December Issue 2015
The Art of Survival
Resilience is the key attribute to surviving in today’s big, bad world. For those thick-skinned individuals who are able to bounce back from tragedy, life’s journey becomes easier as compared to those who cave in. The three artists showing at VM Gallery’s current exhibition, Thick thin skin, dwell on various aspects of the theme.
Batool Mandvi, Samreen Sultan and Ramla Fatima’s works, though varying in medium and theme, come together to form a coherent body of work for this exposition. The three worked together as artists-in-residence at Studio BQ, Lahore, and it is work born out of that exercise — digital prints, sound pieces and installations in various mediums — that is being showcased at VM Gallery.
Batool Mandvi, who also co-curated the show, explores aspects of ‘suffocation’ in her pieces. In ‘Don’t Throw Up,’ a grey sink is placed on a corner wall, and above it rests a painting depicting an anguished woman pressing her face against glass. Interestingly, the painting, covered by a cling-wrap, has to be viewed in combo with the sink, while listening to a sound recording via headphones. The disturbing sounds of washing, gargling and running water seem to invade the personal space and position the viewer as a voyeur.
Nearby, on a plinth, stands ‘Kalon II,’ — a cuboid painted with an extract from a Caravaggio painting, also encased in a cling-wrap. While the subjects’ bodies are apparent, their faces remain hidden beneath the surface — thus, bringing in the notion of ambiguity via layering. Mandvi states, “In my work, layers play a fundamental role … I bring layers in a painting either by removing some part of the painting or adding layers to it with different mediums.” The artist’s subjects appear to be suffering from within, and by placing an external element (a cling-film) over them, the artist further accentuates and highlights their pain.
Samreen Sultan’s digital prints on canvas delight the viewer with their bold imagery. One can see a plethora of limbs juxtaposed against celestial elements from space. In her work, ‘Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side… What is yours?,’ a woman’s limbs come together in a strange, triangular formation, while seeming to clutch desperately at a bed-sheet. What lies beyond the subject is a looming planet, perhaps the earth, that the subject strains to balance herself against, perhaps to keep herself from falling towards it.
The imagery in Sultan’s piece, ‘You have the answer. Just get quiet enough to hear it,’ borders on the abstract. It
is an almost-mirror image of parking lot, as seen against a rainy windowpane from a vantage point, The same parking lot denotes different moods when seen in conjunction with the colours placed beside it on either side — creamy yellow seems melancholy, while the sky blue has shades of positivity. However, the droplets of water that seem to cloud the scenario make one think about the layers attached to assorted situations, where things cannot always be boxed into ‘black’ or ‘white.’
Sultan’s pieces combine strangeness and sensuality in ethereal scenarios. Perhaps she best explains them herself, by stating, “My work becomes a social comment on issues of the body, which goes through trying times…Therefore, in my work, the body is shown often in unexpected, unreal and fantastical situations which is its attempt to ‘break free’.”
Ramla Fatima explores aspects of pain and suffering in her work. Her pieces are unique and carry an element of surprise. ‘Reassembling the Body I’ depicts what seems like flesh in heaps on the floor. It is reminiscent of the holy festival of Eid-ul-Azha, when animals are sacrificed. But seen in the context of today’s violent scenario, it could represent human flesh too. In ‘Reassembling the Body II,’ a hammock holds a heap of someone’s personal belongings and household items — from stuffed toys to electronics to clothes to frames. Why would someone assemble their belongings in such a strange manner? Could it be due to the fear of losing them, or losing the memories attached to them?
The artist confirms this: “Desensitisation of human emotions has been depicted in my work as the body has… lost its value. The act of assembling and reassembling objects represents my fear of explosion of not only the body itself, but also its belongings, processions, emotions, memories etc.”
The exhibition at VM Gallery is well-curated, with the display giving ample spaces for the works to breathe and hold their own. Moreover, the pieces work well within the given theme. Whether it is Mandvi’s display on the experience of suffocation, or Sultan’s depiction of the body caught in worldly and societal limitations or Ramla expounding on violence and suffering, all three artists underscore the importance of being ‘thick-skinned’ in order to be able to survive in today’s world.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.