Art fiend: Getting there

Published September 6, 2015
Shrek being caressed by a lady of the court
Shrek being caressed by a lady of the court

The funny thing about humorous art is that it can ‘disrupt’ a situation and, in a split second, draw the viewer in or allow something else out. Hosted by Sanat, Farhat Ali’s recent exhibition “How did I get here?” does just that. The subversive content impacts the mind and its comic articulation tickles the funny bone almost simultaneously. Worked in gouache on wasli the paintings are layered with meaning and technical artistry which prompts inquiry but the witty encounters between Mughal royalty (of miniature art) and contemporary cartoon characters are pure entertainment.

A native of Badin in Sindh, Ali’s association with art began as a signboard painter. After 10 years of billboard painting he enrolled to study at the Centre of Excellence in Art and Design at Jamshoro from where he progressed to NCA for his BFA. Carrying within him the attributes of both formal and informal art-making, he responds well to the current postmodern arts liberating philosophy — the freedom to create as we want without restrictions in form, style and materials. In his current compositions he mixes genres, media and traditional as well as unusual concepts with considerable ease. Placing members of the Mughal court in questionable situations with icons of the cartoon fraternity, Ali creates imaginary encounters between unlikely couples. This emphasis on the absurd ‘out of place-ness’ of his characters justifies the title of his exhibition, How did I get here?


In the high-low art world of today, humour crosses many divides


He paints a sprightly Tom (from the cartoon Tom and Jerry) cradling in the lap of a Mughal courtesan while a dashing Johnny Bravo charms another with a rose. Shrek is caressed by a lady of the court, Aladdin romances a Mughal princess and a valiant Lancelot appears concerned as a choli-clad damsel pulls a thorn out of her foot. A funny scene is enacted when Scrat the acorn-obsessed sabre-toothed squirrel (from the cartoon film Ice Age), attempting to store his prized acorn, fearfully implores for his nut from a Mughal king who holds it up for scrutiny. While most of the paintings answer the query, How did I get here?, to some degree, the one most directly relevant relates to Superman’s descent to the ground where he is immediately accosted by a Mughal warrior. He probably wonders: How did I get here?

Beyond the immediate element of humour the improbable encounters and liaisons between the protagonists spark debate on their implausibility. By “disrupting” how we understand something, we are more likely to question its fundamental existence and Ali’s cameos provoke enquiry on several issues. The most obvious inconsistency is the East West variance. His comic approach diffuses the inevitable clash of civilisations between a classical 15th century South Asian era and contemporary Western society. He creates interactive moments between his characters without either losing his or her cultural identity. Is there a lesson to be learned here, especially if seen in the light of lingering postcolonial identity confusions?

Tom and the Mughal courtesan
Tom and the Mughal courtesan

With the increase of populist elements in the current postmodern climate the divide between high and low art has lost its edge. By blurring the lines between the fine art of miniature painting concerned primarily with aesthetics and cartoon art created purely for commercial consumption Ali erodes the distinctions between high and popular culture. Similarly three dimensional animated cartoon characters devolve easily onto flat two dimensional surfaces of the miniature wasli to co-mingle with the Mughal aristocracy.

Ali’s art content is weird and ludicrous but also inventive and inherent with messages of love, peace and harmony. Ideas are born from re-appropriating existing thoughts and concepts and attempting to disrupt or challenge notions of what came before. It is this point of disruption that allows for exploration and creativity to emerge.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 6th, 2015

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