One of first references to love letters dates back to Indian mythology where Lord Krishna and his consort, princess Rukmini, sent each other secret letters so as to avoid her brother’s rage. Since then, declarations of love have evolved with time and the medium of love letters has morphed along with it. Muhammad Ali’s latest exhibition is among the latest of these types of testimonies. Titled Love Letters to Lost Lovers, the artist displayed 10 masterfully painted canvases across the walls of the Canvas Gallery.
Muhammad Ali, a graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, has steadily set himself as one of Pakistan’s most thought-provoking and diligent painters. His unique style of painting focuses profoundly on the traditional technique of painting, while amalgamating history to speak about contemporary times. As a member of a minority community, one becomes an empath to the personal struggles of others around them and, perhaps, that is also what makes Ali’s work so in tune to what is happening today.
Each title of the paintings displayed are, in fact, letters of ardour, once written by the artist and therefore, presents this exhibition as an exploration of the strongest and most intricate of human emotion — love. Ali’s paintings embody love as a spectrum, indulging in the complexity and connection between a love that is both carnal and spiritual. The audience is drawn in almost immediately, admiring the artist’s keen style, skill and visual composition. Even the figures that adorn each canvas fit well into the generic standard of Eurocentric beauty. Each painted figure and scene hint at sensuality and intrigue the viewer to step in for a closer glance, making their visual beauty purposeful. It is only when one is drawn in that they are able to peek beneath the veneer and glimpse at the thought-provoking tales the artist wants to be known.
Visually, the exhibition appears to be divided into three types of paintings: a cluster that includes beautifully painted women, another set of paintings of men in unique attire, and a group of canvases — titled after the days of the week — that display unmade beds, once slept in. Despite the absence of physical bodies, each bed is left with an impression of being used, perhaps by more than one person, leaving one to ponder what happened there earlier.
Muhammad Ali entices his audience with his latest exhibition of anachronistic paintings that have their own stories to tell
Ali blends historical Persian war attire with contemporary style, which he then dresses his male protagonists with. The warrior-like men hint at religious history and tradition but, at the same time, the artist adds contemporary items, such as painting sneakers on a soldier’s feet as a sign of comfort for his arduous journey ahead.
The women of his paintings stand strong and proud, unabashed as their exposed bodies are left vulnerable to passing glances. The artist draws on powerful feminists of history while moulding his female characters but, at the same time, places them among multiple objects, almost like a still-life scene. This placement reiterates the artist’s feministic narrative, by recalling how women are constantly seen as objects of display and aesthetics, not as fully functional and equal to their male counterparts.
Ali explains that these visuals and figures circled his mind for a while before finally materialising. Though painted to explore his own ideas, an onlooker should not be deterred from forming his/her own opinion; in fact, it is all part of experiencing Ali’s work. The paintings are laden with thought and unsaid truths, waiting for its audience to discover them, and that is what makes his work a true signifier of its time.
“Love Letters To Lost Lovers” was displayed at Canvas Gallery in Karachi from September 22 to October 1, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 11th, 2020