The languages of truth

December 04, 2022

In Mohan Das’s solo exhibition, Reminiscences, one can observe the merger of multiple realities to forge a superior truth

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J

ames Wood, the American literary critic, describes fiction as “a measured unreality.” He points out that to make us believe in their constructed creations, “the great writers of magical tales – ET Hoffmann, Gogol, Kafka – are so densely realistic.” If one extends this view to pictorial practices, artists also rely on reality in order to convert their pieces of imagination, fantasy and extraordinariness into credible narratives and situations.

Mohan Das is a brilliant example of this strategy. In his solo exhibition, Reminiscences (November 23 – December 3, at The Gallery T2F, Karachi), one can observe the merger of multiple realities, to forge a superior truth. The phenomenon is not different from the world of cinema. A film, shot through camera, is supposed to be a factual representation – a reflection, like the mirror (because camera could not lie). Akin to a glass window, it clearly transfers reality; but every movie-goer is aware that he/ she will have an experience packed with imagination, fantasy and fiction.

A spectator wavers between reality and invention, projected on the screen and stitched together with such skill, that you notice, yet ignore or interpret differently the seam lines. Imagery created by Mohan Das invites a similar response. His visuals are derived from a number of sources: Western art history, modern products and figments of contemporary life joined in such a scheme that a viewer starts believing his eyes, instead of his mind that resists the impossibility of different periods, characters, objects existing within a single time, location and frame.

It would be relevant to remember that Mohan Das, an artist born in Hyderabad, Sindh, worked as a cinema, truck and rickshaw painter before studying at the University of Sindh, earning his BFA and MA (Hons) in fine arts. Along with practising as an artist in Karachi and training students, he taught drawing and painting courses at Karachi School of Art and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.

At his solo exhibition, even if not informed about the background of the artist, one can gather strands of his past to decode his aesthetics. A number of Pakistani artists, especially those belonging to interior Sindh have had links with cinema billboard painting, under the tutelage of some local ustad. Later, every artist used this experience in a unique manner to create his identity. Several picked the skill, others opted for the phantasmagorical diction, a few analysed and critiqued its architecture of image making. No matter a person’s position or preference, segments of this early contact with painting a picture remain embedded in their mature practices.

Solely because the training in cinema painting was not a drill in delineating body parts, seeking resemblance, capturing colours, controlling proportions, or depicting lights and shades; but to accustom young minds and fresh hands in recognising that the world we see and the world we create, may not be the same but are closely connected. The difference is merely of a point of reference.

In the eleven paintings in this show, one identifies his approaches towards truth, reality, perception. He seems to combine two streams of time. Reality of the present and reality of the past become entangled in his superbly rendered canvases. The choice of central imagery, its association with other visuals, organisation of various pictorial elements and the presence of a certain light/ mood, convey many messages. Actually for him medium is the message, because the way Mohan Das has manipulated technique of oil painting, it defies barriers of periods, burdens of movements and labels of art history. In a truly post-modernist sense, Das invokes visuals from the past, but transforms them into something new, unique and thought provoking.

These canvases also reveal his command on the craft of painting, as he treats art history with a careful, calculated and convincing tool/ lens. Paintings on display could be read as chapters in art history. He appropriates it to communicate profound ideas. Impressively calculated compositions – which besides delighting audience with their vibrancy of colour, sophistication of skill and an unexpectedness of pictorial solutions – indicate a significant content in his recent paintings: the distance between the creator and the product.

For example, what is more important: the face of Vincent van Gogh or his famous Yellow Sunflowers (as compared in Dollying Vincent); the personality of Jackson Pollock or the method for making his abstract canvases. The likeness of Vermeer versus the appearance of his Girl with a Pearl Earring is investigated by Das in his superb canvas Mirroring the Muse. Likewise, in Das’s Still but Alive, a small reproduction of Mona Lisa is placed on a sill against the non-describable background/ landscape of the same painting – reminding one of the popularity of the picture, which is frequently found in living rooms – much like the photos of one’s ancestors.

In another work, Monet’s Moment, Mohan Das paints the French impressionist’s celebrated water lilies, along with the photograph of the painter fixed in a clock next to a modern-day camera. Commenting on Monet’s obsession with capturing the light of fleeting hours; hence called ‘just an eye’ by his contemporary Paul Cezanne. (Opening of the camera aperture is identical to the blink of an eye.)

Mohan Das in his well-executed works probes the questions of power, poverty and conquest. Napoleon, in Trojan Virus, is riding on his stallion above a few female figures with streaks of red tint (blood) trickling around their necks. In his Transformation of Realism, three peasant women of Millet’s The Gleaners are repainted, juxtaposed with a 2022 table calendar that illustrates an industrial harvester, all placed next to an open laptop, a reading lamp, a writing pad and a cup of tea – essential equipment for a creative individual. In another work Action Jackson, Das brings past memories, recent recollections, social upheaval, and artistic endeavours on one plane – on a canvas where Pollack is dripping paint on a canvas against a romantic dusk background.

Cans of house paint labelled Corona suggest the recent phase of isolation during/ due to the pandemic, a loneliness not dissimilar to a creative person’s. The concept is further elaborated in Isolation with Caravaggio, with the Italian painter’s fruit bowl portrayed near a folded newspaper and a flattened face mask.

Whether with these complex and superbly conceived ad constructed canvases – or his one-minute video Enlightenment, Das refers to multiple modes of image making, while refusing to acquire (domesticate) a singular one.

To come across an amazing mind/ hand like Mohan Das, not confined to a specific style but practising diversity, freedom and dialogue of genres, is a way of locating truth in multiplicity of languages, in his art and in life around us.


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore



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