February Issue 2013
The Sacred and Profane
A mixture of secular and sacred imagery rendered in deep blues and vibrant reds dominated the large canvases displayed at Canvas Art Gallery. The work of Komail Aijazuddin, who holds a masters degree in painting and history of art from Pratt Institute, the exhibit is appropriately titled Pray Tell. It is notable for its heavy use of religious imagery in his work, specifically the expression of Shia historical narratives that are combined with Christian symbols and altarpieces. For example, the Hand of Fatima is a recurring motif on Aijazuddin’s multi-panel, wooden altarpieces. Perhaps the reason Aijazuddin chooses these two religious traditions is because of the passion, blood, ritual and colour, as well as themes of victory against insufferable odds, inherent in both of them. The Hand of Fatima itself is very symbolic to Aijazuddin, and as he writes in his artist’s statement, “(it) is less a symbol of the events of Karbala and more a reference to a beleaguered, threatened minority of people, anywhere.”
The title of the exhibition reveals the underlying religious theme of his work, but his subjects are contemporary individuals placed in ordinary, secular settings. The Pray Tell collection is a departure from the young iconographer’s previous work and is a response to his time spent in Pakistan. Aijazuddin says he has “shifted the focus of the work from didactic narratives (from the Karbala stories) to a more abstract portrayal of contemporary Pakistan, and the daily contradictions that make up our lives here.”
Aijazuddin’s own work juxtaposes different elements, since the people he portrays are ordinary Pakistanis that viewers are familiar with, yet the style he depicts them in is borrowed from the old Baroque and Renaissance European art.
Aijazuddin’s work is thoroughly absorbing both in terms of its aesthetics as well as the themes he addresses through them. The people he portrays are very real, and he manages to capture the full spectrum of human emotions. Even when the subject matter of his paintings is grotesque, filled with scenes of death, murder and betrayal, the rich use of colour, the contrast of light and shadow and the balance between realism and romanticism, lends a certain beauty to them.
Although his collection is dominated by religious themes, one of the largest and most admired pieces at the exhibition titled ‘Wives’ does not seem to have any obvious religious undertones. Painted on a large canvas, ‘Wives’ portrays the seven archetypes of Pakistani women against the backdrop of a brilliant blue that Aijazuddin credits to his time in Turkey (“Blue is never quite as blue anywhere else”).
Another striking piece titled ‘Friends,’ a Baroque-style painting inspired by Caravaggio’s ‘The Calling of St Matthew’, portrays a gathering of men in a dark setting, implying some kind of secrecy to their meeting. Two of the men are pointing at the group, either as an accusation of betrayal, or as a show of support. Aijazuddin deliberately left the context ambiguous, as allegiances are often not as clear-cut. The painting is also another example of Aijazuddin replacing figures of nobility or religious status with ordinary citizens.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.