Pleasures of a painter

July 04, 2021

Fiza Khatri’s paintings are currently on display at Jhavery Contemporary

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Writing the obituary of his friend Carrie Fisher, Salman Rushdie quoted a dialogue from the Hollywood movie When Harry Met Sally (in which Fisher performed): “Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way”. On sharing his close moments with the actor, Rushdie refuted this statement. But if we take the route marked Freud Street, we tend to agree that there may always be some latent physical attraction in relationships between opposite genders no matter whether they be friends, students, office colleagues, party leaders and followers, doctors and patients, or co-stars in a cinema project.

Many rather mundane acts have a tint of intimacy. Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta in the movie Pulp Fiction argue about a foot massage. Jackson says it is a neutral activity, informing “I give my mother foot massage”, but is speechless when Travolta retorts, “would you give me a foot massage?” A haircut, a manicure, a pedicure, a makeup and measurement by a tailor might also entail physical contact that creates sensations other than just professional.

Actions which we take for granted as being asexual, can have deep and hidden wiring within us that keeps on transmitting all kinds of strange signals. Imagine a man sitting in the barber’s chair and his interaction with someone leathering his face or trimming his hair. Or a dentist scaling a client’s teeth, or a nurse cleansing a patient’s body. We all go through these daily grinds, without ever giving a second – or sensuous - thought, like we could do on looking at Fiza Khatri’s paintings currently on display at Jhavery Contemporary (June 14 - July 31).

Apparently, there are two girls huddled together, a man reading a menu at an eatery, scenes of haircutting salons, pictures of pets (dogs, cats), views of hand-washing sinks, images of shops trading in saris and other ladies’ garments, and a young man posing for his paintings – but the real content lies somewhere else. Looking at the interior of a barber’s shop – an all men environment – with a woman (the painter) makes you realise gender homogeneity in these establishments. Fiza Khatri inserts herself in the painting Shinning, while documenting a men-only world. This latent complexity about gender separation (or celebration?) is also suggested in her Sailoon, the coloured pencil drawing of a shop front named Prabhu Barber Shop Ladies and Gents Sailoon.

One notes that Khatri is interested in many options. Depicting inside and out of haircutting salons she reminds us of how these basic services have another subtext: gender specific or the gender divide. The aspect of a person’s sexuality – one not in tune with the orthodox perception of an individual’s roles, preferences and pleasures – can be sensed in her paintings; sensed, but not proclaimed or announced. Superficially, her works may be records of life in Karachi, some cities in the US or India; but in reality, these shed their addresses. The real location is the location of gender.

Being from one gender (for instance, woman) leads to an entire passage of rites. Some are proud and at the same time ashamed of their hair. The length of hair on a girl’s head – still in some conventional families – determines her character. For many, hair can be a chain, besides being beautiful. Late Pakistani artist Saira Sheikh, in a number of works, used the act of cutting her long mane as a symbol of liberating her from this prescribed perception/ appreciation/ identity. So do two sink paintings of Fiza Khatri, in which you spot locks of black hair chopped and scattered in the wash basin. In these canvases, with bathroom surroundings, one enters the private and enclosed space of a person. That place is un-cleaned because strands of hair have not been drained yet. We forget that these, same hair once removed from someone’s scalp become a sign of defying the gender discrimination.

Khatri – through her focus on these body engagements builds her works – actually a world in which a bespectacled man with Oriental features is reading a Chines restaurant menu (Queen of) Ming Court. A woman in Iva’s Spread, is gazing at her Tarot cards. Another female is contemplating freshly produced snacks piled on paper plates in Heartbreak Pakoras. Whether in a park, sitting at a food joint or standing in the kitchen, these characters and their (physical as well as social) backgrounds look familiar, to the point of being ordinary. However, there is a feeling of uncanniness that emanates from their pictures – or the titles. These paintings, according to Dr Cleo Roberts-Komireddi, “reflect the importance of preserving the queered spaces she has so meticulously carved”.

It is intriguing that the aspect of otherness one gathers in her work, is ambiguous, indirect and remote when it comes to communicating through human beings and their acts, but in her paintings of pets, this content comes to surface. Two dogs (one predominately black, the other pale) seem to be posing for a picture – like a couple. Both, domesticated, with bands around their necks, Storm and Cookie in their formality, seriousness, and class replicate human relationships. So does another painting, called Spark and Bite, of two cats lying on a piece of fabric. Their position, connoting an erotic posture, discloses the presence of sexuality in this image. It is only after seeing these visuals, that Khatri’s remarkable painting Two Heads, back view of two girls (one with black hair next to a brunette), one starts to put the jigsaw pieces together.

Human beings who dare to move away from established and sanctified gender identities also respond to their instinct, hence nature. Fiza Khatri smartly conveys this message across –along with some other messages. In the Two Heads one girl is in white T shirt and the other in green, perhaps an accidental combination, that also alludes to the flag of Pakistan, signifying that a human being does not possess one, singular and limited identity. An individual along with his/her gender distinction has national, religious, ethnic – and many more - references.

Roland Barthes, the French cultural theorist, who like his contemporary Michel Foucault was gay, wrote a small book, The Pleasure of the Text. I recall Zahid Dar – that eternal reader – commenting that there is also pleasure in reading the book which deals with the pleasure of the text. In the same way, the work of Fiza Khatri that addresses the pleasure of one’s preferences, communicates a painterly joy. The ways she applies paint, distributes tones and manipulates brush marks – reveal the pleasures of the painter – eventually shared by the spectators beyond nationalities, ethnicities, genders and other such demarcations.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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