Clan (diptych)
Clan (diptych)

The solo exhibition titled Something Else, held recently at the Koel Gallery, in Karachi, points towards subliminal messages that are a hallmark of artist Rabeya Jalil’s work. Over 30 artworks were on display in the show. The artist came down for the show from Lahore where she has taught at the Beaconhouse National University (BNU) for the past three years and has recently moved to her alma mater, the National College of Arts (NCA), as associate professor of fine arts.

Her artwork ‘My Dog’ has over two dozen identical, extremely menacing dogs (makes one doubtful of the title, as Jalil is claiming ownership of the animal) and evokes these lines from Julie Andrew’s famous song, My Favourite Things:

“When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so bad…”

Rabeya Jalil’s show displays the artist’s raw energy and her attempt to move towards abstraction

There are several other paintings with animals. For example, ‘Toiling Kittens’ is a set of four acrylic and screen prints, while ‘Clan’ has a rather cross-eyed feline, and the lions in it wear a crown. However, during our conversation, the artist revealed that she utterly dislikes animals. A difficult claim to absorb as the presence of pets as well as wild animal, in her many acrylics and screen prints (done mostly on board) defies this proclamation. “But I do like to animalise my forms,” is how she justifies it.

Most of Jalil’s works are diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to keep the option of opening up and adding on. “The fragmentation is part of the energy [in the work],” she says. It is interesting to note how this divulges yet disguises or conceals. Take the example of her ‘Self-portrait’ that has four small boards of four inches into five inches each, in which ‘mark-making’ has been done. Indeed, such is life and its complexities that one cannot really know people from their outward appearances only. Jalil’s lines seem anxious and they challenge the viewer to unfurl their forms layer-by-layer.

Behind
Behind

When she was teaching at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi (from 2007 to 2015), Jalil had worked with children on wall murals (Bachon se Tabdeeli) together with Shahana Rajani. It was one of the Peace Walls project sponsored by ‘I Am Karachi,’ and that is when I had first come in contact with her.

Calling her art ‘child-like’ is to state the obvious, but there is much more to it than what meets the eye, as most of her works have a latent darkness.

Despite the artist’s assertion that when her work is giving away too much, she wants to stop right there so that it is ambiguous, there are a handful of canvases — such as ‘Spectacles’, ‘Export Quality’ and ‘Behind’ — that are not wholly abstract. ‘Behind’, in particular, exposes a lot and leaves the viewer utterly disturbed as the fear in the skull-cap-donning young boy’s eyes and his awkward pose combined with the title of the work says it all — that the child is being abused.

Jalil has worked with school art teachers and children from diverse backgrounds, including those with special needs. She holds a masters in art education and an MPhil from Columbia University, US. Something Else displays the artist’s raw energy, instigating debate and attempting to move away from representation towards abstraction. In fact, this is something the artist has been doing ever since 2013.

Despite being an academic, her work could be construed as ‘anti-academic’ due to how she has chosen to represent it. However, this outwardly cheerful show — as Jalil’s colours are unabashedly vibrant — has a woebegone quality that presents itself as the viewer moves from one canvas to another.

“Something Else” was held at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from August 28 until September 6, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 16th, 2018

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