Sanat Initiative has recently been relocated to a large warehouse which has been converted into an art gallery. The new gallery space provided a compelling location for a solo show titled, Politics of Being Human, which displays Khalil Chishtee’s sculptural works in steel.
The area where the gallery is located is removed from the ‘mainstream’ gallery circuit in Clifton and, in fact, seems much further than the 15-minute drive from the elite areas. By virtue of this distancing, it makes the gallery visitors negotiate art in the context of the larger city. One viewer remarked, “This is the ‘real city’ outside the bubble of elite art spaces.” Chishtee’s figurative and text-based artworks seem to echo dislocation on many levels and could not have found a better context to be viewed in.
At first glance, the work appears lost and distant due to the vacant expanse of the gallery space. It is in close proximity that the works begin to speak, and the faint shadows of the calligraphic form begin to tell a story. This duality reinforces the paradox of meanings in Chishtee’s oeuvre, of what is visible and what is concealed. The stenciled steel appears as a design with text inscribed in Urdu that is difficult to decipher. It is ‘seen’ almost as a sacred text, inscribed by a master calligrapher or khattaat, which on closer look reveals itself as ordinary words jumbled and superimposed in a beautiful Islamic design.
Khalil Chishtee’s aesthetics blur the line between text and image
The artist plays with words as well as with images, inverting the function of each. For example, ‘Ideal Cage’ appears at first to be a traditional Islamic design with Arabic text. The inscribed text, however, is Allama Iqbal’s famous verse, ‘khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehlay/ khuda banday se khud poochay, bata teri raza kya hai’ [Make your self-respect so strong that while writing your fate, God himself asks you, what you want to be written in your fate]. Chishtee overlaps the poet’s message first by concealing it and framing it as a design, and also dissociating it by implying it as a cage. The figure within it is the protagonist, the artist and possibly also the viewer.
In ‘Old Man’s Anthem’, Chishtee deflates the idea of nationalism through his depiction of an old man, who seems to be ‘carrying’ the weight of words as baggage or a burden. The words he carries are the Urdu national anthem of Pakistan. The artist’s aesthetics emerge as if from conversations many of us would have on the ruling elite, the volatile political history of the country and the everyday headlines we read in Urdu newspapers. In the artwork ‘Headline 1’, the written text bleeds, depicting the state under the ruling authority in the country.
Few would know that Chishtee’s earliest influence came from Sadequain, who was impressed by his drawings and invited the young Chishtee, barely in class five or six at the time, to draw in his studio in Lawrence Gardens in 1975-76. It is not only the text or the black line — perhaps internalised from his mentor’s influence — but also the depiction of pathos that seeps into the artist’s oeuvre and practice. If it comes through Sadequain’s angst, it also addresses itself through personal pain and/or the desire to confront one’s demons through the inscription of Mirza Ghalib’s verses.
An image of Christ on the cross, in ‘An apology to Sheikh Ayaz and Other Regional Poets’ references Ghalib. The artist makes himself vulnerable and connects to the pain around him and, in turn, the potent image critiques the history of pain inflicted in the name of all religions.
Ibn-e-Mariyam hua karay koi
Mere dukh ki dawa karay koi
“Politics of Being Human” was displayed at Sanat Initiative in Karachi from October 25 to November 5, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 10th, 2019