Memory is a rather magical human trait. It enables us to share what we experience and make connections with the world and the people we care about. It’s a thread that binds us to one another.
Memory also functions as a catharsis. We can revisit the past or time travel into the future to forge circumstances in past events to therapise. We can seek closure by hypothetically amending unresolved and unsettling scenarios. Memories and dreams also perform as wilful agents that oppose our control. They may stubbornly linger when we want to forget them, or they may dissipate quickly, despite our efforts to latch on to them forever.
For decades, a broad grouping of contemporary artists has attempted to capture a sense of memory in their works that are often, but not always, figurative. This idea prefaces a recently concluded show at Karachi’s Canvas Gallery.
Veteran artist and academician Afshar Malik’s exhibition titled, ‘The Garden of Love and Otherness’ portrays his deeply personal memories. However, the universal human trait of how we remember and weave memories to not part with makes his recollections equally relatable under the canopy of shared human experiences. The exhibition is curated by eminent artist and critic Quddus Mirza and comprises highly pigmented paintings on paper, canvas boards and melamine trays.
Afshar Malik touches upon the shared human traits of how we remember
Malik eradicates the boundaries of classical figuration and neo abstraction in depicting humans and other representative, organic forms. He further amalgamates them with the visual lexicon from miniature paintings and primitive cave drawings. The drawing techniques and copious use of colour and thick strokes reference both contemporaneous times and ancient art practices, like the praxis of his peer Anwar Saeed and the late Van Gogh.
A character from one of Van Gogh’s paintings features in one of the works. He stylises and distorts his human figures to represent them as loose caricatures of what they may look like in reality. Hues of corn yellow, coral red, and cobalt blue replace the flesh tones. They look familiar yet otherworldly. As if they are visitors from a realm that only Malik has charted.
It is difficult to identify whether the captured moments are real or fabricated as he manages to depict both the past and the future in a single frame. The characters, anchored in some works while floating in others, reside in dreamscapes that dismiss any concept of time and site. The variegated imageries and sceneries meld into a single artwork. This approach potently suggests the attributes of human memory, how one recalls memories in bits and pieces.
A shirtless man sits cross-legged amidst a field of darkness and lights numerous earthen lamps. The flame provides him succour as he waits for someone to end his solitariness. Another lone figure, a uniformed wedding band performer, opts for the aural relief he gains by playing the tuba to himself. An androgynous-looking figure, seemingly drowning in the ocean, latches a man to their bosom as they face upwards to the moon in despair.
These ostensibly painful and doleful visuals contrast with assuaging scenes of pleasure and intimacy. Whether it is a father cradling his daughter in their patio, a formally dressed pair arriving hand-in-hand at an occasion, or two uniformed soldiers embracing each other to share a candid moment of affinity, framed in a postcard dated June 1945 from Baghdad.
It is unclear whether these characters are alive and whether their situations are real. But the inclusion of sprawling vegetation, ethereal clouds and expansive sky suggest that some of them may have passed on and that the artist recreated or imagined these circumstances to console himself. For example, a halo suspends above the woman who arrived at an event with her partner.
Malik’s work is quite introspective and archaeological. The artworks illustrate the excavated scenes and sentiments stored in his mind that echo in the vast, foreign landscapes and the glimpses of private spaces. Malik chooses not to be reticent and intrepidly serves his thoughts for our visual consumption on melamine trays — dishware ubiquitous in every household and produced before guests.
Placed near the gallery exit, one of Malik’s works portrays a man, possibly himself, with a vintage recording device that is either filming or photographing the visitors it encounters. This confrontational gaze makes the viewer realise their presence and physical involvement with the artist’s body of work. It evokes the passage of time and memories, personal and collective.
He leaves us with a reminder that we, along with him, are also creating memories in that exact moment in time and space.
‘The Garden of Love and Otherness’ was displayed at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from February 01-10, 2022
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 13th, 2022
Dear visitor, the comments section is undergoing an overhaul and will return soon.