Amidst concerns and precautions for Covid-19, London`s Grosvenor Gallery, in association with Karachi`s Canvas Gallery, opened its doors to an exhibition of three Pakistani artists Faiza Butt, Ali Kazim and Salman Toor. Form and Figure, Bodies in Art, curated by art historian Zehra Jumabhoy, zooms in on the representation of human figures in Pakistani art and concerns emerging from power struggles, be they societal, religious or commercial.
Butt`s work is layered with concerns that are pertinent to many contemporary female artists.
Each of her artworks included in the show is a spectacle, owing to its colour and composition.
Rendered in tiny dots of vivid colours, her technique is reminiscent of Impressionist painters such as Georges Seurat. However, for Butt, this method of painting references the meticulous technique of pardakht in miniature painting. She aims to subvert the male gaze by making portraits of men who, at first glance, look like Taliban lighters.
In `Get Out Of My Dreams 5`, Butt surrounds her male protagonists with a cloud of consumerist symbols and products, from plastic Evian water bottles to sneakers and flip-flops.
Hidden in the medley are also objects such as guns and skulls, camouflaged by pixel-like marks that give the painting a digital finish.
The juxtaposition of opposing and unconnected subjects, i.e., religious extremists and consumer commodities, alludes to the idea that the Taliban and Islamist terrorism may be as much a work of media and capitalism as is consumerism.
Three out of four of Kazim`s striking and skilled portraits are set against a saturated colour that not only contrasts the delicate imagery, it also competes with the subject; the human faces are in the forefront and rest against the bold colours but the blocked-out colour does not merely serve as the background.
Conceptually, the four untitled paintings are part of the series `Man of Faith and Woman of Faith`. They are a continuation of Kazim`s previous work, which was an inquiry into the pre-Islamic Indus Valley and Harappan artefacts.
Using watercolour and pigment on paper, the artist`s work pulls the viewer in. Similar to a miniature painting, one is able to see and appreciate the liner details of the portraits, be they facial features, shadows, tattoos or hair.
Toor`s practice thus far has been a visual documentation of contemporary urban life. It is rife with a vivid and apparent class disparity prevalent in Pakistani society. However, two new paintings made particularly for this exhibition are akin to two sides of the same coin. Although these, too, represent power relationships, the artist`s observations of life in Lahore have switched to his experience of living in Brooklyn, where he is now based.
Where the painting titled `Take Away` comments upon freedom to act upon desires and choices and live unencumbered by societaltaboos and expectations the other piece, titled `Green Group`, comments upon a kind of powerlessless experienced in relation to being scrutinised and subdued.
Toor elucidates this piece by relating it to immigration queues at airports. Painted in a luminescent green colour, `Green Group` reflects an eerie stillness, a dark and morbid environment. The figures in this piece are huddled together, executed in the artist`s characteristic style, with elongated, bulbous noses and sunken eyes that are cast downward as they are caught in a moment moving forward from their last step to their next in arobotic and timid manner.
The exhibition is a visual treat, highlighting the diverse oeuvres of three established artists.
However, the gallery remained mostly empty for the opening because of the coronavirus. Luckily, technology saved the day. A pre-planned Zoom meeting on opening day was joined by nearly 100 art enthusiasts and the curator, artists and gallerists provided an insight into the practices of Butt, Kazim and Toor.
`Form and Figure, Bodies in Art` is being displayed at London`s Grosvenor Gallery from June 11 to June 26, 2020