Radical young graduates who challenged the norms and redefined art expressions in the late 1990s are established mid-career artists these days. They continue to innovate but the excitement of the unexpected and the unusual in their work, has begun to wane — the raw, edgy vigour of their art has given way to a measured incline/decline. Fortunately, generation next has begun to emerge from the wings.
The whopping VM Gallery exhibition in Karachi, ‘Attaining heights’, features a diverse group of young artists whose talents identify them as the next group eagerly pushing the creative bar. Weaned on the spirit of experiment and invention of the earlier radicals, this new crop is very promising and hugely varied in their art making and related philosophies.
Technically, ‘Attaining heights’ comprises works of artists who were initially selected for VM’s annual emerging talent shows, constituted by the gallery a decade ago to give vantage exposure to thesis works of graduates from leading art schools/colleges. Shortlisting names of participants who have continued their art practice after the initial gallery debut, director VM Riffat Alvi invited the most dedicated practitioners to contribute their current artworks for this exhibition.
As a collection, it is not just a gradient index of committed young artists, it also validates the premise of ‘Emerging talent’ as a prestigious and effective launching pad. The initial developing years are a tiring phase in life when artists brimming with ideas are ready to take risks.
It was this fearless plunge into the creative act by some participants that brought forth a number of original approaches to art making.
Contemporary three-dimensional art incorporating traditional and multimedia technologies is still evolving haphazardly here but this new generation’s enthusiastic embrace of the genre can stabilise its standing and create a better understanding of its finer points.
Among the 3D standouts, Muhammed Junaid’s ‘Ashobe-i-shehar’ was an imaginative take on the trauma of displacement and instability.
He addressed his personal feeling of being ‘in an upside down position in space’ with illusionistic expressions created through concave, convex and hemisphere mirrors modified on different focal points to reflect different perspectives and depth of fields. His transparent acrylic hemispheres hung from the ceiling in such a fashion that the see-through dome reflected stationary and mobile figures on the concave mirror.
Similarly, transparent drawings illuminated with the help of Plexiglas, LED’s electrical wire and aluminium rods, by Arif Taha, gave new magnitude to the conventional art viewing experience. Yet another set of large untitled drawings, executed in space as extremely delicate and intricate sculptural installations, by Ali Kazim, were made out of human hair, hair spray and invisible thread. Interested in exploring the human body, Kazim wanted to make forms inspired by the anatomical intestine structure, which articulates the interior world.
Previously he has used materials such as pigments, paper and leather, which represent external skin.
A socio-political expression, Sara Khan’s ‘Bullet skyline’ was not just a caustic comment on a city in turmoil and disrepair but also a novel art construction. Minute in size and encased in a plastic box her cityscape of skyscraper towers and multistorey buildings were composed mainly of bullets and gunfire arsenal. Faintly reminiscent of Takashi Murakami’s cartoon characters, Aamir Habib’s comic white bunny with swimming goggles poised for a suicidal dive in shark-infested waters was a sharp and witty political comment.
Traditional arts of drawing, painting, ceramics and sculpture had their fair share of reinvention. Summayia Jillani’s ‘Desi Marilyn Monroe’, a hilarious and bawdy version of the actor’s iconic windswept skirt image spelled Pakistani pop loud and clear. Fasiha Batool’s miniature, ‘Tar niwaalah’, propounding that ‘A weak Muslim is like a delicious bite for an enemy today, who is armed but not using his weapon’ was an engaging combo of fine working skills and cheeky wit.
Miniature fragments like a circus ticket, a charging rhino or a rose on a thorny stem finely painted on worn out pages of books of her choice, was how Madiha Sikander put her point across — a novel exercise capable of addressing multiple issues of identity, erasure, distortion and authenticity, simultaneously.
On the sombre side, Arfan Javed — Augustine’s mysterious spreads of black, almost devoid of imagery but heavily layered with pigments, beeswax, transparent glue and crayons on aged paper came across as an anguished protest against aggression, be it socio-political or religious.
Painting on pitch black canvases, Syed Faraz Ali’s muted portraiture attempted to penetrate the inner being in order to voice suppressed distress. Conversely Manisha Jiani ventilated her anguish by scratching, slitting and shredding her painterly surfaces.
Loose bundles, wraps and shapeless forms in porcelain by Abeer Asim carrying images of people, newsprint clippings and maps articulated the trauma of dislodgments. Sarah Mahmood’s ceramic pie slices with earlobe toppings voiced the ‘heard from one ear and out the other’ kind of transition. Vaguely reminiscent of a skeletal ribcage, Fahim Rao’s spiked wooden sculpture was exquisitely crafted and upheld his positive development as an innovative sculptor.
The history of the late 19th century and 20th century western art has been marked by young artists (groups or individuals) reacting to prevailing styles and subjects and experimenting to create radical new movements. But often those artists who were once creating new definitions of art in the end become the very establishment they were reacting against. So, is experimentation the prerogative of younger, less-established artists? Are artists more experimental in their early career? Moot points …