Place for us is a site of desire. We perhaps get influenced by places more than by people. We fall for (or into) places faster and less conditionally than we do for people. We can drive through a landscape and feel ourselves get absorbed by the magnanimity of the surrounding land. We can walk through a neighbourhood and picture the interiors, unseen front yards and the life of those behind the boundary walls. We can kinaesthetically experience what it would be like to hike on mountainous terrain for hours; the underfoot texture, the tightening of muscles while going uphill, the rhythm of our walking.

This phenomenon is aptly demonstrated by Julius John Alam in his latest body of work. Held at Sanat Initiative, the exhibition titled Raat is a series of monochromatic drawings of his former neighbourhood.

Aimlessly walking around like a flâneur, Alam captures the silent observation of the environment around his childhood home.

There is a peculiar intimacy to the neighborhoods that the artist has drawn. The visuals he illustrates are reminiscent of congested neighbourhoods, in which houses are built in very close proximity to each other — a sight we are all too familiar with. They have been present in overpopulated cities since a long time. We know them, we have seen them, and we know how their occupants live. We know them intellectually (we can perceive them), and we know them through our memory and interaction with them.

Raat
Raat

He photographs the familiar surroundings, which he then translates into charcoal drawings. His choice of the black-and-white palette not only evokes a sense of nostalgia, but also poignantly paints a haunting picture that is void of colour, life and light. His conscious decision to not portray any human presence and activity further illustrates a sombre image, which makes the viewer believe that the artist is undeniably looking back with a sense of loss.

Julius John Alam explores the landscape of his childhood and the memories it embodies

However, just when the viewer is convinced of the lifelessness imbued in the dark and still visuals, the artist dismisses that perception by adding subtle elements of activity in the form of room light emanating from open windows, or of laundry drying on a clothing line. This brings the viewer to an ambivalent junction, where they may feel they are viewing a ghost town despite knowing for certain that it has occupants.

The state of juxtaposition and vacillation is more prominently captured in those works — also titled ‘Raat’ — that portray various garlands of fairy lights. These particular fairy lights and dazzling star emblems are a common sight in neighbourhoods of mostly Christian residents, who install these as not only a celebration of a particular religious occasion, but also as a doughty declaration of their faith. However, despite the celebratory illumination and despite being aware of the context, a sense of festivity is not what emanates from Alam’s works, rather the opposite.

By employing this contradiction, the artist, perhaps unintentionally, opens broader discourses on the plight of religious minorities and their social exclusion/marginalisation to which we become voyeurs. The viewers become bystanders who, while observing the depicted life situation from the isolated comfort of a gallery space, are visually drawn into the work by the artist, in order for them to experience what it actually feels like to occupy those spaces.

Raat
Raat

Alam’s primary investigation is of space and the memory they exude. After all, landscapes are a witness to time and storytellers of their history. In order to execute this, he consciously eliminates the details from his observations and renders just the conglomeration of larger shapes and silhouettes into monochromatic colour fields that bear a sense of bleak emptiness.

The gestural strokes and mark-making is restrained to make the image as static and silent as possible. In doing so, Alam also toys with the perception of time. The viewers are clueless of whether they are looking at an image of a landscape from the past, the present, or from a dystopian future.

The artist’s work leans heavily on efficiency; he draws his language from the pared down aesthetics of minimalism and a strict limitation of arbitrary decisions. He limits superfluous marks and cumbersome connotations and removes the visual and cognitive clutter to amplify the pictorial composition and its physical elements. This allows his work to function as an armature for an array of experience, such as equivocacy, voyeurism, introspection and dissonance.

Alam’s work explores the artistic potential present in prefabricated materials and familiar architectural spaces, as a means and source for the production of images. The artist manages to create cognitive and perceptual dissonance, as well as demand visual and intellectual inquiry. The resultant artworks examine the dialogue between memory, space, material and representation, through the language of drawing.

“Raat” was exhibited at the Sanat Initiative in Karachi from August 20, 2020 to September 12, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 13th, 2020