I made my first-ever visit to the Sanat Initiative to view Syed Hassan Mujtaba’s solo exhibition titled Between Black And White. Before I delve into the details of the artworks, it should be mentioned that children are the focus of his black and white visuals. The white-washed interior of Sanat Gallery echoed Mujtaba’s achromatic work. The drawings housed in this pillared, white space automatically led me to assume that the imagery was of refugee children or children who are struggling in life.
The timing of Mujtaba’s show is very relevant — it’s being held at a time when children are the focus of news channels all over the world — be it in relation to President Donald Trump’s détention centres for children separated from their parents at Mexican borders or young refugee children migrating for a better life without adult guardians. In a global context, the exhibition Between Black And White is befitting. Art has always been a reflection of life and society and in Pakistan it is almost invariably political. It is this milieu that Mujtaba’s practice seems to aspire to be a part of — though I might add it is perfectly fine to not be political.
In my opinion, Mujtaba’s works would still be attractive irrespective of an elaborate political context as merely observational studies. In fact, at first glance, I did assume that the realistic charcoal and lead drawings of children were observational studies, but then I noticed the rock formations that served as the lower half of the children’s bodies in the series titled Carvings of the Tender VI-XI.
An exhibition focuses on the plight of marginalised children in Pakistan
Mujtaba obviously draws inspiration from his surroundings. The jubilant faces of the children in his drawings reflect a common sight on the streets of cities in Pakistan. Even though his main subject is young children, the works can distinctly be divided into two: where one is a series of drawings of happy children with infectious laughter on their carefree faces while the other set of drawings is more ambiguous, with a lack of faces, a representation of children identified as such by their school uniforms and body language. The first variety of children seems to be carved out of rock. The rock formations suggest stunted or anchored growth with little or no opportunity for development. The detail on the faces is skilful, however, midway, where the bodies morph into rock, they lack the same kind of attention to detail.
The second variety of drawings, of children attending educational institutions, would generally suggest better opportunity in life, but since these portraits don’t have faces and feature the backs of children, it implies the worst. There is a critical dullness in the uniformity evident in the two pieces titled ‘An Appointed Play’ and ‘Imitation I’, suggesting a capping of imaginative growth, streamlining thinking and stifling of ideas that may be an unfortunate part of becoming an adult through any institution.
There is another piece included in the show, a minimalist drawing depicting a scene of pilgrimage (Hajj), aptly titled ‘Pilgrims’. Unfortunately, I failed to see a connection between this drawing and the rest of the exhibition. The works in the exhibition are bold, skilled drawings that reflect Mujtaba’s concern with the 60 percent of the population often termed as the ‘youth bulge.’ The subject has great potential and hopefully the artist will tap into it further to develop this oeuvre.
“Between Black And White” was exhibited at the Sanat Initiative in Karachi from July 24 to August 7, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 19th, 2018