A recent show at the T2F gallery, organised by the Vasl Artists Association, features new mixed media works by Haider Ali Jan, which fuse a contrasting visual aesthetic to allude to the inherent contradictions between everyday life and the reverence afforded to ritualistic belief systems and political rhetoric.
Rather than relying on pushing grand statements, Jan believes in championing the banal occurrences of life, within which matters of religion and a critique of politics make themselves apparent.
The process of narrative-building in Jan’s work mimics this contrast — where reality depicted through photographs meets stylised portraits inspired by ordinary people and objects, to create a bizarre hybrid visual. This process is spontaneous and intuitive, says Jan, who collects these photographs without a clear goal in mind, creating an archive which he later draws from. What emerges is then heavily dependent on current moods and recent experiences.
It is interesting to note that the photographs have a familiar quality, depicting mostly empty spaces in muted shades, both indoors and outdoors — at once generic and unremarkable, but also oddly specific. The artist inserts the protagonists into these photographs, in bright hues and childlike mark-making.
In Haider Ali Jan’s latest exhibition, the extraordinary springs from a celebration of the ordinary
This seems like a new development. The artist previously had an almost comic book illustration style. Perhaps this is a result of relearning drawing techniques with his left hand due to an injury to his dominant right recently. It serves to heighten the subversion of mediums with clashing visuals, turning it into a larger critique of conventions.
Jan’s ideas take inspiration from the French existentialist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, and his Critique of Everyday Life, but Jan’s work seems to celebrate banality rather than critique it. Haider believes, much like the Realists, that the human condition cannot be depicted through grandiosity but rather through everyday existence. Religious belief can be more closely felt in the way we live our lives, rather than in a faraway place, performing rituals we are far removed from and thus cannot relate to.
This can be seen in works like Shrine, which takes an image of a wall cabinet and turns it into a shrine of everyday objects and popular imagery, drawn in a simplistic aesthetic in oil pastels. Grand religious symbols are thus found in common objects, such as the two-pronged sword, or a donkey-like horse with lipstick, and the feet of a man and a woman lying side by side with a flower garland recalling the first man and woman.
Similarly, in Goddess, we see a very generic scene of a graffitied portrait of a woman on a wall, which happens to be the artist’s mother, in front of which squat three men as though in reverence, yet they look away from her. To the artist, this speaks of the ways in which men in desi society give respect to women, denying her humanity while putting her on a pedestal of shackles in the name of protecting and supporting her. At the same time, it alludes to the hollowness of the ritualistic nature of worship, which does not truly engage the soul.
The piece Waiting has the bones of Bani Abidi’s Reserved (2006), where a city comes to a halt to prepare for a visit from a state dignitary who never arrives. In Jan’s work, the little black figures wait with exuberance, the arrival of a messiah from the balconies and windows of apartment buildings that look oddly similar, waving colourful flags and cheering. Yet, Haider believes this messiah will never come, and that there is no saviour.
In a way, a lot of the works have this Bani-esque quality of exalting the stories of ordinary people to make larger political comments. The work Its Finger is Hurting is reminiscent of the The Man/Boy who… titles of Abidi, and is inspired from a chance meeting with a man on the street who was fixated on the fact that his finger was hurting, and wouldn’t talk about anything else. In the sculptural work of the same name, the figure sits dejectedly, cradling his finger at the end of a long stick like an alam or a flag, as it becomes his only cause to bear.
According to Jan, most of us don’t live life according to a master plan and don’t think about the grand scheme of things, but are moved by everyday dilemmas and experiences within which we may find meaning. We are all embroiled in our own problems, fighting our own battles, which become connected with larger issues at some points, but at others keep us confined to our personal conundrums.
‘Ordinary Existence’ was on display at The Gallery, T2F from August 24-September 5, 2022
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 11th, 2022