Irfan Hasan and Aamir Habib’s work displayed at Amygdala exhibition deals with separate issues
n some homes you spot birds in cages; parrots, pigeons and other species. Grownups collect them; children take care of them; and guests adore them. Whether put in wood or wire contraptions, the caged birds turn into pretty, prized collections. Many keepers consider a cage a safe haven for the delicate breeds, protecting them from wild animals, harsh environments and starvation. Consequently, the birds lose their instinct to be free and fly. I recall a parrot from my childhood. Left out of the cage, it refused to fly. It just hopped around as if a creature without wings. One fine morning it disappeared.
Many artists have a similarly strong, strange and unrelenting connection with their skill set. In some instances, the presence of a skill, instead of being a facility, becomes a burden. It’s a never-ending confinement they are happy with and proud to show off. Generally, the viewers are impressed, even bewitched with the high level of skill evident in the works of certain artists: their command over delineating human figures, their control in capturing light on a figure or in the background, their capacity to replicate another picture and their mastery over the material/ medium used for producing a work of art.
These hardworking individuals, widely admired for their skill, feel safe and content in their cage(s). To some artists the ability to draw the anatomy is the prime task and the ultimate achievement. When it comes to concepts, concerns, comments and compositions, they are content with shallow solutions. For instance, as in the case of an absolutely sensitive painting of a female body with excessive textures, decorative patterns and sprinkles of colours; or an impressive depiction of muscles, skin, hair, without a profound idea.
In itself, the skill to replicate human likeness is not a great achievement. Yet many rely on this gift. Trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Arts (2006) Irfan Hasan has made a name and a niche for himself on the basis of his remarkable skill, rendering each pore, fold, fault of the human flesh. In the past, he has painted photo-realistic portraits of soldiers, young men from the Northern Areas of Pakistan and models working in art schools. Probably, the choice of an army man supporting a thick moustache, a youth from Chitral with light complexion and blue eyes; and their unique outfits (turban in the former, and the woollen cap in the latter) added to the visuals.
In his latest work, displayed with Aamir Habib’s mixed media sculptures at their Amygdala exhibition (from November 5 to 14, Numaish Gah, Lahore), he seems to be following a similar course of image making. But compared to his previous series of portraits (2016), the recent body of work has more complexity.
As titles indicate, the references are derived from the canvases of William Adolphe Bouguereau, Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Battista, Pompeo Batoni and Anna Louis Girodet. The subject of these – selected and cropped images range from a man saving a youth (The Flood) to hunt (The Tiger Hunt, The Wild and Fox Hunt), an old man grabbing a young damsel (Rape of Oreithiyia), an awakening goddess (Dawn) and a woman holding a bow next to a child (Diana and Cupid). Looking at these portions of classical paintings joined with profiles of different men, one fails to make a logical or aesthetic association. The choices seem random, abrupt and superficial. The painter could have switched one part with another, without causing much pictorial disbalance or shift in meaning.
The backbone of the work appears to be a demonstration of Hasan’s skill. Ironically, skill, like the last friend, betrays one when it is one’s sole reliance. Hence the rendering is stiff, forced and insipid. It lacks lucidity, which was a hallmark of his earlier paintings.
On the other hand, Aamir Habib has displayed a number of art pieces that map his journey from the fascination for skill to its manipulation. A work of art ceases to be one once a viewer begins noticing the craft and nothing else. The American philosopher and writer Susan K Langer in her book, Problem of Art, observes that one stops enjoying dance the moment one starts looking at the limbs. The great masters, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vermeer were not after impressing their viewers with their skill. It was a vehicle to convey something big, beyond and boisterous. In Habib’s work one is impressed with his fabrication of sculptures in fiberglass, resin and other materials. A group of four snakes, a partly chewed cookie, a large ear with a pin going through it, are remarkably fabricated. However, beyond the initial excitement these objects leave little effect that could guarantee the afterlife of an art piece.
The history of Aamir Habib’s art is varied and venerated. For the first edition of Karachi Biennale (2019) he constructed a life-size donkey carrying two TV sets on either side, like a usual beast of burden with sacks of sand or soil. In his last solo exhibition, Yours Truthfully (November 2021, Canvas Gallery Karachi), he produced a number of sculptures, which besides astonishing viewers made them speculate about their reality. The distance between the truth and fake news; the lure and illusion of media were among the subjects dealt by the artist. At his Canvas exhibition, a large ear with earphones, implied how we remove the sounds, views and reception from our surroundings, by plugging a common device into our body.
Using the same title, Selective Listening, the recent sculpture of an ear at Numaish Gah is a mere repeat. It has a needle changing its course, which for the artist signified the trend of body piercing.
Aamir Habib, bringing out an old TV set from his collection, has transformed it into a semblance of controlled content. Titled Breaking News, the TV screen in pixelated script transmits the message ‘This is a breaking News’ but nothing else signifying a viewer’s fear, expectation and fulfilment on coming across this warning. I remember days of regular and perpetual terrorist attacks in Pakistan and being disappointed with bulletins lacking ‘breaking news.’
Cut Through Air With a Knife is an installation that comprises two arrangements of (27 & 29) wooden knives; in two formations, with their residue of bleeding blood. The work signifies the presence of violence in a society, where customers go to get their fresh chicken at a meat shop. Butchers are also the most sought after professionals on the Eidul Azha. Not long ago, the blood of innocents was shed by the militants at mosques, markets, parks and public places. A number of artists, including Adeela Suleman, have used knives in their art to denote this situation. Habib has now created his own set of knives still dripping with fresh or dried blood.
It’s difficult to find a common thread between Irfan Hasan and Aamir Habib. They are apparently dealing with separate imagery, issues and positions. However, one cannot complain about this minor issue, because the esoteric name of the exhibition, Amygdala, hogs all attention. Some of the viewers thought it was the name of an Ayurvedic medicine, others an ancient gladiator from the Colosseum. A few said it was the title of a science fiction book. It actually means “a roughly almond-shaped mass of grey matter inside each cerebral hemisphere, involved with the experience of emotions.”
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore