National delusion, Ahsan Jamal
National delusion, Ahsan Jamal

Giving visual definition to a psychological issue, the current exhibition at the Sanat Gallery, Karachi, titled Narcissus Reborn is curated by Asim Akhtar, and features artists such as Aakif Suri Ahsan Jamal, Alina Akbar, Babar Gull, Faizan Naveed, Hadia Moiz, Madiha Sikander, Mudassar Manzoor, Nida Bangash, Sana Kazi, Sobia Ahmed, and Wardha Shabbir. According to the curatorial brief, the exhibition examines “Narcissus, and narcissism as structural and theoretical, as well as narrative or illustrative impulses.”

A potent subject for artists for more than 2,000 years, Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance. According to Roman poet Ovid, when Narcissus, a hero of Greek mythology spurned the love of a nymph called Echo, she appealed to the goddess Nemesis for revenge. Nemesis cast an evil spell on him. Narcissus saw his own image in a pool of water and fell in love with it. Spellbound, he wasted away, mesmerised by his own beauty reflected on the water surface. He left his name both to the narcissus (daffodil) that sprang up on the banks where he died, and to psychology.

The conceptual elements of Ovid’s Narcissus exploring literal and metaphorical self-reflection, mirroring and doubling, endure as compelling subjects today and artists in Narcissus Reborn build on these cues. However, some of the artists’ unique skill sets and innovative techniques (related to their essential grounding in conventional miniature art) take precedence over their articulation of narcissism.


An exhibition that examines the conceptual elements of Narcissus and narcissism and explores the literal and metaphorical self-reflection


Sana Kazi’s portrayal of Narcissus, in ‘Beyond logic and proportion’, centres on competent studies of agonised Greek figures, but it is her unusual, hand-pressed photo-transfer technique, graphite drawings, and gouache splashes on ash covered wasli that first impact the eye.

Similarly, it is the delicacy, purity, and organic beauty of Nida Bangash’s ‘Tree of life’, letterpress printing, and use of natural pigments on paper that fascinates the viewer.

Twins, by their very existence challenge our notions of individual identity and uniqueness, as well as representation of a true soulmate or an alter ego. Several artists in this show play on images of duality, symbolising sameness and difference, or harmony and conflict.

Technique and concept are at par in Alina Akbar’s ‘This versus that’, where oddly patterned pen and gouache figures of impish, leprechaun-like twins confront each other. Similarly Cupid’s arrows aimed at the twins, in Sobia Ahmed’s contemporary miniatures, ‘Reflection 1 and 2’, are self-explanatory.

Madiha Sikander’s monochrome watercolour images (mimicking black and white photographs) of two boys, Dulha and Babu, highlight her stance on identity problems and her considerable painting skills to achieve photo finish effects. It is like talking about the obsessive nature of the artistic process, similarly exploring their inability to tear themselves away from their own image (i.e. their own development as artists).

Tree of life III, Nida Banhash
Tree of life III, Nida Banhash

Using narcissistic paranoia symbolically, Faizan Naveed’s archival print, ‘Anomalous relationships’, in which the artist challenges the obsessive nature of the miniature process, and its orthodox mannerism by playing with camera shots and digital improvisations. By printing a mechanical steel sculpted Mughal prince against a super modern female counterpart, he stages a confrontation between tradition and modernity at the human and social levels.

Faintly reminiscent of Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, Aakif Suri’s partial portraiture speaks of an identity crisis and eventual self-annihilation.

Wardha Shabbir’s ‘You love me ... love me not’, petal and stripped (of petals) flower image is simple, direct and visually appealing.

Mudassar Manzoor’s painting of an open wound is paired with another where the injury sprouts narcissus blooms. Hadia Moiz takes a jab at personality flux by painting a dancing figure with an ambiguous identity. Ahsan Jamal’s ‘National delusion’ features a raring white horse signifying unbridled self-regard and extreme narcissism.

Untitled, Aakif Suri
Untitled, Aakif Suri

The current selfie-obsessed culture, psychoanalysis hysteria and social media excesses have given a new and dangerous dimension to the age old Narcissus myth. Social scientists now claim that it is on the verge of becoming a modern ‘epidemic’. Technically well-executed, Narcissus Reborn offers engaging but conventional depictions of the narcissistic syndrome. The curator’s selection of artists, regarding working skills is sound; the artists have just not pushed the envelope to tap into recent developments. Today, there are nearly 1.09 billion active Facebook users worldwide. The internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2016

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