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Pop art: Questions of perception

April 19, 2015


You can never step in the same river twice, Madiha Sikander
You can never step in the same river twice, Madiha Sikander

Traditionally, ‘realism’ is the belief that things exist independent of our perceptions of them. In art, the genre makes an effort to transform the artist’s perception, to a physical form of what is perceived — a project long ceded, in modern times, to photography. “Missing” which opened at the Canvas Art Gallery, Karachi, recently and features traditional oil painting as well as modern digital printing techniques, disprove the popular notion that contemporary art has little use for realism.

The exhibition features the work of three emerging artists: Madiha Hyder, Madiha Sikander and Rehana Mangi. All three’s work is figurative and evocative in a unique and personal manner. Hyder’s work, meticulously painted layer by layer in oil paint, uses the Old Master’s technique to create a very modern body of work. In contrast, Sikander and Mangi mix old and new media to achieve their aesthetic -- Skinader’s is rustic, mature and fragile, while Mangi’s creates an interesting and bizarre visual dialogue.

There is an unsettling quality about Hyder’s large canvases with cropped figures, none of whose faces can be seen. Hyper-realistically painted and dexterous where detail is concerned (the fold of a sleeve, the auburn hint in a strand of hair), there is an existentialist quality to the work which is achieved by Hyder’s insistence at understanding moments and their influence through the touch of her brush. There is a difference between what is and what is perceived – Hyder’s work is a beautiful marriage of the two. By omitting the faces and hence the “face-value” of things as Hyder puts it, she is able to create a narrative that is just as loaded with complexity as it is overwhelmed with the banality of life. The composition of each piece is striking. The subject occupies just a fourth of the canvas, while the foggy, dirty beige of thick, mysterious negative space occupies the rest. The end result: rich but taciturn, vivid but subtle.

The three-artist show challenges the accepted notion that realism has lost its significance in contemporary art

Sikander pairs the 16th century Iranian technique of ‘Siyah Qalam’ (Black Pen) with her 21st century digital archival prints. The work is based on the artist’s personal photographs of people, some dating back to pre-partition, that were damaged over time. A certain degree of romanticism has been exercised in the handling of each piece, evident in everything from the careful selection of subject matter to the medium used to exhibit it.

The work conveys a yearning for a bygone era, a sense of loss for a much purer time that today, can only exist as memories. The damage to the photographs enhances the beauty of each piece, emulates the sense of loss and ties together the different facets that make up this body of work. Sikander aptly uses the medium of print for what it was intentioned: to save a moment in history. While the absence of a face marks Hyder’s work, the individuality of the person featured is what characterizes Sikander’s work; its specificity is what is most poignant.

Parda (curtain), Rehana Mangi
Parda (curtain), Rehana Mangi

Mangi also makes use of print by combining it with acrylic in her work. She uses hair as a metaphor for loss and death, and uses it to understand and explain cultural nuances. How does one culture or a particular gender react to bodily hair? Some pieces feature shirtless men, who are clearly comfortable being photographed this way despite the fact that they are not in the prime of their lives. Another piece features a much younger and fit man but his face is concealed under a thick layer of acrylic paint. The difference being that the men, whose faces were not covered, had chest hair and were thus more confident. Mangi’s work raises the question ‘Is culture teaching us to be ashamed of the way we are?’

So to people questioning whether realism has a place is art today, I suggest them to visit the Gallery. Realism, because of its literal stylistic quality, lends itself to the most innovative of interpretations. That is reality.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 19th, 2015

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