The recurring waves in the ongoing pandemic’s severity forced countries to shut their borders, impose strict lockdowns and issue stay-at-home orders. Nearly every facet of modern life got upended. With businesses halted and physical mobility restrained, it left the masses home-bound with ample unoccupied time. It was unsurprising that during this period, people struggled to respond to the pressure of remaining productive when there were reasons aplenty to be anxious and stressed.
However, a large population also coped with the current situation by indulging in creative exercises, such as gardening, cooking and reading. These acted as a catharsis and also facilitated in distracting one’s mind from the otherwise sombre reality.
Artists and husband-wife, Munawar Ali Syed and Shahana Munawar channelled their emotional responses and mood during the lockdown into their work and showcased the outcome in their latest exhibition, This is our Quarantine Diary, at Sanat Initiative. The two artists, through their individually distinct styles, share moments of fear, anxiety, hope, perseverance and loneliness which, when situated in the current context, bear a global familiarity.
As with many people, the lockdown nudged Syed to spend more time connecting with nature. It consequentially made him realise the dearth of outlets in Karachi where one could relish natural environments that are uncontaminated by human interventions. However, he also observed the remarkable adaptability that nature displayed, by continuing to grow in whatever nooks and crevices it could find in this urban sprawl.
Syed uses the buffalo, which was a familiar sight for him while growing up in Hyderabad, and the crow — a ubiquitous bird in Karachi which is known for continuously adjusting and thriving in the burgeoning concrete jungle. He portrays these creatures along with silhouettes of trees, roadblocks and a polluted city skyline; all engulfed in an overwhelmed chaos of intersecting lines.
Shahana Munawar and Munawar Ali Syed look towards art to seek a semblance of order during life in lockdown
His subjects must negotiate with the sudden change towards these strange circumstances. He reinforces the idea of learning the new rules of confinement by using a lined school notebook; a surface he has previously used in his practice to denote the necessity of learning the English language to succeed.
The visual icons are dislocated, isolated and barricaded from any form of interaction. Syed’s work essentially talks about the co-existence of nature and the man-made environment, that coalesce and clash and still struggle to synchronise. His drawings are also a reminder of how nature healed, rehabilitated and proliferated when humans were imprisoned and obstructed from causing any further damage during the global lockdown.
While Syed’s work is mostly monochromatic and solemn, Shahana’s paintings and sculptures burst with vibrant colours and pulsating energy. Her body of work speaks about overcoming the obstacles that this pandemic placed, for us to appreciate the life we have, that we previously took for granted.
Shahana presents a series of larger than life heart sculptures cast in fibreglass. A metaphor for courage, perseverance and gratitude, the hearts are painted in a myriad of loud colours that instantly placate one’s disquietude and hoist their mood.
One of the hearts is monochromatic, on which the artist has rendered an intricate maze of patterns similar to those used in local craftworks. Much like the ideology behind creating a mandala, perhaps marking these repetitive strokes is a form of therapy and meditation for her. She imprints God’s name in Arabic on another heart, visually echoing a repetitive chant. Shahana’s faith helped her seek a semblance of order out of the surrounding disorder.
In ‘Home Series’ the artist creates closed in portraits — possibly of her family — in bright tones of acrylic paint, which she overlays with chamak patti (reflective stickers). The pixelated and deconstructed portraits offer a mere glimpse of her, personal life and those around her who she cherishes and is grateful for. The paintings demand a closer engagement from their viewers. One must reconstruct the colour-blocked sections and decipher the complete image to appreciate it in its entirety. In doing so, Shahana situates the viewers in a recreation of her experience during the lockdown, when she began to realise there is beauty in the littlest things often overlooked.
There is no denying that a newly found respect emerged during the pandemic for creative fields and careers. People resorted to art, music, literature and culinary skills to retain their sanity in this time of upheaval, that redefined the normalcy in everyday living. They also understood the importance of manual labour and equipped themselves in activities such as knitting, learning to play an instrument, landscaping, etc.
Munawar Ali Syed and Shahana Munawar demonstrate how art can help us overcome the mental strain which this frighteningly strange and unforeseen present has caused.
“This is our Quarantine Diary” was exhibited at the Sanat Initiative in Karachi from December 15, 2020 to December 24, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 3rd, 2021