Some artists, curators and critics are seeking to bridge the gap between the written word and the drawn image
mages and text are twins that survive separately. However, being the tools of literacy, their existence is tied to each other. Before the invention of Gutenberg press, which made books available to a wider population, art performed the task of teaching the bible and describing the life of Jesus (peace be upon him) for those unable to read. Compared to handwritten manuscripts which were few, private and exclusive – mosaics and mural paintings in cathedrals were experienced by a large number of believers, even if they were illiterate or poor.
The passage of time changed this equation. Now books, like the early Christian paintings from the churches, are more accessible – both in terms of physical contact and comprehension of the content. You spend a few bucks and get whatever you need – ranging from a French philosopher’s collected essays to a Maori elder’s autobiography – delivered at your doorstep - original or translated into your preferred language. On the other hand, from the modern to present times, visual art has assumed an elitist character. A limited few are able to view it, less to possess it – and a select group can understand or identify with it. Contemporary art has become as elusive and hermeneutic as Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek tracts were in the medieval period.
The earliest scribes of religious texts chose classical, coded and obscure language to protect the divine message. However, soon translations were made into vulgate (common) dictions, beginning from Latin to tongues such as English, Persian, Malayalam, Chinese. After centuries, if the sacred script was clearly and largely transmitted to a general public, the works of art became a mysterious entity that require an art critic to decode, decipher and interpret them, not unlike a theologist’s job to decrypt holy books. The rising prices of artworks also add value as well as their esoteric flair.
Some artists, curators and critics (and some art organisations) are seeking to bridge the gap between the written word and the drawn image – a gulf that never existed in some traditional societies, for example the Chinese. Due to a practical reason: same brush (and ink) was used for writing and painting (often composed on the same page). Akin to Arab, Turkish, Persian and Mughal miniatures, in which painted pictures was part of the written matter, i.e, royal history, a medical treatise, a travel account or a piece of literature. Following these examples (and contemporary Western art), several artists have created artists’ books – mainly a collection of works on paper, loosely bound in a book form, occasionally some writing appearing here and there.
A recent group show of 12 artists/ educators was held on the theme of Artist-Book at Art Chowk, the Gallery, Karachi (May 2-12). Interestingly, a book, in the present times, is not limited to its conventional format: an accumulation of printed papers bound in a volume. There are other incarnations, like the MacBook (illustrated by Arsalan Nasir in his Dormant Folders, a work produced in the medium of ‘digital data on laptop’). Kindle books were in fashion not long ago; and today, one’s mobile phone functions as a book. Entire publications can be downloaded as PDF. There are manuals, consisting mostly of pictures and minimum descriptions. Braille books do not look like items you easily collect from a nearby bookstore.
Apart from these formal differences, books can be grouped in various categories. Some tell the truth; some are based on lies. Some convey the word of God, narrate the past or confirm the presence of power (penal code). Whether they are called textbooks on history or memoirs, one feels that many titles are works of fiction. Perhaps a book based on facts – but now defunct – was the telephone directory (I was tempted to include the Railway Timetable in this category, but it serves as a literary invention in the country.).
This is A Work…. by Ayaz Jokhio, is a comment on the anatomy of creating and consuming a piece of literature. Jokhio, took an existing book, and rigorously made every word, line, paragraph, page illegible. Using a pen, he transformed the language into marks,that still resembled words but were deprived of meaning.
No matter what a book is about, or when it was written, or its initial purpose; when we read it, we are conversing with the author. A book’s backbone is the language, so one presumes that it transmits its content equally and effortlessly. However, this does not happen so smoothly. Like a person standing in front of or around a work of art, and picking clues to formulate a personal/ private story in his/ her mind, a reader sometimes plucks a content different from what was initiated and intended by the author.
Books, like many works of art, keep on changing, though not physically. A painting by Wassily Kandinsky (Upward) created in 1929 would remain untouched and a novel by William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) first published 1929 would never be revised. However, if a viewer or a reader is interacting with either, he/ she gathers a specific message. A receiver’s involvement not only unearths the content, it also shapes and alters it.
When reading a book or looking at a work of art, we are processing these through our tinted, tainted and adjusted lenses. A person may talk about a book, analysing, criticising and condemning, without studying it. Oscar Wilde admitted: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices me,” because when an individual reads a text, he/ she filters it through what is already in one’s mind. The importance of text, or engagement with it, was superbly suggested by Ayaz Jokhio in his work This is A Work of Fiction (from the recently concluded exhibition at the Art Chowk).
This is A Work… by Ayaz Jokhio, is a comment on the anatomy of creating and consuming a piece of literature. Jokhio, took an existing book, and rigorously made every word, line, paragraph, page illegible. Using a pen, he transformed the language into marks, that still resembled words, but were deprived of meaning. This act of desecrating could be connected to two phenomena. Deconstructing text in an academic environment, excavating the unknown content out of an apparent text. It also reminds one of the late 1970s and 1980s in Pakistan, when newspapers were forced to follow a severe censorship; changing banned matter into a blank column, or a sequence of darkened and jumbled up letters. Concealing the intent of the scribe – though some adventurous sort were still able to guess the matter. Jokhio’s artwork in the form of an unreadable volume, may relate to those horrible, terrible – yet bearable periods, when the censorship was visible and external.
It appears that the artist has dealt with greater and more crucial philosophical issues about what we read when we open a book. The distorted text alludes to the act of reading between the lines and beyond; finding the content in the writer or in the book. The distance between the author and his/ her fabulation was also indicated in the work of Raheela Abro, by separating the book made by her and her self-portrait. Signifying the split between the author, the work, and the audience. Questions that concerned cultural theorists such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, not claiming anyone responsible – the maker, the consumer or the milieu.
In a similar sense, no single person could be named as the curator of this exhibition at the Art Chowk; although Raheela Abro was instrumental in inviting a range of artists including Ayesha Naveed, Haider Ali Naqvi, Khalid Soomro, Mahreen Zuberi, Munawar Ali Syed, Shazia Qureshi, Sheema Khan, SM Raza, and Yasmeen Salman.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore..