Poetry of images

November 6, 2022

Stories – their telling and re-telling across generations and cultures – feature at the warm heart of artist Hassnain Awais’s work

Poetry of images


he inherent delicacy of the printmaking medium has always lured artists to draw on a lithographic stone, chemically etch onto a metal plate, or gouge into a slab of wood. Experimenting with print and technology has now brought about the new dynamics of printmaking that have broken the compartmentalisation by technique and material.

Despite being the most affordable, intimate and appealing of art forms, fine prints are still the esoteric products of art’s obsessional fringe. Time and again, many printmaking aficionados have attempted to highlight its potential. Hassnain Awais, being one of them, recently put together a show, Dastaan, Qissa, Kahani at Satrang Gallery in Islamabad. The show aimed to destabilise the preconceived notions about the medium and to expand its audience.

Even though artists today have undoubtedly exposed and used printmaking as their language of expression, the viewer and the buyer, however, are unaware of the difference between photo-mechanical reproductions and original prints made by printmakers. Though the diverse offerings featured in the show were clotted by the medium, the artist asserts, “I believe the medium one uses isn’t as important as the language and expression it tries to convey.”

Stories – their telling and re-telling and how to make meaning from them across generations and cultures – feature at the warm heart of Awais’s work. His artistic practice has long involved telling stories as a way of building empathetic connections with others and his current body of work builds on this process by weaving together the role of language, memory and interpretation.

Awais has been restless in his art career; he has been constantly searching, evolving and juggling his vocabulary to create and innovate. His visual language has a meticulousness and order of a fine contemporary miniature painter. What makes his work interesting is his ability to understand his limits and push them to the edge or challenge himself with the technique and language of other media. Like a skilled set designer, he negotiates objects that are chosen from the eclectic archives of personal memory or art history.

Awais traverses through time and the personal archives of references to images from art history. This conceptual strategy allows a freedom to juggle with images that resonate with one another to create new meanings and sometimes haiku-like references. “Like an archaeologist, I hunt for the image that speaks to me with a new meaning; at some unpredictable point along the way, in my mind, the images start to invent themselves. I create the image of that invention. Though I strive to make each document visually engaging, they turn into a kind of philosophical poetry that I can call my own.”

Since 2002, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of works in which Awais covers part of the painting with ornamentation, regardless of whether taken from carpet patterns or from sumptuous royal albums. By combining ornament and image, he has arrived at a form that provides the thinking behind escapism with both an external projection and an inner mood. With this, the exotic location can be brought back to the domestic refuge through the pattern, just as conversely the domestic location can be furnished with the insignia of alien beauty. Awais heightens his experience by supersizing the flora in his work and miniaturising. Moreover, the way he makes ornamental patterns grow from the leaves and twigs of these picture book plants is nothing short of masterful. The desired equation of garden and idyll is produced in the twinkling of an eye.

These interior spaces are complemented with landscapes recollected from memory, stillness and motion contrast with time and space in a holy union of contradictions. They suggest simultaneous narrations, multiple spaces and the artist is a choreographer of all these in a collage of our post-modern predicament.

For Awais, producing these works means incubating a second birth. “I wanted to create an enclosure, take the best elements of what I have perceived and put them in that enclosure. That way I could direct things that were already, that I could design and establish and reconstruct.” It is from just such a cavity that the artist’s visual autonomy and mobility are born. Awais glorifies the delirium of images, highlighting their disruptive, transgressive instances.

Seeking to express a desire to master the threshold between life and death – in the hope of fully grasping their synthesis – Awais uses an inordinately tactile imagery, one capable of creating a corporeal dimension in which images seem to sprout. It is as if the frame houses both pain and suffering, pleasure and sensuality – as though the artist is trying to externalise an eros-thanatos drive, a subject matter beckoning one to love but also reminiscent of dissection and loss. In Awais, this skin, site of the uncontrollable manifestations of existence is a threshold between outside and inside, between silence and screams, calm and violence. That is why it is often gouged with scratches and marks, both positive and negative, and printed using various chemicals to achieve different tones and layering. Finally, this paper-like skin is aged, looking almost as if it came from the 19th Century, assuming it was the tactility of an image having arisen from the earth.

Through all these processes, the emulsified surface, for the artist, becomes the membrane on which the vibrations and impulses, the uncertainties and indecisions of a new life are registered. The image is porous, impermeable, the seat of a deep perception at once physical and spiritual. In this sense it approaches painting, merging with the artist’s inner gaze; it is a piece of his skin that comes into being and grows, moving about like a living thing, subject to the uncontrollable impulses of his ego.

Awais works with resemblances and references as a way of emphasising that art has always taken the unutterable and unpresentable into account. “If I can’t find it in reality, I can make it happen somehow in the photographic material.”

Awais alters the digital images, scratching and adulterating them. The result is their transformation into still another testimony, that of Awais’s emotional reaction to his own images. The intervention on the images is important, because it reveals to the artist that images are not absolute crystallisations or quasi-impersonal, arid, frozen sensibilities, but rather potential materials of passage that may lead to other sources of expression. They are thresholds the artist can cross to reach other layers of emotion and communication. This passage is essential to an understanding of how the image, for Awais, is always a suspended aggregate, not a full whole.

The ubiquitous presence of the octopus in Awais’s recent body of images, is an antechamber of revelation. The protuberances and extensions of its body, from the leg to the arm, the foot to the hand, capture a dynamism and power of flesh and skin – an effervescence and tumescence that becomes erotic, as though sensuality were seeking an escape to the outside, beyond closed form and equilibrium. The artist bends and plastically transforms its figure, because in the swollen and the stretched he sees the passage to a manifestation of inner ecstasy.

Fumbling through the archives of images, Awais manipulates them; he subjects them to a law of imaginary conquest in order to create an excess representation, one capable of forming an erotic and macabre labyrinth. Appropriation is a way for him to link images with private motivations. Awais recognises himself in the subject as well as the object, which together become the narcissistic conquest of his identity. Digital collage and drawing, however, remain only tools of study and planning; the only practicable form of communication for the artist is the bodily form, and thus the only material to be shaped, disembodied or nullified, dressed up or reincarnated, remains the body. And although his vision inhabits a two-dimensional realm, the artist carries out his phantasmagorical shifts manually, by altering and transforming bodies both living and dead. And if it is possible in a collage to manipulate, assemble and paste in order to attain the power of revelation, the same must also be true of reality.

The normal destination of an entity is cancelled; its customary use value has no relation to its pieces. In order to recognise the presence of obsession and mania, of creativity and fantasy, reality must be diverted and reconstructed according to unnatural, unusual relationships.

Through the octopus, Awais re-evokes their forbidden territories, realms of the strange and deformed, the sublime and the terrifying; he recovers the ineffable, disturbing, extraordinary, repellent beauty of mixtures that lead from Bosch to Moreau. The octopi appear in several guises throughout the work – as a sinister, diabolical force in some and as a secretive, capricious intruder sliding in and out of unnamed envelopes rescued from memory without an address. Awais portrays the world of the present like a museum collection, a chaos and labyrinth registering the mad accumulation of things and acts. The updating of historical iconography and the adoption of a conventional language are part of a communicative strategy aimed at defining an intermediate dimension that, through the continuity of history, provides consolation for the mad intensity of the artist’s impulses.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

Poetry of images