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Art fiend: Defining semblance

Updated September 21, 2014

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Japanese traditional kokeshi bobble, perceive-conceive series, Ben Rak
Japanese traditional kokeshi bobble, perceive-conceive series, Ben Rak

In the current world structure where change is the only constant most new art focuses on negotiating transitions, be they social, political or cultural, to rationalise contentious shifts and moves. The recent Koel show in Karachi “Semblance of Order” centres on physical and psychological states of balance / imbalance experienced during a cross-cultural dialogue underscored with diaspora anxieties and the impact of a shifting world hierarchy.

Its assortment of etchings and silkscreen prints invite engagement with the conceptual and technical subtleties that the five participating artists, Roohi Ahmed, Michael Kempson, Abdullah M.I. Syed, Ben Rak and Adeel-uz-Zafar have employed to express their take on order / disorder.

Envisaged / curated by Abdullah Syed the show is a collaborative venture promoting Australian and Pakistani art and artists across borders and platforms. It evolved from an international artist residency programme held jointly between Paramatta Artists Studios and Cicada Press, University of New South Wales — Art and Design, Sydney, Australia. Karachi is the second stop for this touring exhibition, which first opened in Sydney in 2013 and will continue on to New York in December 2014.


Cross-cultural dialogue and diaspora anxieties in a collaborative venture


The five designated artists began work on the ‘Semblance’ project at the Cicada Press in the autumn of 2013. According to Abdullah, the entire exercise was a play on order / disorder “between sites, each other and even their own practices. They (the artists) negotiated the potentially chaotic environment of a communal print studio under the timely order of the master printer (Kempson). For Australian artists such controlled disorder is common, heightened when the artist travels to countries like Pakistan or China, where unpredictability is the only certainty. For Pakistani artists the need for order in shared creative space is a primary concern. Many Pakistani artists, including Ahmed and Zafar, share my desire for order. It results, I think, from the constant battle for personal space in densely populated public areas and the everyday chaos and deteriorating law and order in Pakistan.”

Presents with presence, Michael Kempson
Presents with presence, Michael Kempson

Visually, it is works by Kempson and Rak that evince newness at the Koel exhibition as Karachites are already familiar with the singular and well-established repertoires of Ahmed, Zafar and Syed.

Creating comic, endearingly literal assembly line images of (plush, stuffed, made in China) soft toy animals like panda, kiwi and markhor, Kempson’s installation ‘Friends and acquaintances’ prompts the viewer to question the symbology and locate the underlying narrative. As national emblems of China, New Zealand, Pakistan, etc, this childish vocabulary takes pot shots at the order / disorder of world power politics particularly with reference to “the rise of China and possible decline of the US”.

Forging friendships with “dialogue and deference”, Kempson advocates people-to-people contact, independent of treaty obligations. Technically Kempson’s apparently banal, populist toy imagery is meticulously and lovingly rendered with extreme attention to detail and precision — an ethos we equate with the miniature mannerism here.

Acrylic silkscreen print series, “Perceive-Conceive” by Rak comprise bobblehead figurines in national costumes. Composed entirely of digital barcode imagery, mainly used for scanning of trade items at the point of sale, these bobblehead caricatures delete the element of ‘authenticity’ inherent in national identities by reducing them to cheap consumerist souvenir items. Technically imaginative but laughably naïve to look at, the works illustrate the artist’s premise “that in an all-encompassing consumer culture we become stereotypes.”

The impossibility / complexity of squaring the circle defines Abdullah’s stance on maintaining a ‘Semblance of Order’. His etched, embossed, sugar-lift and aquatint on paper prints wrestle with the circle (as target, skull cap, solar and lunar haloes), to articulate his engagement with conceptual and technical dilemmas.

Deciphering Ahmed’s coded vocabulary is not for the fainthearted. A needle cutting through a glaring spread of red is a chilling visual of pain and injury even though she stabilises the breach with a screen of ruptured marks. The order / disorder here is at the onlookers discretion — either enjoy the surface appeal of the print as a tame needle and stitch work exercise or linger and give meaning to an implied injury and feel the gravity of the wound.

Zafar articulates the need for essential freedoms by creating bandaged / gagged images deprived of sight, speech and conscious movement. In this exhibition his prints portray his typical heavily stressed baby animals as mutants morphing into abnormal beings — a state of extreme imbalance.

As a composite show ‘Semblance’ highlights Abdullah’s curatorial range. Having already established his credentials as curator on the domestic front he manifests his professionalism in organising and facilitating an Aussie / Pak cross-cultural collaboration that adds breadth to our print aesthetic and gently prods it forward.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 21st, 2014