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Art43: Stemming the tide

November 07, 2010

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‘The Rising tide’ which is the title of the current exhibition being held at Mohatta Palace, Karachi, is essentially a historical overview of the modern art of the 1990s in Pakistan. Using the theme of urban influence as a leitmotiv, it was curated by Naiza Khan and the display covers a rather large spectrum as 43 artists have participated and there are over a hundred exhibits.

However, in spite of the hugeness, complexity and diversity of the presentation this reviewer couldn’t help forming the impression that too much was being compressed into a single exhibition. It was, to say the least, a little overwhelming. Perhaps the marmalade could have been spread over a number of brunches.

‘Cartographies of intimacy’ could have been presented along with ‘Between the real and the fabricated’ and ‘Languages of belonging’; while ‘The urban transition’ could have been paired with ‘Imagining world envisioning spaces’. However, while the curator has done a marvellous job in bringing together so many disparate visuals which focused on a variety of contrasting subjects, the artists never lost sight of the basic theme and were faithful to the script, focusing on the urban setting. A thread had pieced together the various strips of fabric into a unified quilt.

When a guest confided to this reviewer that many of the exhibits did not appeal to her aesthetic sense, one was forced to point out that when Picasso broke with tradition and fractured the human face in a portrait which drove the purists into frothing distraction and called for the public disembowelling of the artist, it was never the painter’s intention to produce a pretty face. Nevertheless, he radiated an influence which has endured to the present day.

Every sort of prurient and mocking inquiry was made at the time. But modern art, like modern music and modern poetry, was a reaction against the staid conservatism and traditionalism of the past, and much of what followed the break with the Post-Impressionists and the Fauvists was not always aesthetically pleasing. This was certainly the case in this exposition where viewers encountered a new form of story telling.

Space does not permit a detailed critique of each exhibit, but there were certain pieces which were quite riveting. We think of cities as solid, dependable things, fixed points and enduring landmarks. In reality they are fluid and as transient as a breath.

Rashid Rana, a victim of pioneer yearnings, in his endeavour to give the city an identity has in his huge cube, plunked in the centre of a large room, sketched the skyline of a modern metropolis. The image, hidden behind a painted wooden frame, is in a state of constant transition as the viewer frequently changes his line of vision. One heard from the grape vine that the artist was trying to portray the skyline of Dubai, which the title, ‘Desperately seeking paradise’ would suggest. But the blurb on the wall said something about the old city of Lahore having had an influence on him.

At first glance the viewer wondered what all those bits and pieces that Nausheen Saeed had strewn on a table were made of. Then enlightenment suddenly dawned and this reviewer said to himself, “By Gad, this bizarre sculpture entitled ‘Dismembered female body’ is actually made up of pieces of baked bread.”

With its perfect anatomy it has a horrific attraction that would have had a special appeal to those Victorian sadistic killers, who carved up the bodies of their female victims and stored the limbs under the floor boards.

Ayaz Jokio’s excursion into the world of mistaken identity entitled ‘The mapping of the mind’ was quite intriguing. Images of his face and bald head had been sent to a number of people who were asked to pencil in facial air. What emerged from the experiment was quite illuminating. Another series of photographs of the founder of the nation by Imran Channa blown up to almost life size invited viewers to ‘Find the real Jinnah’.

There was quite a bit of Imran Qureshi, who depicted the soul of a man diving back into his body should have been accompanied by a recording of Richard Strauss’ ‘Death and transfiguration’. The title of one of his watercolours on wasli ‘You are my life’s love and enemy too’ reminded this reviewer of the time when he headed a cultural centre that also taught English and overheard a student say to a teacher, “Mother and father are first cousins, that’s why I look so much alike.”

Faiza Butt’s ink on polyester film ‘I’ll be safe in my own mind’ and Nusrat Latif’s digital print ‘Did you come here to find history?’ had a lot to commend them. And then as one walked under Abdullah Syed’s tiny perforated rug suspended from the ceiling which threw menacing shadows on the walls and headed for Samina Mansuri’s huge vertical panel from the ‘Mauj Collective’ in Abbottabad, a thought crossed this reviewer’s mind. It had been pointed out in the catalogue that the museum would be showcasing the artists’ studio practices within the urban setting, and yet a lot of work emanated from private collections. Could this have been an oversight?