— Photos by Mohammad Asim
— Photos by Mohammad Asim

ISLAMABAD: A solo exhibition of Irfan Cheema’s latest work, Repose, which opened at the Tanzara Gallery on Wednesday, featured detailed oil paintings by the Shanghai-based Pakistani artist, who produces detailed oil paintings of birds, fruits, flowers and in this collection seashells and silver, set against backdrops of tapestries and Kashmiri shawls.

His compositions are classic still life, with the placement and hierarchy reflecting the dialogue and interplay between objects. Balanced, often strongly hued, narrating a context and story, each canvas invites the viewer to study individual components while being bemused by the whole.

“I am obsessed with composition, how things are placed. My show is titled Repose, which is about calm, the end of the day, a state of rest and that is apparent in all the paintings in one way or the other,” he said.

Mr Cheema’s training as a fashion designer, and what he says is a love for textiles that pre-dates his education, is evident in many of the works that build on luxurious or historically significant fabrics behind the objects of his study. A particularly eye-catching grouping was that of the three floral paintings set against tapestries.

He said: “This year what is very specific about this show is that it is the first time I am painting tapestries – they come as a background and in one case I have placed it on the table. These are Flemish-French tapestries, called the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’, dating back to the 16th-17th century. They talk about an elusive ideal, a unicorn, that people are trying to capture. The three canvases tell the story - the first about purity where all the flowers have cultural connotations celebrating chastity, matrimony and purity; the second moves on to love and romance with brightly coloured peonies and the third with poppies and sunflower. Poppies are identified with hallucinogens, but they also allude to out of body experience and spirituality, while sunflowers follow the sun.”

Mr Cheema draws what are essentially episodes of his life, as he explained: “All the fruit is from my yard – so throughout the summer I see all these birds. I don’t pick the fruit so they gather to eat the strawberries, blueberries and I see it all from my window. That is the whole visual and the connection between nature and us – part of it is lost, some I’m trying to capture”.

He said his fascination with flowers stems from childhood memories; his mother who picked jasmine daily and kept it around the home and his scholarly tendencies led him to explore the symbolism of all the components that find their way into their paintings. Also apparent are the many cultural connections he has made; he lives in China, hence the choice of Chinese pottery.

Within the exhibition, there is a set of paintings unlike any that Mr Cheema has publicly shown before. He said that his earliest works were seashells and that while many aspects of nature fascinate him, seashells are special.

He added: “When we see birds, like a peacock, or a bright flower, the evolution of their characteristics is connected to their survival. Seashells are beautiful for no reason and when you look at the geometry of seashells, they have fascinated artists and scientists, alike, for centuries.”

Using a compressed palate, he has done a series of paintings with seashells against silver objects, often in diffused light with the silver reflecting their surroundings. This set, more than any other captures the essence of how Mr Cheema uses light and sees it as a fluid living thing.

Art critic Aasim Akhtar commented on Mr Cheema’s immaculate approach, saying: “He has done these meticulously. I like the seashells more than the fruits and flowers, because they are more serene and the palate which is earthy. This time he has also painted the silver and porcelain beautifully. His paint handling is amazing; you have to be enormously patient to handle the paint as he does.”

Noshi Qadir, the director of Tanzara Gallery, said: “Beauty seems to be almost embedded within the very subject he paints. His work celebrates nature, life and heritage of the places he has visited, lived in and loved!”

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2020