The touchable

July 17, 2022

Mariam Arshad’s paintings (from the solo exhibition, Over & Above, at ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore) either substitute a parallel reality, or offer an imagined situation

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asting for 15 hours on a hot Ramazan day, one starts cherishing something as ordinary, as common and as readily available as water. Likewise, after the experience of Covid-19, one recognises the importance of basic human touch. During the pandemic, greetings by handshake, hugging or putting arm around another’s shoulder were considered lethal, hence strictly avoided. Mankind missed the kosher contact between two skins – of family, close relatives, fast friends or acquaintances, which awakes a sense of warmth, love, trust and bonding.

There are contacts of other types. Professional ones. Doctors treating patients; beauticians applying makeup on brides and other ladies, and doing manicures and pedicures; tailors recording clients’ measurements; barbers trimming hair, clipping nails and shaving their customers’ beards. Some of these services were put on halt during the period of global disease, but a few did continue.

For example; people having their hair cut, or shave, especially when this business took place on streets. We often look, and look away on men getting their under-arms groomed, or waiting for their haircut or sitting for shaves – foam on their faces while anticipating the razor – at some roadside. Artists, like Anwar Saeed have delved into these points of intimacy, including wrestlers – to denote more than what takes place on the surface. Sensation, satisfaction, pleasure, excitement. Most of these feelings are so deeply rooted that those who took part in that public tableau are not even aware of the irunder currents; neither are spectators. For everyone, a participant or an onlooker, it is a normal interaction, visible here.

Artists deal with the visible, but in most cases, they also dig far and unearth what lies deep down. Mariam Arshad, observing routine human interactions, has been looking for something beyond those. She has thus created views that refer to reality but do not replicate it. Her paintings (from the solo exhibition,Over & Above, at ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore) either substitute a parallel reality, or offer an imagined situation.

Executed with superb skill, Arshad’s canvases contain several desires. Multi-folded, many-layered, these desires belong to different spots. On appearance, these are about physical touch – which in the words of Mariam Arshad, gives one “goosebumps”. For instance, a man so close to another man, rubbing the customer’s chin/cheeks, washing his face, adjusting fingers on his head. Or a girl combing the mane of another, or busy removing the client’s unwanted hair growth. A public barber or an employee at a beauty salon may not have noticed these subtexts. For them, it is work.

Mariam Arshad, during her NCA degree show 2019, displayed a number of works in which women and trans-gender persons were attending patrons; some paintings depicted roadside barbers engaged with men with foam on their faces and balanced on precarious chairs. The extraordinary gift of reproducing what is seen outside, in oil on canvas, made her work distinct – and desirable. Arshad mastered the art of illusion to such a degree that a particular painting, of a man ready for a shave, became the show-stopper. The barber and his client – through the brush of Mariam Arshad – were like a strong magnet that pulled everyone’s eye. This led to another question. What was important, and essential in this small rectangle of a man about to get his stubble removed. The psychology of interaction (with its sexual overtones); or transportation of an uncommon site to an art environment; or the artist’s capability to produce paintings, which like Vermeer can astonish spectators due to their attention to detail.

For art historians, it could be the first reading, for an ordinary viewer the second option is relevant; but actually,it is the third position that matters the most. Artists occasionally rely on what American writer Joshua Cohen calls ‘usable past’;a concoction of events, clinical history, facsimilia of psychiatrist’s register, family archive, personal chronicle of horrible encounters; all in some instances are to attract audience/attention. However, in some instances a work of art levitates from these demarcations. Such was the case in Arshad’s degree show and at her first solo exhibition in Lahore (held from July 1 to July 11).

Along with body touch, the sensation of another skin, closeness to an alien flesh, the work of Mariam Arshad steers into another domain of desire. The urge to produce human beings (and not reproducing them). In the Jewish Talmudic tradition, one comes across Golem, the man’s replica. It is not a robot, because it follows human features. In the art of Mariam Arshad, acts and situations are important but not essential, because these are backdrops for showcasing the artist’s mastery in cloning human beings on canvases.

Not only humans, but also objects that are domesticated or produced by them: a dilapidated chair, unrefined and inexpensive tables, wooden benches, empty bottles, mirrors, electricity wires, bricks, a discarded cooking oil canister, posters, advertisements, house painter’s brushes and colour charts, face masks, shaving brushes, razors and bowls – and fabric, either dresses, uniform or drapery. Like their users and owners, these objects are also rendered in an immaculate manner.

In her choice of subject, characters and settings, Mariam Arshad has deliberately preferred the world of lower class. Although in a few paintings, one recognises the artist’s features,yet, for the most part, these images are of day labourers, old men, a man on a tricycle (a beggar?); a band player. In a few works, the artist, wearing some odd attire joins them (like sitting on a pavement next to painters waiting to be hired with their brushes, cans and colour charts). There can be more than one interpretation for this range of visuals. Perhaps she wants us to ‘look’ at those we usually ignore. Probably she compensates the raggedness of their existence with the sophistication of representing them. Maybe she finds them a good topic that can evoke sympathies of those who set eyes on them in the comfort of a pristine and temperature-controlled gallery space.

Or, something else. The artist in her statement talks about “grooming and bodily care”, that gives “goosebumps, which are triggered as a result of physical and emotional stimuli”. Her idea of human touch is littered in the patches of white paint; we are required to believe as the shaving foam. On chins, hands, feet and even on house paint brushes and the leg of a wooden chair.

It could be that the painter, through this element, the mark of white colour, ascertains a human touch. But she has arrived there through a different route (without aiming to). Her extraordinary mode of transcribing external reality, like black and white stripes of cloth, face of a man next to arms of a barber (Parts of Site), folds of a girl’s printed shalwar kamees and textures of facial masks (Garden is Changing its Clothes), ceremonial uniform of a band-wallah along with posters of religious conferences and devotional gatherings transcribed in utmost detail (Discord), stir up another sense of touch. Not physically grasping a person sitting with someone, or a worker engaged in shaving a man, but the eye of the viewer is bound to almost leap out of its socket and clasp those incredible segments of actuality.

One cannot help but gaze deeper.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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