Fabulous flights

May 08, 2022

Ali Kazim’s work responds to the pictorial expressions of the past. He creates paintings and sculptures that really are ‘Suspended in Time’

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e survive in stereotypes. One of my early ones was shattered one morning when I spotted a police constable, uniformed, strolling in a park – and singing an Indian movie song. Also, amullah, bearded, in shalwar kurta and a prayer cap, smoking a cigarette. Now, normally we don’t associate acts of leisure or enjoyment with those serving as security personnel or performing religious duties. Serious stuff cannot be tainted by pleasure.

Yet, we live in a world of many contradictions. A staunch believer could enjoy video games; a soldier may like roulette; an acclaimed scholar of nuclear physics might have a body covered in tattoos. Actually, tattoos which we associate with a young generation and a certain class, taste, indulgences and daring – date back to ancient rituals, systems and sects. Many working-class individuals in South Asia have tattoos on their arms, cheeks or chins. Signs of cross, images of Hindu swastika and names of holy figures often appear as tattoos on their followers’ skin. In a sense, aforehead mark caused by prayer prostration may also be considered a tattoo. A sign that sends a message about a person’s piety, discipline and years of a sustained practice.

In 2010-2011, Ali Kazim noticed a few religious signs on a stranger. A man with a shaved head at the London’s Piccadilly Circus, who had tattooed sacred symbols:of Judaism, Christianity and Islam –particularly God’s two names in Arabic script on the back of his skull. This accidental encounter led to Kazim’s series Man of Faith and Woman of Faith. Some of the paintings are at his current solo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This show comprises “23 works including new pieces made from 2019 to 2021, alongside objects from the Ashmolean’s collections which have inspired Kazim’s work”when he was the Oxford University’s first South Asian artist-in-residence.

One approaches his art piecewise the context of objects from a historic museum, and how “one of the country’s leading contemporary artists” responds to the pictorial expressions of the past, to create paintings and sculptures which really are ‘Suspended in Time’ (title of the exhibition –being held from February5 to June 30).

Kazim’s works correspond to objects of art, pieces of literature and items of worship, from a history that is kneaded with multiple creeds in South Asia: pre-Aryan, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian. His art culminates into an essay on ‘belief’:probably a real, if not crucial and critical concern/narrative of our age in which aeroplanes of the Islamic Republic start taxying with holy verses and prayers for the safety of journey relayed in the aisles. Also prior to the first flight of a newly purchased aircraft two black goats are sacrificed on the tarmac to avoid bad luck (air crash for that matter). Ali Kazim weaves this dichotomy of dogma and doubt (heritage and modernism) by picking and blending various strands of history incorporated into mundane acts, gestures, getups.

In his immaculately rendered watercolour pigments on papers (called Man of Faith and Woman of Faith), young and mature males and females are represented with subtle clues of having religious leanings. A girl clutching the copy of Good News Bible. (The book initially,“was conceived because of a need in Africa and the Far East for a version of the Bible that was friendly to non-native English speakers”). In Kazim’s imagery, the youthful, slightly dark-skinned girl is holding her guarantee to a good life (spiritually as well as materially, since the developed world of West is usually associated with Christianity). Her profile, gaze and demeanour can be compared to Indian miniature paintings with sidelong faces. In the exhibition, this work from 2020, is coupled with Portrait of a lady, a Jaipur miniature of c.1800, from the collection of Ashmolean Museum.

Several other paintings are of adolescents, sporting a beard, some with hair tied in ponytails, clad in kurtas of white, henna and shades of blue. Models who were students at the National College of Arts (Kazim’s alma mater and his place of work since 2011).Tracing the origin of those who posed for an artist, may not been as consequential in the case of others, as for Ali Kazim. He closely observes the altering temperament of a society, in which religion has become a major mark of identity, the point of reference and a centre of discussion – regardless of whether the topic is aeronautical engineering, computer technology or genetic programming. (This reminds one of Intezar Hussain who once lamented the practice of inviting religious persons to every TV talk show, whether about cricket, gardening, road safety etc).

If Kazim comments on this tendency, he investigates the anatomy of this phenomenon too. At the Ashmolean Museum, the meaning of his works becomes wider and complex when juxtaposed with artefacts from archaeological sites, mainly of South Asia, especially the Gandhara sculptures. A bearded boy with hair knotted at the back, apparently a Muslim man, finds an uncanny resemblance in Head of a Hindu Ascetic, an unfired clay statue of c.30-400 AD from the Museum’s possession. Another work, Untitled (Mourner), a kneeling man is linked to the ‘Fragmentary figure of a mourner’ a statue from 2nd-3rd Century AD Gandhara.

Kazim has also painted Untitled(Mara’s Army) 2020, based on a Buddhist relief about the temptation of Gautama caused by Mara’s army. Interestingly, the artist, responding to this sculpture which consists of monsters of many sorts, has translated all these demons as self-portraits. Reaffirming a notion that both good and bad creatures are manifestations of a person’s inner self. It is merely a point of position and the matter of belief(to differentiate between virtuous and evil).

Belief is not restricted to religion only. It spreads to other spheres of life also. When catching birds in Sindh’s Manchar Lake, fishermen wear a stuffed fowl on their heads to deceived the migratory species from Siberia. Ali Kazim draws these scenes in his three delicate water colour pigments on paper, each named Bird Hunter. The presence of the bird is significant in another major work, Birds(2019). Inspired from Farid-uddin Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, and Ram Das’s miniature that illustrated the poem, Kazim in five panels records an astonishing sequence. Birds of varying kinds delineated in black and white are captured in precise moments: a few are about to take off; others are up in the sky and heading towards their destination; their king flying alone on a single sheet. Looking at the work in connection of an illuminated manuscript originated in Shiraz (1493) from the collection of Bodleian Libraries University of Oxford, and terracotta bird toys from Sardheri, Pakistan (c.101- 400 AD), one recognises that the image of the bird has been important for human beings through centuries. For some it is a symbol of independence; an entity that is not bound to a border and belongs to earth and sky at the same time. The image of a bird as an emblem of freedom, desire and desolation has been employed previously by a number of Pakistani artists, mainly Shakir Ali, Sadequain and Jamil Naqsh.

In a way,Kazim's Birds complements/and contrasts with his other series,Ruins. Executed in an identical chromatic order, the three pieces depict broken shreds of terracotta utensils. If The Conference… is about combining varying segments to formulate one entity, the king of birds, Simorgh (literally, thirty birds);Ruins depicts a broken object, a metaphor for disintegrated tradition, the disbanded past, the discarded craft.

I remember coming across a small, but unforgettable, oil painting of the same motif in Kazim’s studio in 2013, in which shattered pottery suggested the discourse, debates and disagreements about tradition and modernity. Seeing the work of Ali Kazim placed in a museum with historic finds suggests that a contemporary artist belongs to various places and varying times – and connects to lost, hidden or forgotten strands of history, practices, and faiths – through his language of art.

The exhibition is being held from February 5 to June 30.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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