The world of white

October 30, 2022

The sculpture exhibition at COMO Museum of Art presents works from across statuses, experiences, exposures, subjects, solutions

The world of white


n January-February of last year, some gardeners constructed a torso of Allama Iqbal at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park (in Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore). The bard was sculpted holding a pen, supporting his signature moustaches and with a shawl wrapped around his body. He appeared to be in deep contemplation. The sculpture was surrounded by a bed of marigold flowers. The sculpture soon became a trend on social media and was noticed by the authorities. It was then found inappropriate and dismantled, not because of some objection to the representation of human body in plastic arts, but due to its crude fabrication, which was considered distasteful and disrespectful to the image of our national poet.

The sculpture, regardless of its aesthetic quality or artistic merit, or issues of resemblance, became a defining point. Humble gardeners had assembled this figure, a large piece in fact, out of their love, devotion and regard for the great writer. However, to many it did not look like the man and was caricature-sque. This was a silly observation because its makers didn’t want to humiliate the national poet.

Painters of Mughal miniatures, carvers of Egyptian reliefs, producers of African masks, and sculptors of Far Eastern deities portray human figures and features according to their norms, which do not match the Western standards of physicality. Even in the European societies, one witnesses great deviations. For instance, in Michelangelo’s masterpiece Pieta,a sculpture of Virgin Mary holding Jesus after crucifixion, the mother and son are of the same age – which is impossible. Yet the statue is revered as a depiction of the holy personage. Similarly,many representations of Buddha in India, Sri Lanka, China and South East Asia have elongated ears and a third eye in the middle of two eyebrows, in some cases highly stylised. These are highly remote from our understanding of human proportions, features etc, but believers consider all of this as faithful pictures of historical characters.

The issue with Iqbal’s statute was not its lack of observation, but its mode of making, which confirmed the absence of a conventional art training; it was a three-dimensional version of what an untrained man would draw with pen, pencil or chalk on a flat surface. It revealed the modest background of its makers.

The bureaucratic elite couldn’t tolerate this intervention by the masses.

On the other hand, some highly educated professionals,including artists, viewed this sculpture in a different way. They appreciated, supported and admired it. For their sophisticated eyes and mind, there is no one, authentic manner of portraying a human/historical figure and all attempts and variations are kosher.

Ayaz Jokhio has paid homage to those unnamed gardeners who initially paid homage to Dr Iqbal by installing his portrait at a public space. Jokhio's work, a small replica of the original (now destroyed) sculpture of Iqbal in white is part of COMO Museum of Art, Lahore’s current exhibition, Sculptor/Sculpture.

One can imagine how difficult it would be for the employees of the PHA, to produce that ambitiously large human figure (despite the fact that their efforts were called uncouth and immature). It’s even harder for an artist trained in the science/skill of observation, to forget all that learning and return to an elementary scheme of shaping the human body.

Ayaz Jokhio did manage to recreate the poet in the portrait in white, celebrating a genuine public sculpture and simultaneously lamenting on its loss. (Ironically, Jokhio’s initial clay model is also broken – due to the mould-cast process – at his work place.). Occupying a niche at the COMO Museum, Jokhio’s work is a means to revive a popular art piece and include it in the ziggurat of high art.

He has also made it pristine white, associated traditionally with high and classical statuary; since Greek marbles and their Roman reproductions are white. (Originally they were painted in various shades, but with the passage of time their surfaces turned blank).

Another white, another remarkable work at the COMO Museum, consists of maps of various nation-states. Arranged as a group of high-rise structures, these maps by Nausheen Saeed, convey an uncanny sensation. Due to their precise borders, these signify specific countries, i.e., Jordan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and several other states. But as soon as one recognises shapes of countries, one realizes that all of them – contrary to reality – are of identical size. Hence the New World Order title of the installation. Along with scale, the whiteness serves as an equalising element in territories conceived and created by Saeed. The divides of colour, race, economy, political system, language, religion, history are eradicated in favour of a neutral and calming white.

White continues as a preferred tone in the white corridors of the COMO Museum. Sadqain has sculpted the plan of a house in plaster; a work that exists between the drawing of a building and its construction. The raw treatment of plaster and the uneven layout add to the tactile sensibility of the work, which can be accessed by moving around it – and not entering it – like a locked house. Yet a viewer can see the entire area of the structure, suggesting how our homes, offices, streets, neighbourhoods, cities, countries are exposed to the Google maps.

The slight difference between exposed and covered, between explicit and subtle, is addressed in the work of Rabiya Ilyas. Two round forms, each with a central circle, suggest female breasts, but at the same instance these can be read as eyes. The use of mirror on their outer surfaces is highly significant, because this reflective material defies a gaze to stay for long on these pieces. Another work, a wall made of several tiny and textured portions from varying structures, by Noor Ali Chagani is based on a purely pictorial – read sensuous – encounter.

Probably the strongest point of this sculpture exhibition (opened on September 10, and closing in January 2023) is that it presents works from across statuses, experiences, exposures, subjects, solutions. Artists selected through an open call for this show, offer multiple interpretations of the term sculpture. From intricate, intimate and excellent installation of Ujala Hayat, to profound exertions in the sensibility of layers upon layers by Kishwar Kiani, to the driftwood of Ayesha Quraishi, that look like the body of a drowned being. These concerns are further experienced/explored in the site-specific installation of Mahbub Jokhio, Art For All.There are empty (perhaps) shoe boxes packed in the bookshop space of the Museum. The cartons have a text which – originally conceived and created for The Factory project (curated by Rameesha Azeem) at a shoe producing unit –deals with blending a leather good with artwork.

The extension in the notion and definition of sculpture by Mahbub Jokhio, Nausheen Saeed, Ayaz Jokhioand others reminds the glorious past of the Gandhara statuary, a melting point of Greek and Indian traditions; and present-day practice of making religious roadside installations/decorations. Their works, though small in stature,are contemporary in nature; as well as stones in the archaeological museums of Pakistan, signify that despite the bigotries in the name of religion, custom, prejudices, the art of making sculpture is widespread. From the unkempt gardeners of Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park to a road side seller organising his fruits and vegetables on the basis of colour, shape, and scale, to some of the most important names of Pakistani art exhibiting at the COMO Museum.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

The world of white