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Updated May 13, 2017


Negotiating the Lotus Wilderness (1)
Negotiating the Lotus Wilderness (1)

Surrealism enjoys a prestigious place in art history as an avant-garde movement that sought to unlock creativity by accessing the unconscious mind. The beauty of Surrealism is its timelessness — even years after a movement goes out of style, it attracts enthusiasts who can still be found retrofitting their work with homage to a bygone era for the sake of adequate self-expression, or simply in the name of nostalgia.

Shakil Saigol’s latest body of work exhibited at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi, does exactly that with a string of exquisite works that take him back to his 30-year-old obsession. The artist explains that he was beginning to question the meticulousness of his art practice and whether it restrained his creative impulses, and decided to let loose and paint what he wished. Accessing the deep crevasses of his mind he brought forth fantastical imagery about anything and everything.

As is true for all surrealists, Saigol’s work also makes use of recurring symbols throughout the show, which in some cases change meaning from one painting to another. While some of these appear as personal motifs from his past or from his everyday life, others are nods to some of his inspirational heroes. The elongated legs of the zebra in ‘Zebra Phantasma I’ are inspired by Salvador Dali’s elongated horse and elephant legs in his ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ and ‘The Elephants’. The vivid greens and abundant vegetation in a dream-like atmosphere seems to be a tribute to Rousseau, and the style of the self-portraits is reminiscent of Frida Kahlo, while the presence of monkeys in a couple of pieces is a tribute to both.

Shakil Saigol revisits his earlier obsession by accessing the deep crevasses of his mind to bring forth a blend of reality and imagination

The lotus leaf that can be seen throughout the works is not only a call back to his Indian origins where the flower is abundant, but also his tribute to A. Ramachandran whose paintings frequently feature them. In the “Negotiating the Lotus Wilderness” series we see a female figure, assumed to be the artist’s granddaughter, dressed in white flying through a forest of tall lotus leaves which can be seen as their attempt at negotiating their past with their present, or perhaps a negotiation between two generations. ‘Revenge of the Lotus’ thus becomes a rather poignant piece in this context.

These works are also important to the artist as he unveils his two granddaughters as his muses as they appear in a number of the pieces. We also see his wife in one of the pieces next to a self-portrait which both seem to depict their inherent dichotomous natures — the artist himself possessing a fiery passion and creativity while his other half is more introverted and subdued, attempting to hide behind her gossamer hands.

A Zebrascape Odyssey I
A Zebrascape Odyssey I

The various juxtaposing animals, human figures, vegetation and objects make for a bizarre set of visuals, which become more unsettling due to the realism of their depiction. In ‘A Zebrascape Odyssey I’ and II’, we see two faces covered in stripes overpowered in the frame by a herd of zebras in a cacophony of stripes. Zebras are social animals known to have a strong sense of community which serves as camouflage, turning this into a commentary on an individual’s attempts at changing themselves in order to adhere to societal norms for the sake of security, losing their own individuality in the process. ‘And Still the Ravens Never Fluttered’ reads as a middle-aged man’s insecurities about old age and failing health embedded in the barren tree and black birds, yet also of the wisdom, maturity and stability that the years bring. This theme is repeated in the pieces ‘Labyrinth of Amputations’ and ‘Zebra Phantasma II’.

The paintings display a stylistic shift for the artist, albeit with a few remnants of his previous work which compelled the curator, Sameera Raja, to dub this body of work his retrospective of sorts. In the absence of an underlying theme, this show reads as a tribute to the Surrealist movement itself, exploring countless introspective subjects while keeping itself open to interpretation. Thus, it becomes as engaging for the viewer to speculate and extract meaning from it as it evidently was for the artist to dream up.

“Surrealism Revisited” was displayed at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from April 25 till May 4, 2017

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017