Telling tales of tomorrow

January 01, 2023

Determining the shape of Pakistani art in the years to come

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Ali Shariq Jamali: ‘The Artist Portrait Project’


he sun, the moon, stars and planets are not conscious of their crucial role in determining the history of mankind. The dawn of January 1, 2023, is not dissimilar to previous mornings – now shelved in the archives of the past year. However, there is another measure to find what is new, and what the future holds, and how it will unfold: through art.

A recent exhibition, And the Story Goes On…, though held from December 12 to 16 (Alhamra Art Gallery), heralded the way art in this country will be headed in the coming years. All four participants employed a language that could be described as contemporary, and rooted in their surroundings, and some in cases the distant past. For example, in order to fully appreciate Wajeeha Batool’s interactive animation Ripple Effect of a Ripple, one needs to dig deep into ancient history.

According to various religious sources, the Queen who ruled the kingdom of Sheba, visited the Israelite King Solomon. She was told by the King: “Enter the palace.” But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” The reality of this narrative is that King Solomon created an illusion. Glass floor appeared as a pool of water, making the Queen of Sheba act accordingly.

In an experience of a similar type, a visitor stepped inside Wajeeha Batool’s projection, particularly on the rectangle marked by light projection towards the gallery floor and started advancing. He/ she noticed the ripples of water caused by the movement of their feet. This was an illusion as powerful, as the biblical one, because – for a moment – one worried about one’s shoes getting wet. The power of the illusion persisted due to its attachment to a spectator’s body, presence and position; because the immaculately constructed work enveloped a viewer in a different kind of reality, or truth.

The other interactive animation by Batool, A Fish Tale, also involved – actually, entangled a spectator. Walking in front of a light blue screen – another version of water – one realised that the fish was swimming in harmony with one’s movement. Not only that, the tails of one or several fish were linked to the viewers’ gaze. Thus, the onlooker was turned into a participant, if not the maker; because human motion was marked by the tracks of the fish, and that travel combined the viewer and the viewed, maker and the consumer. At Batool’s remarkable – (and perfectly executed) animation, looking at myself reflected into fish and its traces I remembered, EH Gombrich who quotes that “One day Chuang-tzu was promenading with his friend Hui-tzu on the bridge across the Hao River. Chuang-tzu said: ‘How cheerfully the nimble fish are jumping and flitting about. This is the joy of the fish.’ Hui-tzu said: ‘You are not a fish, how, then, can you know of the joy of the fish?’Chuang-tzu replied: ‘You are not I, how can you know that I do not know of the joy of the fish?’”

The demarcation between different points/ ports of reality was also expounded by other participants. Ali Shariq Jamali, for his The Artist Portrait Project, of 28 paintings made in oil and acrylic on varying canvases, contacted several artists and through a remote link provided the description of his face. The result was the diverse, and conflicting depictions of one individual by painters who followed the verbal brief. On the gallery wall, one came across multiple versions of Ali Shariq Jamali on the basis of written account of “An artist of 27 years with square head and broad rectangular forehead… The hair is short with trimmed sides tin textured. Neck is medium size and thin…”

Wajeeha Batool: ‘Ripple Effect of a Ripple’

An illusion is powerful because you – for the spur of a moment – worried about your shoes getting wet. The power of illusion persisted due to its attachment to a spectator’s body, presence and position; because the immaculately constructed work enveloped a viewer in a different kind of reality or truth.

The project could be seen as an attempt to break the barrier between the idea and the object; between content and form; the delicate line between thinker and producer, as well as the issues of ownership. All these portraits of Jamali were painted by individuals of unrevealed identities, but the collection was credited to Ali Shariq Jamali alone. This raising a question, as ethical as aesthetical; because for centuries collaborators in art projects were never mentioned nor acknowledged, often perceived and treated like mechanical tools, extensions to fabricate the required product.

The unnamed participants were potent makers in some other art works at the exhibition. In two video installations of Ammar Faiz, a gallery visitor sat on chairs facing two screens that showed footage of men getting their hair cut/ cropped at a barber’s shop. The young hairdresser of the artwork was engaged in small talk with his customers, and seemed attracted to the task of beautifying another man. Perched in actual seats – not dissimilar to a hair dresser’s set-up in the video – one entered a world of mundane experiences and forgotten encounters. The most important element in Faiz’s Fancy Hair Saloon video installations was the presence of a mirror. Both the hairdresser and the customer looked at the mirror, which in reality – was the camera, and eventually become the eye of the audience.

When a visitor occupied the barber’s chair inside the gallery space to gaze at Faiz’s work, he was not too far from those getting their haircut at numerous, and insignificant establishments in the city. A feeling consolidated on witnessing Ammar Faiz’s performance Fauji Cut, in which he – amid the arrangement of a street barber stall– sat in the middle of gallery space and a common and efficient barber chopped his hair in crew cut. The artist wrapped in a white sheet, head bent, and going through a transformation – outside as well as internal (since the style is associated with armed-forces’ cadets) signified how a simple act performed at a road side, or a military recruitment centre, acquires another significance, whence displaced.

Ammar Faiz: ‘Fauji Cut

The performance also invoked the distance and discrimination between the author and the collaborator. At the end of Faiz’s performance, the hair dresser was acknowledging compliments, instead of the artist (who envisaged and planned this ending). The distinction between the planner and executer (or architect and the builder) became obvious and noticeable in the duration of about 30-minute performance.

Another artist from the show (curated by Amna Suheyl), Waheed Latif, in his steel, iron and electric motor (diptych) had dispensed with the position, power or presence of the maker, by introducing an uncanny independence. In his Invisible Conversations, Latif placed two swings in a lawn of Alhamra Art Centre, which were moving without an actual person. The two swings corresponded and interacted but not did collide – becoming a metaphor for our day to day existence.

In making the protagonist disappear, while ensuring the independent movement of swings, this impressive sculptural installation, could envisage the future of the specie, in which human contact may disappear. This happened during the Covid-19, but still continues with the work at home, Zoom meetings and Webinars, in which we talk to others, before realising that we are in conversation with a machine, a laptop, a mobile phone. The illusion of human presence suffices and tells us about the future.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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