Artists can easily understand and empathise with experiences such as pain, tragedy and hardships. The experiences can be their own, someone else’s, a particular community’s, or even of inanimate entities such as of the ocean, land, or in this case, of their native cities.
A recent exhibition, Viewpoint, held at the Koel Gallery in Karachi, brought together four artists from various cities, presenting metaphorical portraits of their immediate environments. They shared stories of struggles amidst violence, metamorphoses, crises and bereavement.
Born and raised in Jacobabad, Hamid Ali Hanbhi has showcased two bodies of work simultaneously. In one of his series, Hanbhi highlights the severity of the devastating floods in 2010 by rendering partly submerged landscapes of his hometown and neighbouring cities. The other series includes portraits of blind and visually impaired men who he encountered and became acquainted with. The limited contrast in his palette makes the images look faded and almost obscure.
What interestingly connects these two oeuvres is that the artist executes these visuals in Surma (kohl) — a quintessential and ancient South Asian cosmetic — believed to accentuate the eye and attract one’s gaze and attention. The apparent irony is unsettling. The untameable wrath of a vast body of water is reinforced through a medium that itself can easily get swept from existence with water. Kohl is also used to draw the viewers’ focus on individuals who have limited vision and the inability to see clearly.
Four artists present metaphorical portraits of their native homelands
Lahore-based artist Bilal Khalid’s aquatints remind us of the ephemerality of time. The desolate and abandoned sightings from a graveyard evoke a sense of loneliness and solemnity. Graveyards demand an ambience of silence and offer moments of deep thought and introspection. Khalid’s works do precisely the same.
The saturated textures in his prints lure the viewers to wander in their abundance. They contemplate life, death, the afterlife and the junction between the end and new beginnings. The artist reinforces a haunting solitude and alienation through the use of a dark and monochromatic palette.
Yet somehow, the vestiges of mortality and remembrance offer the audience some form of solace. For example, in his work ‘Mera Humsaha’, a child — seemingly lost in his thoughts — rests on a headstone and stares into the daunting depth of darkness.
Muneeb Aaqib hails from Abbottabad and uses his personal experiences of his life in the city to inform his drawings. He is particularly interested in nature’s intangibility and how its almost palpable changes can be experienced despite their physical non-existence.
For this series, the artist inspects how nature’s ethereality and its gradual changes become more perceptible during travel. All the subtle deviations in light, air and land quality become easily accessible to our cognisance when we meander through space.
Aaqib is also interested in the continuous shift of nature over time. From time immemorial, nature has been in a continual flux every passing second. Aaqib records those metamorphoses through the trail of evidence that nature provides that he can see, hear or touch. He unpacks those archived experiences and memories in the form of abstract graphite drawings, which essentially imprints a visual manifestation of those unembodied changes.
Miniaturist Sajid Khan also explores the transformation of his immediate environment, which only becomes evident upon closer inspection. Having experienced the ramifications of warfare in his home district of Malakand, Khan juxtaposes the serenity of the Swat region with macabre imageries of decimation.
The light and sanguine clouds intersperse with heavy, vociferous ripples of smoke. Fragments that look like shrapnel and war debris strew the entire image. One can also distinguish the silhouettes of drones and aircraft from subtle impressions. The artist romanticises the landscapes but disrupts them by the grim reality.
He illustrates this disarrayed clash by inscribing sharp lines and forms within the soft, organic shapes. The works also become a metaphor for the artist’s inner conflict and his relation with his land. Khan’s allegorical paintings divulge a state of dread and agitation — a consequence of war trauma —that both he and his land have undergone.
The four artists manage to create a dystopian, post-apocalyptic setting that is deliberately void of human presence, except in a few works. The conscious decision to opt for a monochromatic, muted palette heightens the sombre mood exuded from their visuals.
“Viewpoint” was displayed at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from March 9 to March 24, 2021
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 28th, 2021