n his way to attend WH Auden’s last rites, Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-American poet, was asked about the reason for his trip. The exchange with the immigration officer at Heathrow was brisk. “Business or Pleasure?”; “What do you call a funeral?”
Writing about the work of an artist who died before reaching the age of 50, is neither business nor pleasure. It is an act of recalling the talent, skill and intelligence of someone who made his name despite a humble background, limited resources and difficult circumstances.
I remember meeting Mohan Das at his apartment in Karachi, almost a year before the painter passed away on August 31. During the visit, Das seemed to be his usual self: cheerful, enthusiastic and pleasant. Surrounded by his wife, daughter and an aging mother, he kept on showing his paintings: work on paper, drawings and sketches. Till that encounter, I was not too familiar with his life and past. Later, I came to know about his journey as a cinema board, truck and rickshaw painter; his BFA (honours) and MA (honours) in fine arts in 1999 and 2002, from the University of Sindh; his teaching at the Karachi School of Art and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture; and his private academy of drawing and painting, the Fakhta School of Arts.
Mohan Das’s death is not an unusual event; because every day, hour, minute, second, people are leaving this world. However, when we look back at the life of the departed artist, we wonder whether the person has really disappeared or is still around just like Vincent van Gogh after he committed suicide at the age of 37, preserved in/ through his art – widely displayed, viewed, admired, collected at the museums and galleries, beyond his native Netherland, and adopted France.
It takes some years, and much expertise to envisage the future of an artist, but knowing the work of Mohan Das, one can imagine that he will not be forgotten easily or permanently. He dealt with a number of ideas, images and techniques that will remain relevant since he investigated the link between the local and the foreign, between the indigenous and international in an unusual language.
Das dealt with a number of ideas, images and techniques that remain relevant since he investigated the link between the local and the foreign, between the indigenous and international in an unusual language.
The blend and merger of the local and the international actually demands a bit of revision and research because the ‘indigenous’ has historically been composed of interventions, exchanges and influences – from the first Aryan invasion of the subcontinent to the popularity of Masala Paneer Pizza in South Asia. Also, foreign is no longer a frightening realm, as Kamila Harris, Rishi Sunak and Sadiq Khan serve in top positions and millions from the subcontinent – visible and indispensable - live, work and serve in the West.
In his previous exhibition (at The Gallery T2F, Karachi), Mohan Das had compared and connected visuals from the European art history with the present day living: urban and rural, domestic and public, leisure and duty. This concept has been a constant concern in Das’s aesthetics as observed in a series of paintings created between 2012 and 2018 – part of his posthumous exhibition being held from September 26 to 30 at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi. The work collected for this show reveals not only the artist’s craft, but also his unique bent of mind in interlocking objects, concepts and practices. For example, the painting Apple with Adam and Eve, consists of a pattern of apples in varying hues, but these apples are not the ones made by God, or those crucial to The Fall; but the repeated logo of a tech producer. Once viewed through this web, one deciphers outlines of a classical European painting that depicts Adam in the company of Eve, reaching for an apple in Eden.
In a sense, both the story of the apple from paradise and the Apple products belong to the West, as much as they do to other parts of the world. But Das moved away from this strict divide, as his work is more about the architecture of perception: what you see and what you see through. Like the canvas Cloud with Creation, in which regular waves of cloud shaped forms eventually disclose the iconic fresco The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. The Florentine genius appears again in the work titled, Michael and Michael; with the sculpture of David positioned next to an American pop star, both entangled in a net of circular shapes. There seems to be a hidden text connoting the sexual preference of the rock star and its relationship with a perfect male body.
Mohan Das used circles to combine images of diverse nature/ origin. For instance, you see a surface composed of evenly placed dots with a shift in shades, which viewed from a distance turns out be the painting, Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet, suggesting a new way of reading reality in the age of digital pixels. But more than that, Das’s work indicates other socio-economic issues, like in Mona Lisa with Gas Cylinder, by recreating the famous portrait and placing a utilitarian item in her hands. This painting, from 2014, subtly suggests a situation about the scarcity of a fuel substance. It is a reflection on two worlds/ views. In the West, people who live without regular electricity, gas, water supply disruptions can have the luxury to enjoy art, literature and other feats of culture. However, in our surroundings, basic/ banal necessities overpower the impulse to appreciate higher ideals. Hence, Lisa Gherardini is not just joining her hands in a coquettish manner, but being functional, holding onto a gas cylinder.
The comparison and conflict between the two hemispheres/ ways of existence is evident in Mohan Das’s Ingres ki Deewani. Appropriating the figurative painting by the classical French painter and converting it into a part of transport art from here. Adhering to the norms of truck art, Mohan Das has added Urdu text, peacocks on both sides, stars and an ajrak sheet as well as a small mirror reflecting the likeness of the painter.
With work like this, Das, intentionally or intuitively, addressed the theme of assimilation, of what is authentic and what is borrowed. Because most of the stock/ traditional visuals of truck art have their genesis in the European/ art Nouveau imagery, like the painting of the French master have its roots in the Orientalist art, inspired from visits to North Africa and the Middle East.
Mohan Das never verbalised these threads during his life time. One assumes that, with his qualifications, exposure and experience, Das must be thinking these dichotomies and disparities. In another painting (Illusion with Vincent van Gogh), he recreated the portrait of the French post-impressionist, as a source/ beam of light and colour. Only when you squint your eyes, do you identify Van Gogh. Das’s work could be a comment on the Dutch artist’s surge for the sun, since the sunlight – split into sections of varying wavelengths – are composed of the face of the painter, who died early, miserable and poor, similar to the life and death of Mohan Das.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore