Of self and other demons

June 11, 2023

Shahid Hassan Boni has portrayed himself as desolate, disoriented and misfit

Shahid Hassan Boni: ‘Familiar Water’ .
Shahid Hassan Boni: ‘Familiar Water’ .


n normal circumstances, artists often (if not always) complain about their contemporaries, predecessors and the younger generation; about galleries, critics, curators, collectors; the government, the society and their families. A major chunk of Urdu poetry consists of bards whining on and on about the unjust conditions and the fate. To them, and many other creative practitioners, every other person is an enemy, or borrowing Sartre’s phrase, “the hell.”

But deep down, a creative individual also finds it difficult to deal with his/ her own self. Many artists, writers, film makers, actors, musicians and dancers have had terrible patches in their careers. Some suffered madness and ended up in asylums (Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound); many have had to seek counselling and treatment to cope with their depression, hallucinations and phobias. Yet a large number are hesitant to admit this and pretend to always act rationally. In reality, a substantial community of artists and art students have experienced an intense phase that is not ‘normal’. One may come across such ‘misfits’ in art schools - places to nurture, protect and support weird wanderers. (I recall a student – later rising to become an established painter – who from his foundation year was called ‘psycho.’ Another – now with a monograph on him – was called ‘super psycho’ by his class fellows).

Like a volcanic burst of creative energy that the world cannot handle easily, artists too can find it hard. They can be unhappy, miserable, distressed; conditions that occasionally emerge in their work. The bright, blazing and beautiful canvases of Van Gogh have outlived his clinical history, like the uncanny imagery of Munch has obliterated the troubles of this Norwegian painter. Confronted with these cases, one may question the nature of sanity: the ability to create a work for the eternal delight of human race; or to vegetate between the work place and home, gazing at the TV screen in-between. To inspire a huge part of humanity with his/ her production (even if made at a mental clinic); or to survive being a regular, boring, and banal creature – forgotten long before one’s physical demise.

In that context, given a choice (not customary in these matters), an artist may prefer insanity, since it could suffice him/ her a fodder of imaginative substance. But like religion, ethnicity, and gender (prominent markers of identity), one does not choose the state of one’mental health. For some this functions perfectly well, but gets disrupted the next moment. Such was the case with Shahid Hassan Boni, once an exemplary student of fine art at the National College of Arts, who after his father’s death faced a grave emotional crisis and was unable to handle his studies. He had to take a two-year gap. Her resumed studies afterwards and produced some remarkable pieces of miniature painting in his graduating year (2021). In those works, a man, naked, was confronted with structures and constraints: like an Adam in natural attire before the fall, appearing unfit in his surroundings.

In a recently opened two-person exhibition, Free Will (June 4-13, Numaish Gah, Lahore), Shahid Hassan Boni is displaying his new work, linked to his degree show. In these gouache and graphite on wasli paper and acrylic on canvas, Boni has portrayed himself as a desolate, disoriented and misfit amidst alien confinement. Confined by Freedom and Walled show an individual trapped in societal structures – suggested by a semi-naked or naked man in a four-wall cube, with a small window that reveals sections of the world outside but leads nowhere. In Familiar Water, a man swims against the current. One presumes that as a sensitive painter, his condition in the past has taught him – at an unconscious level – to translate normal situations into metaphors of a contradiction/ conflict between freedom and conformity.

Hooria Khan: ‘Hear Nothing’.
Hooria Khan: ‘Hear Nothing’.

Hooria Khan, a regular graduate of miniature painting from the National College of Arts, is prepared to portray demons that exist within us and outside. A brilliant painter, Khan has investigated how monsters were illustrated in the history of art – particularly in Persian and Mughal miniatures.

Metaphors, one feels should be collected in an artist’s tool kit, since these help in constructing complex thoughts in an accessible mode.

Hooria Khan, the other participant in Free Will, also addresses the hidden crevices of our psyche. Boni suffered a psychological imbalance in the past but refrains from depicting his inner demons directly. On the other hand, Hooria Khan, a regular graduate of miniature painting from the National College of Arts, is prepared to portray demons that exist within us and around us. A brilliant painter, Khan has investigated how monsters were illustrated in the history of art – particularly in Persian and Mughal miniatures. Her work, from the present exhibition, includes images of demons; and flora and fauna inspired from the tradition of miniature painting (especially based on Farid Uddin Attar’s The Conference of Birds); and – the physical – fungus preserved on her surfaces.

One ponders upon the imbibing of these influences in a single visual. These cohabit with a certain logic in Hooria Khan’s aesthetics. As in a fairy tale or real life, a perfect setup can be threatened by a monstrous entity like fungus. Hooria Khan has been incorporating fungi in her wasli surfaces since her degree show (2021). In her latest paintings, she has combined her painterly elements and experimental excursions in a perfect scheme. One hardly notices the predominant presence of one element or the other, because her tools, vision and expertise create a narrative beyond what is visible on the paper.

Employing her unmatched skills, Khan renders birds and vegetation in her mixed media surfaces, so sensitive that one is tempted to touch the species (made of gouache on paper); but cannot, because these are encircled by a band of demonic figures which confine and imprison flowers of a natural habitat, as in Blind Captivity, or birds in a cluster, as in Bird House. The delicate forms, detail of feathers and the capturing of birds’ flight reconnect Khan’s work with the classical art of miniature painting, particularly Mughal and Persian (Khan emphasises this link by titling her work in Persian).

Hooria Khan’s imagery deals with a content that relates to contemporary conflicts - political, societal and personal. The birds (nightingale) appear agitated, with gaping beaks, shedding feathers and circling amid streaks of blood like tints. Their realm seems to be disturbed by invading monsters, those subjugating a domestic and/ or wild species, the monkeys; by covering their eyes, ears, mouths as in See Nothing, Hear Nothing and Speak Nothing. This body of work alludes to how the powerful play masters/ conjurers to ordinary people whom they tame/ restrain. In another work, Trap, three demons are shown capturing sparrows.

In a sense, the entire body of work by Hooria Khan is a comment on demons deeply rooted in the human soul. Monsters, as Khan paints them, have an exaggerated resemblance to a bulky man, clad in a loin cloth. These despicable figures of devils look dominant, disturbing, destroying and desecrating. Hooria Khan’s inclusion of fungi is a key to deciphering this atrocity. Apparently, a natural course alludes to unavoidable destruction. Thus, a world threatened by the decay; is also on the brink of extinction because of the human greed and the lust for control. Hooria Khan, in her intriguing and amazing works, reminds us that the (imaginary) demons and (physical) fungi have the potential and power to eliminate us – from within us and from outside.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Of self and other demons