Works on display at the Sanat Initiative for ‘Friday’ by Muhammad Zeeshan
Works on display at the Sanat Initiative for ‘Friday’ by Muhammad Zeeshan

A surge of the ‘Black Friday Sale’ phenomenon, made popular by the West, has hit Pakistan. Though under the guise of ‘blessed’ or ‘white’ (because Friday is never black in Pakistan), the premise of offering discounts to customers for a limited time is identical to the Western precursor. Originating in America, this Friday occurs right after Thanksgiving and offers jaw-dropping discounts, while steadily improving sales margins each year. This year, the ‘black’ spectacle oozed its way through to the Sanat Initiative as a solo exhibition of works by Muhammad Zeeshan titled ‘Friday’ was held accompanied by a talk and dramatic reading.

While the Sanat Gallery teased about a possible sale of the acclaimed artist’s work, it was quite impossible to believe. In art circles, the eccentric Zeeshan is known for engaging his audience in daring new performances. How does one fathom a sale on an otherwise exclusive commodity? However, the gallery morphed into a seemingly local retail shop, presenting its customers with several new pieces plus editions by the artist at a whopping ‘up to 70 percent’ discount.

As an artist known to produce innovative work periodically, the show displayed some of Zeeshan’s most iconic themes, somewhat encapsulating his entire practice. Directly in contrast to the ostentatious display of wealth and power at the recent pre-wedding celebration of the Ambanis in India, the discounted art show provided agency to the masses instead of just a select few. The display delineated the role of consumerism in everyday life while also questioning the role of the collector and exclusivity of artworks’ ownership.

The sale of Muhammad Zeeshan’s artworks at 70 percent discount in a solo show was commentary on the commercialism of the art world today

During the talk conducted by Abid Merchant, the artist was asked if such a risk would pose a challenge on future sales. To this he recalled previous plummets in sales but yet being able to survive. Zeeshan went on to explain that he views art as a career and not a hobby. Having a profession that he enjoys is an added bonus, but the

making of work is always looked at professionally for which he has been criticised for being commercial.

Ideas of commercialism, which also stem from his first job as a signboard painter, seem to be embedded in the artist, which, in turn, were eventually explored in his practice. In installations such as ‘Hard Cash, Art Cash’ he commodifies the art experience by exchanging coins for ‘work’ that were equivalent to the value, while in ‘Car Of Art’s Sake’, his used car, holding his artworks was sold.

The talk was followed by the launch of the artist’s monograph, Muhammad Zeeshan 1990s-2018, which presented a collection of writings and artworks of the past decades. Interestingly, numerous works in the book were completely blackened out while others were partially censored with the ‘rolling eyes’ emoji; but this is not the first time Zeeshan has had to deal with censorship. The display of his recent works, ‘Yeh Pyara Parchum’ was prevented at Art Dubai 2018 as a result of controversy surrounding his juxtaposition of certain imagery and text.

While talking to Merchant, the artist mentions that his use of certain taboo items in his work come from a place of “masoomiat” or innocence, but is unfortunately perceived negatively. This innocent demeanour was then reiterated in the final act of the evening — a dramatic reading titled ‘What Caste Are You?’ which was translated by Khalid Ahmad and written and read by writer Bee Gul. The writing was a poetic tale about the early and college years of Zeeshan.

The sale lasted for four days and could perhaps be seen as a performance by the artist, one that warrants artistic merit as it provided an apt reflection of the professional art world today.

“Friday” by Muhammad Zeeshan was displayed at the Sanat Initiative, Karachi from November 23 to November 26, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 23rd, 2018

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