Encouraging new skill sets

Published August 9, 2015
184 minutes of fame, Mohsin Shafi / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
184 minutes of fame, Mohsin Shafi / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Just a year old but already standing tall Sanat Gallery, Karachi, celebrates its first anniversary with “Milestone”, a multi-artist show. Featuring works of artists chosen from the roster of year-long exhibitions held at the gallery, the exhibition pick illustrates Sanat’s ability to locate, nurture and spotlight fresh talent with particular emphasis on innovative expressions in experimental and multimedia arts.

The gallery also encourages emerging artists from diverse, often underprivileged backgrounds, who are negotiating the heartland and metropolitan divide to advantageous effect. In the current crop a number of artists hail from distant towns, districts and remote areas and their art, distilled through the country’s leading (art) institutions, pulses with a new synergy.

Unlike pointed political content that jumps out of most new art it is radical use of new media that engages the viewer in the Sanat show. Calligraphy as art / painting primarily revolves around sacred text in Pakistan (even though in other Muslim countries the Arabic script itself, minus the Quranic specificity, is being rendered in very imaginative ways) but it was the cut and paste use of the written words in Ghulam Mohammed’s paper collage on wasli that gave the script a new dimension. A huge mass of intricate Urdu fine print precisely cut as individual words / alphabets were pasted, a word at a time, on wasli with acrylic glue. Like the dense pile of a shaggy rug the pasted words carpeting the wasli, with some shag spilling out of the frame, simply demanded inquiry.

In his childhood Mohammed, hailing from Kachi, near Sibi in Balochistan, grappled with the primacy and complexity of Urdu vis-a-vis his native tongue and later during his art schooling at Beaconhouse National University he was challenged by the dominance of English. His take on the issue of language as an identity marker has prompted this play with script where the written word is image and medium simultaneously.


The experimental use of new media engages the viewers in the Sanat Gallery show


For Mohsin Shafi, from Sahiwal, art centres on oblique political commentaries and surreal vignettes of cultural transitions but it is the high end artistry he brings to the cut and paste craft of collage that sets him apart. Unfortunately he has experienced that “collage, montage, inkjet prints and the found objects that I use in my practise are still not considered to be as ‘valuable’ or worthy of the same appreciation as more traditionalist techniques such as, for example, miniature painting.” He further adds, “I am still struggling to justify that my work is not just cut and paste but has much more to offer. Also in terms of the content, I have been facing really difficult times catering people to digest my visual narratives smoothly.”

Untitled, Zahid Mayo
Untitled, Zahid Mayo

Eyelets, the kind that adorn shoes for laces to pass through, are a very unconventional art medium, yet Hunerkada graduate Abid Aslam saw them as enlarged forms of the miniature pardakht (minute stippling), hence an effective picture making tool. Pointillism and Seuret’s riverside paintings ‘Bathers at Asnières’ or his large-scale work, ‘A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte’ are other close references that powered his massive eyelet covered, ‘Welcome summer’, diptych also centralising on river / canal bathing.

Unlike the traditional oil on canvas / board Suleman Aqeel Khilji from Quetta chose to paint his version of an emaciated Christ on a printed bed sheet. Coming face to face with Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc, on a National College of Arts (NCA) sponsored trip to the museums of Paris prompted the artist to investigate his own art practice. Painted on an unorthodox media like an ordinary bed sheet printed with cars, bicycles and airplanes, ‘Keep moving 11’ relooks at renaissance painting through a contemporary populist lens.

The remaining ‘Milestone’ collection in traditional media like gouache on wasli, graphite on paper, oil on canvas and watercolour on archival paper has some sizzling compositions centred on gender issues and cultural concerns which establishes that there is much more to art here than just fiery political content.

The clever use of new media also has some bearing on the high art / low craft divide. The artists who belong to the semi-urban or hinterland areas have an instinctive understanding and empathy for craft. Skilled in new media productions these artists are closer to a crafting ethos than a traditional drawing or painting process. This inherent knowledge may not bridge the divide but it does create a linking space between the two opposing ends. The highly intricate workmanship noticeable in some of the Sanat artworks also mimics the miniature discipline in attitude. The imaginative productions rely on precision and complexity, and this novel variety of skill sets can lead to new entries in the art dialogue here.

For a fledgling gallery expected to take baby steps, Sanat with 15 exhibitions, two artists residencies, two collaborative projects which include the screening of a short film and 16 publications in one year, is already walking the extra mile (examining new ideas and expansion possibilities) towards an international presence.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 9th, 2015

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