August Issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

Occasional exhibitions of contemporary ceramics in Karachi remind us that the genre is alive and kicking — but, unfortunately, it is still confined to the back-burner. The recent VM Gallery show Dialogues in Clay by newcomers Fraz Abdul Mateen and Aliya Yousaf affirms the young artists’ interest in the medium as an experimental art form. But, unlike the expanding international reach of the contemporary miniature or new media arts, ceramics still has few loyalists ready to pursue it intensively and extensively.

Unlike traditional clay art and pottery, which dates back to Mehar Garh, Harrappa and the Indus Valley civilisation, studio ceramics is a nascent post-independence genre which has made limited progress. A volatile political environment, the absence of state support and lack of museum infrastructure impede its growth, and low awareness levels and a non-existent market add to the woes of the few practitioners who try to brave the odds. Among the technical problems, maintaining private studios with the right equipment is an expensive proposition. Constructing kilns and making wheels also requires a great deal of interaction with the technicians and there are no local ceramic centres that can provide these two essentials to visiting ceramists. The non-availability of suitable ready-made materials is another constant drawback. In addition clay bodies and glazes have to be self-prepared from locally available materials, which makes production long and arduous. Often, artists major in sculpture or mixed media and indulge in ceramics as a minor discipline, which is a disservice to a genre blessed with a rich legacy of native forms that have the potential of reinvention to address contemporary concerns.

The VM two-artist initiative, Dialogues in Clay, centred on non-functional, sculptural ceramics. Drawing inspiration from shapes and forms found in the vegetal world of nature, Aliya Yousaf, a 2003 graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, imbued her works with sensual, emotive content. Her sculptures revealed a pleasing convolution of organic form and surface through the manipulation, distortion, and combination of disparate yet related natural elements. There was much play with the sunflower motif, the mushroom image, the pod container, furled and serrated edges and huge villi-like fringes. Illustrating nature through the imagery of botanical and cellular biology in this way, the work becomes strangely and unnervingly familiar.

According to the creative philosophy of contemporary ceramics, which is centred on individualism and the principle of freedom to constantly express and recreate the self, the central construct is the individual. Fraz Mateen’s repetitive use of the human face, each adorned with a different expression, reiterates this existence of the human being as a singular entity. A series of portraits almost similar in size and shape, but distinguished from each other by personality traits, is a celebration of individuality. The repertoire, though limited in content, was made interesting by varying technical ploys.

By creating pieces with conceptual underpinnings, the two artists managed to shift the work away from the usual understanding of ceramics as mere décor objects or utility pieces.  Their personal expertise in handling the technical aspects of crafting in clay was also noticeable, and the evocative use of colour, shapes and textural treatment carried impact. However, in defining these works, it is important to realise that they conform to the novelties of the western construct and kowtow to the global trends. An abundance of attractive imagery and technical information, easily accessible on the internet and in foreign magazines, has diverted the artists’ attention away from experimentation with indigenous forms. They now prefer to emulate what is universally understood and acceptable, rather than labour over the creation and introduction of an original vocabulary relevant to the environment they belong to.