November Issue 2015
The Eye of the Beholder
According to renowned writer Khaled Hosseini, “Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.” Indeed, this statement carries great weight, and reminds us of the superficial nature of society and the importance it gives to aesthetic charm. While no one can decide who ‘deserves’ beauty more than others, it is true that those who have it often benefit from it, irrespective of how they are as people. Hussaini’s quote perhaps holds true for all kinds of beauty — that which is present in human beings, nature or things — whether natural or unnatural. Entities that appear beautiful are often deemed, at least at first impression, more important than their ordinary counterparts. After all, they say, human beings are visual creatures.
Artists Saba Khan, Sara Khan and Sausan Saulat seem to understand the lure of beauty and the luck it can bring. They use this understanding cleverly to make a statement with their art works. Indeed, at first glance, the works of all three artists are delightful. The irony in them only becomes apparent with a closer look. The recent show at Gandhara Gallery, Pretty can be Gritty showcased an interesting series of pieces by the artists, that spanned various mediums and came together wonderfully.
Saba Khan works with an interesting combination of mixed media. Her work uses materials that are an embodiment of the term ‘kitsch’ (something that appeals to popular or low-brow taste). In her works, one can see the heavy use of assorted materials: multi-coloured and various sized beads, sequins, glitter, crystals, acrylic paint and graphite on board. She combines these with the incorporation of deliberate, almost-tacky pastel shades of pinks and pistachio greens that serve as great parallels with her subjects, since these, too, depict the taste of the Pakistani common man: contract-based bungalow designs, truck art motifs, images of typically-furnished Pakistani drawing rooms and creamy cakes found in cheap local bakeries. My favourite piece from Khan’s palette is ‘Sweetmeats on a Drawing Tray’ that depicts a heavily-laden ornamental tray of mithai with an assortment of this revered desi dessert. Despite depicting them in an unusual medium, Khan makes them appear tactile and reminds the viewer of the sheer appeal of these local mouth-watering treats.
Khan’s work is reminiscent of the Pop Art era where ordinary objects were incorporated into fine art, creating an interesting combination and dialogue between what was considered ‘high’ and ‘low’ class. More specifically, her choice of subjects and colours reminds one of renowned Pop Artist Claes Oldenburg, whose renditions of desserts and assorted objects are a treat to the eyes. Like Oldenburg, despite the ordinariness of her subjects, Khan makes her subject matter, no matter how kitschy, appear pleasurable to the eyes.
Sausan Saulat’s work, too, glorifies the mundane and ordinary. Her large-scale pieces consisting of bright, floral backgrounds immediately catch the eye. They are beautiful. However, upon a closer look, one finds Saulat’s subjects are also regular, every-day objects — some we would ordinarily fail to notice, or choose to ignore. For example, against two contrasting floral backgrounds, one can see black and white images of pavements, a passerby, an army marching, roadblocks, barriers seen on the streets, and lines of clothes hanging out to dry. In ’50 Shades of Grey,’ a cleverly titled — and clever — piece, Saulat paints women in grey shuttlecock burqas against a brightly printed background. On the right, in the same painting, are women outlined in seductive poses — two sides of grey reflecting the spectrum that is society today.
My favourite piece by Saulat is ‘Kyun ke dagh tou acche hote hain’ (triptych), that displays three Greek-inspired pedestals painted against bright floral backgrounds. And what objects does the artist glorify in this work? A box of bleach, a toilet pump and a toilet bowl cleaner placed on each pedestal, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Campbell’s Soup Cans. Through this piece, Saulat cleverly comments on rampant consumerism and the endeavour of the commercial world to elevate mundane objects in the eyes of the consumer through clever and aesthetic advertisements, so that they become imperative for people to acquire. This creates a society embroiled in consumerism and materialism.
Sara Khan’s work is also deceptive at first sight. Appearing to be delicate paintings of women adorned with jewellery, or a display of their beautiful ornaments, a deeper look is required to reveal the darker truth. In Khan’s pieces, the piercings and jewels were created in conjunction with, and through, bullet-holes. My favourite piece by Khan is ‘Brace It (Gajra)’ that displays this typical white and red floral ornament worn by Pakistani women on special occasions. Look closely, and you will see that instead of delicate petals, the gajra is made of cap-gun cartridges. Khan’s work, thus, speaks about violence — particularly against women. Their delicate, superficial image of beauty and ornamentation is shattered.
All three artists have produced a body of work that is, in its own unique way, instantly relatable, due to the pertinence of issues it addresses not only within Pakistan, but also internationally. Violence, consumerism and superficiality are interrelated problems worldwide that need to be addressed.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.