June issue 2009
Not From the Heart
A considerable amount of art these days carries an agenda of issue-based concerns, but Koel Gallery’s latest art exhibition is the only show in recent months that has consciously solicited fresh art commentary on the current crisis situation confronting the country. Curator Noorjehan Bilgrami’s passionate plea, Kuch tau Kaho references Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s agonising verses, “Kuch tau Kaho sitam-kasho faryaad kuch tau ho … ”
The poet’s cry was meant to prompt the silent majority, victims of oppression, to speak out against the tyranny of authoritarianism. Today, as Pakistan continues to lose credibility as a nation and is variously branded as a ‘failed,’ a ‘slave’ and a ‘terrorist’ state, an articulate ‘peoples voice’ has to emerge from the simmering silent majority to restore our sense of balance and arrest this fall from grace. Feeling the disturbing undercurrents of the unsaid, Bilgrami urged artists to accent their pain and ventilate their apprehensions and anxieties in their art, which was collectively displayed under the banner of Kuch tau Kaho. One approached the exhibition with great expectations — in such trying times, a public display of artistic opinion is a powerful index of national sentiment, and a roster of 10 established artists appeared promising.
The first pieces to catch the eye, artist/sculptor Jabbar Gull’s ‘Target,’ ‘Gift to the Third World’ and ‘Clash of Civilisations’ were very direct summations (and the only ones in the show) of superpower hegemony at its worst. By juxtaposing bombing arsenal with wooden figurations of ‘ordinary souls’ — his signature motif — he registered his protest of drone attacks on hapless citizens. Similarly, the portrayal of nukes and modern weaponry was a pointed indicator of national vulnerability. The works made an instant connection because they translated what we already know — however, the twist of the deeper, lingering thought was missing from the work.
Executed with a certain measure of commitment and seriousness, Summaya Durrani’s ‘Jad ul Hasan wal Hussain’ series called for cerebral engagement to reveal itself. Reductive and restrained, it first impressed the mind with its subtle minimalism and, only later, for its narrational capacity and historical reference.
If one was looking for a scorcher, then glimmers of rebellion could be noticed in R.M. Naeem’s rather prickly horizontal C print, but the end message was garbled. Staging a figure in various modes of questionable (un)dress, identified subversive activity and the recurring use of the keffiyeh referenced the Palestinian liberation struggle, making the work a commentary on terrorism at large and not specific to this region. Naeem reverted to his usual pacifist stance in the other two paintings, which further diluted the severity of his standpoint. Technically, the crisp freshness and special effects of the works affirmed his cool grasp over fine and mix-media arts.
Some artists like Afshar Malik, Nahid Reza, Ghalib Baqar and Qudsia Nisar offered attractive new works only loosely (or not at all) threaded to the premise. Instead of being concept-driven, the paintings emphasised fresh stylistic moves in the artists’ existing repertoire, which momentarily distracted one from the primary storyline. But then there was not much there to further the argument either.
Who needs to be taken to task when an exhibition fails to live upto its curatorial premise? Do we blame the artist, the curator, or the buyer, who indifferent to the theme boosts the profile of the show with his purchasing power just because there is a premium on works by established artists. And what of the viewer who is denied the ‘experience’ that seemed to unfold in the invite? Has a proliferation of sentiment and imagery, churned out through the mass media, deadened our senses or have we acquiesced to being members of a slave state? Has Guernica lost its significance?