Ordinary beings, fragmented beliefs

September 25, 2022

Photographs of ordinary places, spaces and objects are part and parcel of Haider Ali Jan’s visual narratives

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he latest mixed-media works of Haider Ali Jan, displayed at the T2F Gallery, have initiated a conversation about various tangents of an ordinary man’s stories, experiences and concerns.

Organised by the VASL Artists’ Association in Karachi, the exhibition included sculpture, paintings and print-based works. The solo show displayed Jan’s perennial interest in everyday life occurrences, re-called, re-imagined, and re-formed using his unique illustrative rendering style of creating visuals and volumes. Jan emphasises that he doesn’t prepare himself to create new art forms with a particular objective in his head. The process is always based on his intuitiveness. Once he allures some spark from his collection of archival materials, photographs and mundane objects, he dons an apron.

The fluidity of expression, childlike drawings and mark-making in his visuals depict a certain level of casualness and freedom of experimentation with various juxtapositions of elements in non-prescribed arrangements. Haider takes an ancillary inspiration from French existentialist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s social thoughts of the “critique of everyday life.” It is all reflected in the dialectal thinking that he employs to pose the fragmented code of vernacularism, which translates everyday situations and anecdotes into candid and pure visual expressions — not just a philosophical quandary.

The unknown individuals in Jan’s sculptural works, the hybrid of humans and invertebrates’ unconscious entities with extraordinarily elongated limbs and faceless life, remind one of the cave painting characters made by Neanderthals — also the stylised figures from the aboriginal art of the Kimberleys. One of the figures is placed on a four-legged yellow chair (without the backrest) with long legs and arms holding a seasoned bamboo stick.

A detached and deformed hand mounted on the top of the bamboo stick with a swollen finger, one reads the title Its finger is hurting. As Jan explains, this is a familiar story of an ordinary person. A person who’s of utmost concern, though momentarily, informing others about his pain, doing nothing except sitting down, whether due to his naivety or ignorance.

Another exciting form shows a torso bowing low and exceedingly elaborated legs glued to a moraah, a traditional round stool made of reed and hand-woven thread. The piece is titled Contemplating — interestingly, without a pair of eyes or indication of a brain. This denotes another reality, not coming to a conclusion or decision — a commoner, a confused Confucius. The third and last sculpture in the series is a bizarre and lifeless figure with a neck whiplashed backwards, sitting on an ordinary chair in a very casual way, with much apparent abdominal fat. The seat is made of red rexine, an artificial leather-like fabric abundantly found in urban settings, restaurants, banks and public offices. The demographics or the metaphors behind these strange characters and ordinary chairs/ stools are untold; one may intervene to decipher it more subjectively.

Photographs of ordinary places, spaces and objects are part and parcel of Haider Ali Jan’s visual narratives. Sometimes he mixes these with computer-aided illustrations. On other occasions he paints over the large digital prints of these photographs. In a mixed-media work, called Waiting, the little black nameless figures are painted over the photographs of usual red-bricked residential flats with typical balconies and windows.

Seemingly cheerful residents or members of the general public, in a celebratory mood, anticipate a very, very important person (VVIP) to arrive — a political figure seen as a messiah or some foreign dignitary. Jan has picked up this everyday global activity to pose a sceptical contemplation, as, despite all of the multi-coloured flags and the enthusiasm, an event might not take place at all or not bring the projected change in the lives of those celebrating it. This is a familiar climax in a commoner’s belief system.

As one approaches another mix-media piece hung on the wall, titled Pedestal, the impression one gets is like collecting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There is a photograph of an under-construction building that looks like a gantry — a one-tier concrete ceiling on a few pillars. It appears to be half-demolished even before its completion — another ordinary derelict view in the newly developed suburbia.

On closer inspection, one notices a random juxtaposition of body parts rendered in yellow. An oil painting of a girl’s head is placed on the rooftop. The detached but elaborated arms and legs are in a perpendicular view over and above the unfinished structure. The body parts are way more significant in proportion to the building. There are marks of surgical stitches on the neck and near the wrist on the left arm. A red bow hair clip, several plucked flower petals, and some multi-coloured bunting flags are left on the exit like a symbol of victory. Suddenly one can decode a discomforting simile. Sometimes we have to be content with loose pixels of an image.

The work Shrine shows a wall cabinet from Jan’s old house that has been demolished since. He has drawn a piece of a cloud, a two-pronged sword, fruits, a planter and candles in various islands in the cabinet. At the lowest tier, two legs lie side by side. There is a man’s bare foot and a woman’s foot with a shoe on. A red beaded necklace binds the two legs. A horse-like donkey seems hard-pressed behind the cabinet, wearing a lipstick and having a holy foot — all in oil pastels over a digital print. There’s a childlike sensibility about the work. The everyday objects and arrangements symbolise nostalgia. There is a perpetual impression on the artist — carrying on a virtual archive to converse with.

Haider Ali Jan’s new body of work investigates everyday beliefs and fragmented thoughts in our heads. One comes to the realisation eventually that the “fragments” are waiting to be connected into a coherent line of thinking and that each piece is critical to reaching the stage. Ordinary Existence was on display at the T2F gallery, from August 24 to September 5.

The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts & Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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