For his latest exhibition, artist Ahsan Javaid, in a moment of inspiration or intuition, decided to get ideas from others
n Lviv region of Ukraine, one can visit the Museum of Ideas, for “a variety of creative ideas and projects. The main activity of the Museum is the realisation of cultural-art actions.” Artists like Rashid Rana and Iqbal Geoffrey had also planned opening museums of ideas, where you encounter concepts, instead of their realisation in physical or virtual forms.
For creative persons, especially those whose work take the form of painting, sculpture, film, theatre or fiction, converting an idea into a work requires a considerable time. In some cases, ideas evolve during the course of creation so that there is no delay between content and form. A number of individuals borrow themes from earlier examples in their genre, from other disciplines or from their surroundings.
The history of art and literature is full of works based on topics derived from external sources, including religion, popular narratives, artworks and literary pieces. Themes of Shakespeare’s plays were already known in his milieu; to the great bard fell the job of making them his own, or new. Art, as the American curator and writer Henry Geldzahler defines it, is merely making it new. Materials, ideas, images already exist; an artist transforms them into a new entity.
Ahsan Javaid, in a moment of inspiration or intuition, found this path. For his recent paintings (at his solo exhibition, Chinese Whispers, January 5-13, San’at Initiative, Karachi) he decided to get ideas from others. Javaid contacted individuals of varying backgrounds, practices, professions, age and achievements and asked them to send their ideas of an artwork. Responses were varied: pictures, texts, drawings or verbal communication – often a combination. On receiving these notes from Amna Yaseen, Hussain Rehar, Miral Gul Dahri, Qalandar Memon, Rameen Khurram, Sadaf Naeem, Sana Arjumand, Sarmad Khoosat, Shelale Abbasi, Umair Ghani, Wajood Ibn-i-Sadaf and Yawar Iqbal, the artist created works that can be partially owned by the initiators and partly by the executor.
Like a curatorial project, the artist has collected intellectual and artistic stimuli and added a new context, a new identity, a new meaning. For his enterprise, Javaid did not solely rely on practicing artists or photographers; his contributors include the painter’s sister-in-law and the son and daughter of two other artists. Javaid also invited a fashion designer; a writer and a political science professor; an educationist; an actor and filmmaker; and a collector.
What they contributed is not obvious to a viewer, only the artist’s version of their concepts provides some clues. To actualise these ideas on his canvases, Ahsan Javaid dis not opt for a singular format or formula. He exercised his freedom, to pick, change and add, so that what is on display at San’at is a body of work owned (in every sense of the word) by the painter. For instance, Javaid, after getting separate photographs of Black leaders and thinkers: Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon and Patrice Lumumba, joined them in front of a building called New Africa Hotel for his painting Where Three Dreams Cross. The grouping of an American Muslim and human rights activist; a political philosopher and writer from Martinique; and a Congolese politician and independence leader, is fictional because they never met, but it is logical since all three fought for the same cause.
Extrapolating on the initiative by Qalandar Memon, Ahsan Javaid, introduces another layer. Not only does he construct the background, he also paints these figures behind their outlines in white. The white drawing of the façade overlaps with the building of New Africa Hotel, reminding one of Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks, in which the author discusses the desire of the colonised to appear, act and be recognised as their former rulers. Precise and powerful contours of human beings who resisted racism, are spread in thick white lines – like maps – on a European style building, a Western planter, a car, objects acquired and used by occupied nations.
To actualise these ideas on his canvases, Ahsan Javaid does not opt for a singular format or formula. He exercises his freedom, to pick, change and add, so what is on display at San’at is a body of work owned (in every sense of the word) by the painter.
Maps are magnificent, because they detach reality into an abstraction, which we still believe to be true. Google maps is generally regarded a factual depiction of an area. In reality, it is a reduced version of the location. Ahsan Javaid plays with this shift in size and sensibilities in his 16 Reasons Why, with a young girl hidden under a pile of pillows – covered by the linear torso of herself with details of her sitting room. The image is convincingly rendered with the description of drapery, human features and local colours, behind the web of pale yellow outlines of the protagonist and the interior.
The technique summons up the mechanism of our memory. We hardly talk about a person, occasion or incident without bringing in references from another time/ place, or fabricating a substitute reality. While praying, in a meeting, or travelling, recollections, future plans, and unrelated matters overtake our current engagement. A human mind has the capacity to overlap several situations and scenarios. Just recall brushing your teeth or being under the shower and how you are somewhere else, while performing these banal acts.
Ahsan Javaid has employed juxtaposition as a formal device and a way of delineating the character of the person who initiated the idea, which also incorporates personal, family and artistic history. Based on Shelale Abbasi’s family photographs, Javaid paints shapes of two figures in Western dress and cowboy hats on a grid (under the sign of 23 – perhaps a street number or a station/ route) on top of an old group photo with elegantly dressed Bahawalpur’s Abbasi clan in traditional woman-wear, sherwanis and tarbooshes.
In some instances, the method of overlapping depicts a person, but nothing beyond that, like in paintings based on Umair Ghani, Hussain Rehar and Sarmad Khoosat. Although the key to Khoosat, the premier film maker’s portrayal was a verse from the Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, which the painter interpreted through scenes of a movie about love (from Rekha’s Kamasutra: A Tale of Love directed by Mira Nair). The painter has also added visuals of a Danish girl in the complexity of white lines veiling the main scene.
Whether works created from a child’s drawing, or a young adult’s snapshots of car dashboard mirrors, or a collector’s parental album, or a female artist’s narrations, Javaid’s paintings offer something different and original – depending upon the instigator and his/ her reference material. At its peak, the originality is observed in the painting based upon Sadaf Naeem’s quote, a passage from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, about a man who “wandered up and down dark slimy streets peering into the gloom of lanes and doorways…. He moaned to himself like some baffled prowling beast. He wanted to sin to be with another of his kind”. Ahsan Javaid translates this text with sequence of dark female nudes, their areola turned into human irises, commenting on how the male eye hounds a female body.
In some of his works, instead of being restricted to a single suggestion, Javaid has utilised a range of sources to create his composite imagery, like Zarkhaiz (fertile). Amna Yaseen, a photo-artist shared her pictures, and Javaid has weaved a narrative around Yaseen’s photographs under a tree, of cactuses in a wild terrain, and clicks of a black cat. What he has produced is an apt portrait of the creative photographer; while representing her through his lens of brush and paint.
All of us have read the subject of history at schools, colleges and universities, but any book of history, or an official account of the past is no more than a collection of some people’s ideas, imaginations, translations and representations of their world. The recent paintings of Ahsan Javaid could be a comment on this phenomenon.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.