Something we all yearn for, yet scarcely recall, is the wide-eyed wonder, reckless abandon and unrestrained creative bursts of childhood, when our expression was unquestioning and unfiltered... Until the day we were gradually taught of the ‘right’ ways of doing things and were forced to quell that torrent and channel it into more prescribed forms.

While this encourages a more profound discourse, a certain level of authenticity is sacrificed in the process. It takes years of unlearning and relearning before one is able to regain that ingenuity. But the art that emerges from this exercise resides in the realm of the therapeutic.

This is something of what artist, academic and art critic Quddus Mirza has been able to achieve through his practice. In his latest solo show at Canvas Gallery, ‘Once Upon Many Times’, his concise statement reads, “The act of painting is a means to confront, control and combat the acts of violence in our surroundings.”

Mirza’s expressionistic style of painting imitates the form and line work of children’s drawings, exuding the same kind of visceral spontaneity, combined with a sense of innocence. Yet the visual naivety is a farce, and one can simultaneously sense a practised hand and seasoned mind put through hours of deliberation, behind each stroke of vibrant paint and each tone of colour, in service of the overarching narrative.

Quddus Mirza’s latest exhibition seeks to reconnect with the unfiltered creativity of his childhood

Thus, the work seems at once impulsive and considered. Yet this narrative is elusive, provoking an emotion and a fleeting sensation before it draws out an articulate intellectual response.

There seems to be a sense of dichotomy in each canvas; the placid titles are negated by the violent crimson slashed on to the surface with urgency; the childlike language speaks with a sophisticated vocabulary; the imagery flips between sociopolitical commentary and disarming still-life creations. This creates a sense of escapism, of seeking solace in mundanity and simpler times, in order to process the horrors that plague the present.

Still Life
Still Life

“Combatting the repetition of historic heinous acts reflected in contemporary injustice, Quddus Mirza’s call to action loudly proclaims a single crime as one too many, wielding his brush to end the cycle that once began,” explains the accompanying text in the show’s catalogue. “‘Once Upon Many Times’ thus is a panoramic epic of human strife, faith, hope and, ultimately, evolution towards peace.”

This is articulated through a combination of diverse forms of expression, from oil painting to collage with found images and objects, which co-exist in pockets of conflicting visuals, spread out across the canvas, yet connected by swathes of paint and gestural line drawings that string them into a singular — yet paradoxical — narrative.

Meanings and connotations are fluid, differing with each viewer and viewing. The violence the artist alludes to is not as such seen as felt in the movement and frenetic kinetic energy of the brush, and the chaos it generates. Yet, it is not just the worked areas of the canvas that create this impact, but also the spaces in between.

Each painting is conceptually resolved, yet not obsessively pushed towards visual completion; they are rather like pages from a child’s notebook, where random, isolated doodles are enough to satisfy the emotional release, without the need for finishing touches. The work is aimed more inward, rather than being driven by the need to appease an audience.

However, the contradictions it carries beg the question: is the childlike language trying to placate dark truths to make them more palatable, or is it trying to hide a darker interior? Perhaps this primal language so convincingly invokes the sense of aggression because it emerges from a similar state of being, where basal needs are paramount and the id rules supreme. Perhaps these contrasting phenomena are more alike than we want to believe, making violence an innate urge, even an inevitability?

Along with the hopes of healing, we get a more sombre realisation that, perhaps, this cycle is doomed to repeat itself, like the everyday mundane occurrences that the artist posits as mechanisms of desensitisation.

‘Once Upon Many Times’ was on display at Canvas Gallery from September 7, 2021 until September 16, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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