alike’), and a general taking aim with an imaginary rifle (‘Gesture’) — are intriguing due to their enigmatic nature (or hidden agendas?). Though the subjects in the paintings often have a vacuousness, a simplicity and a quietness about them, they are not quite ‘still.’ For those who haven’t watched the film, the artworks can be viewed and analysed independently of the movie’s script, and can be seen as disjointed from one another, or as screenshots of a larger plot, whose details can be filled in by the viewer’s imagination.

Zafar comes across as a pop culture junkie of sorts, who draws inspiration from various texts, including newspapers, magazines, advertisements and social media sites. However, this particular exhibition isn’t merely inspired by Dehlavi’s film, it is a tribute to it — almost like a fan mail from one visual artist to another. And a perfectly timed one at that: Dehlavi recently returned to Karachi as a full-time faculty member at the newly inaugurated Habib University, and got the chance to personally view the exhibition.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.