ARTSPEAK: WHEN WORDS FAIL

13 Sep 2020

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There are seven universally recognised facial expressions — surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness and contempt or hate. We would not be wrong in assuming it is easy to communicate and understand each other, regardless of our cultural variations, age and gender differences or educational levels. We all know this is far from the truth. There is far more misunderstanding than understanding and more misrepresentation than representation. From wars to divorces, miscommunication is often the root cause.

Approximately 6,500 languages are spoken in the world today. Nearly 130 million books have been published just in the modern era. Dictionaries are compiled and revised, as we try to improve our understanding and communication. And yet words fail us.

Vedic, Greek, Chinese, Islamic and modern scholars have extensively theorised human behaviour. Face reading, phrenology, psychology, astrology and all their variations, attempt to understand human nature. Teachers, personnel managers, police investigators, judges, intelligence officers, psychologists and even gamblers, keep enhancing their skills to assess people. Desmond Morris, author of the hugely popular books, The Naked Ape and Man Watching, has written 39 books in 55 years since 1967, of which, all but one, are investigations into human and animal behaviour. Clearly, it remains an evolving quest.

T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, by its fragmented structure, rejects the role of a single logical narrative — the Thunder says “Da Da Da”, setting literary critics into frantic explanations. Yet, reading The Wasteland, we all “get it” even if we cannot explain what it is that we “get.” This surrender to ambiguity is the cornerstone of creative expression.

What we respond to is the nuance, the bareek beeni, the meaning hidden between the words, in the texture of a painting, the curve of a portion of a sculpture, the turn of the head in a dance, the teewar and komal sur of a raag.

The qirat recitation of the Holy Quran or the chanting of the Psalms of David move us differently from reading the texts.

A film script becomes unforgettable not because of its narrative, but its interpretation by a sensitive director, and the subtle expressions of the actor, the weaving of the music score and the detailing of the art direction.

Most mysterious is creative expression that discards the need for words. The emotional compositions of Beethoven, the mesmerising tabla nawazi of Zakir Hussain, the haunting music of Alpay Göltekin, the dazzling turns and suspended leaps of the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and the moonwalk of Michael Jackson, stir our deepest emotions as words rarely can.

Painting, using a single image, can convey the entire life of its subject. In Edgar Degas’ painting, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’, with a restrained palette and a seemingly casual composition, he manages to tell the story of a crumpled, discarded Parisian in the otherwise lively Latin Quarters frequented by artists and writers. In ‘The Guitarist’ our eyes are drawn to the father of the guitarist, leaving us to interpret his lost expression. Picasso chose to depict the bombing of Guernica with a ‘Weeping Woman’, her suffering enhanced with a jangled cubist composition.

Edward Hopper’s ‘Diner’ depicts the solitude of urban ’50s in the US, Balchand’s ‘The Death of Inayat Khan’, not only depicts a dying man but also reflects the scientific curiosity of Emperor Jehangir, who commissioned the miniature. In ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ Jacques-Louis David solved the dilemma of the short stature of Napoleon Bonaparte, by sitting him on a rearing horse. Napoleon’s whirlwind conquests are narrated by the wind filling his cloak and the horse’s mane, urging him towards victory.

Words, pigment, marble or musical notes are not the art, but rather they are a delicate net that enables the art to find form, and to make the invisible visible.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 13th, 2020