July Issue 2013
The Caged Birds
“But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage.”
— Maya Angelou
Artists often use animals in their paintings to symbolise and reflect particular states of being. Amber Salam depicts goldfishes in abstract forms; Mashkoor Raza is fond of horses; and Jamil Naqsh incorporates pigeons into nearly all his works.
Birds, in particular, have a majestic presence and are often used to signify freedom and beauty. However, up-and-coming artists Amir Raza and Hidayatullah Mirani have used images of birds and other animals to highlight and offer commentary on perceived social ills in their exhibition titled Trapped at the Full Circle gallery.
In ‘Past and Present,’ Raza presents a map of the world in the shape of a grenade, about to explode any minute. While one half is in black and white, the other half is an army green and made to resemble a parrot, with the beak as the explosive’s detonating handle.
Raza uses the parrot as a recurring image in all his paintings as a criticism of the ratoo totas in our society who follow the dictates of others and lack an identity of their own. Raza’s parrots are sinister and zombie-like with their blank, lifeless eyes that observe everything, yet seem to lack consciousness.
In ‘Invisible Hand,’ bullets are aligned neatly and systematically against a white canvas while another one of Raza’s parrots can be seen at the corner. A transparent hand grips one of the bullets like a pencil and seems to be lingering over the image of the parrot. Judging from the painting’s name, perhaps Raza is criticising capitalism as a system that mass produces more ratoo totas, and also leads to systemic violence in society.
‘Flying Space’ portrays a blue-skinned boy wearing only a white shalwar and an ominous expression. His blood-shot eyes are narrowed and he holds two pupil-less (or blind) parrots in his hands. As he kneels on an orange-red coloured ground, a row of neatly placed guns lie in front of him and feathered, green wings sprout from his ears like horns — a fallen angel or demon? The painting’s vibrant colours are a stark contrast to its dark theme.
Raza’s works are unique, absorbing and certainly relevant, but perhaps they would have had a greater impact had the artist toned down the preaching aspect in his statement a bit. Often, the subtle is more powerful.
And subtlety is what Hidayatullah Mirani seems to have mastered. While his works do not contain the same rage and the obviously political themes of Raza’s paintings, there is a similar sense of horror to them — albeit more subdued and almost delicate. Mirani, who has an interest in wildlife preservation, uses various birds, rodents, insects and fish — generally considered as being meek and passive creatures — in various forms of entrapment: a sparrow with its foot chained to a pole, a fish trapped in a net and an eagle caught in a wire. Despite suffering, there is no sense of struggle in the animals, and their eyes look just as dead as Raza’s parrots.
In ‘Untitled III’, Mirani shows a myna bird caught in a rat trap — a particularly cruel fate for such a sweet-sounding creature. And in ‘The Cage I,’ a single beak peers out from a cage. The gouache on wasli lends the bird, or what we can see of it, its rich texture whereas the graphite used to sketch the cage appears dull in contrast. A stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to other forms of life.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s July 2013 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.