Between dream and nightmare

April 30, 2023

Moeen Faruqi’s work is populated with strange, unusual and distanced characters

Between dream and nightmare


oeen Faruqi’s work can be deciphered through a phrase coined by 19th Century Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi, who said: “the soul imagines what it can’t see.” Although painting is a product for the optic nerve, Faruqi’s canvases lead us to the realm of unknown, unseen and unpredictable. He journeys to the land of phantasmagory in the company of Marc Chagall, Tassadaq Suhail and Anwar Saeed. This is a kingdom, where fish fly, animals converse, beasts share human characteristics and cockerels and parrots speak. These are not separate from ancient myths and popular tales like Aesop’s Fables, Kalila wa Dimna, Tutinama or Walt Disney cartoons.

Seeing Moeen Faruqi’s paintings, watercolours and ink on paper from his solo exhibition Continuum, (April 25 to May 4 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), one wonders about the location of this world and about the reason for its existence/ creation. Some writers have suggested that God conceived the entire universe – including human beings - to address his solitary state.

Aleksandar Hemon’s version is that “The Holy One kept creating worlds and destroying them... just before giving up, He finally came up with this one.” In a similar way, artists, particularly those who reconstruct a private realm, also deal with their loneliness and their alienation.

It is generally understood that alienation is a 20th Century phenomenon - an outcome of industrialisation and urbanisation. In a factory, a worker turns himself into a tool of a large machine. Unlike a traditional artisan who has definite ideas about his creations and his clients, the factory employee is pure labour. Similarly, the structures of cities, particularly the localities in which walls of a house are not joined with others’, each inhabitant is disconnected from his/ her neighbours. Each family is therefore an independent, sole and solitary unit, delinked from the collective.

In fact, collective existence is a threat to tyrannical states, incompetent governments and other institutions of power including industrial exploiters. Section 144 in Pakistani law is an example f this. It “authorises the Executive Magistrate of any state or territory to issue an order to prohibit the assembly of four or more people in an area”. There have been bans on festivals (Basant in the Punjab), prohibition of New Year celebrations, threats to Valentine Day activities and restrictions on Aurat March because these provide platforms to claim freedoms, rights and enjoyment as a community.

Another factor in alienation is the intrusion of social media in our lives.

One frequently sees families or groups of people gathered for a meal at an eatery who instead of talking to one another are busy checking their mobile phones and responding to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter friends. They are involved in an activity not dissimilar to the world fabricated by Moeen Faruqi. It is populated by strange, unusual and distanced characters. There are men and women surrounded by birds and animals and surviving in a space that lacks a sense of belonging.

Between dream and nightmare

Painter Moeen Faruqi, also a poet, builds a tiny exclusive territory “where the characters appear to have freed themselves of their erstwhile dread.

Faruqi manages the Karachi kahani phenomenon, as explained in the artist’s statement, “with colourful, contradictory, seemingly impossible characters and situations” employing a number of strategies and techniques. The painter, also a poet, builds a tiny exclusive territory “where the characters appear to have freed themselves of their erstwhile dread. Tired of carrying the weight of reality, they have created their own vibrantly coloured, free and fantastical existence.”

Faruqi’s current exhibition shows a shift in his approach. The architecture of his universe does not depend upon a clearly drawn demarcation between human and animal, between physical and imaginary, between the external and the inner arenas. It is based on a blurring of the boundaries. You recognise the face of the artist, or his companion, but soon you move further from these narrow marks of identification. What Faruqi fabulates is a scenario, a situation many viewers can identify with, since it does not exist in front of our eyes, but resides in our imagination, fantasies and memories.

In our dreams we have the freedom and space and the courage to encounter an array of flying fish, intruding canines and chattering parrots. We believe in the factuality of this night vision, as much as we are confident of our day-time observations even though both stand apart and are contradictory. One usually considers the world of nightmare being violent, ferocious and frightening, but our wakeful hours can sometimes be more cruel, illogical and unbearable. At least there is no causality at night, no corpses, no explosions and no accidents. When we open our eyes in the morning our bed sheets are creased but pristine white. There is no residue of bloodshed and no debris.

For a sensitive individual in our times dreams provide a safe haven. The nocturnal encounter could stem from our desires, disappointments, desolations, yet all these relate to the other side of reality. Faruqi meticulously manufactures the outlines of this existence, which includes several elements: anxiety, fear, grief, melancholy, and loss (the artist lost his wife in 2018). In order to render this state, Faruqi relies on a number of artistic devices. His figures, faces, bodies, backgrounds are daubed in colours that cannot be associated with a normal experience of reality but feel truer. It is the eloquence of narration that converts everything into a truth. The corpus of history, from Herodotus, Livy and Plutarch to Marco Polo and our centuries survives not because what they recounted were facts (there was/ is hardly a yardstick to judge that) but on the basis of its power of persuasive narration.

What Farooqi constructs is a personal and private place. It seems to be not from this world or another world after, but from a purgatory. His formal choices contribute to deepening the state of disorientation, de-situatedness and dismay. Portraits of men and women covered with patches, stripes and shapes of strong colours (Adam, Eve, Face), look as if in the phase of being reformed at a transitory stage. More than that, some images of extraordinary origin/ identity are delineated in flat and plain colours, suggesting the unbearable weight of the reality.

In his earlier work, Moeen Faruqi had preferred to demarcate things, people, places through separate areas of colour – again visible in Estranged Family, Two Figures, Red Figures, Reformed Man. A number of other canvases indicate a new, a painterly quality. These include I Never Said I Love You, Karachi Kahani 5&6, Morning Memories, My Life as a Dreamer, The One Who Taught Me Colour. These paintings depict more of the artist’s impulsive hand rather than his controlling mind so that the colours and forms are not contained in precise sections (unlike his previous compositions); they mingle, mix and often dismantle their boundaries.

Faruqi creates a pictorial plane that is as crowded, superimposed and layered as life. The work on view at the Canvas Gallery could be an ode to private life, or an account of the artist’s encounters/ observations, from any place or hour. In the words of Joseph Brodsky, “it’s just a midnight journey.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Between dream and nightmare