Kiran Saleem creates an alternative version of the past that is different in terms of chronology and location
ike multiple identities, people also have multiple pasts. A person carries individual, political, professional, official and national histories. Some of these are shared while some are secret; some are public, others private; a few are pleasant and many painful. We often dwell on past rather than future and spend substantial time and effort in constructing and correcting the past. One selects and forms connections with one’s narratives of the past, in order to be a part of the present.
We also view the entire planet from the perspective of self (physically too, since we see everything around us, and ourselves, through the small personal apparatus: the eyes). Not long ago, mothers and grandmothers used to measure and remember historical landmarks in reference to events in their lives. For instance, “the war between India and Pakistan took place the year of our marriage.” Or “a famine erupted in India the year your grandfather died.” “They attacked the Twin Towers in New York when my first born was just seven-months old,” and so forth.
Every human is linked to others. In her latest work, Kiran Saleem is creating a particular version of the past. This past is different from that known to some other people in terms of chronology, and distinct with regard to location. In her recent paintings (from the one-person exhibition, History Within History, November 28 to December 7, Canvas Gallery Karachi), she has created a blend of two divergent sources of history. In each exhibit, you see a family photograph from the second half of the last century, and a canvas dating back to much earlier eras.
I recall watching an interview with the American actor Barbra Streisand, known and loved for her prominent nose, talking about her first movie, and instructing the cameraman to focus on her nose, and just get it over. In the same lieu, one must get over with the skill part of Kiran Saleem. She demonstrates her tremendous and unbelievable mastery in rendering her imagery – derived from diverse periods of European art history, along with her artistic maturity in composing the appropriate pictures from her family photo albums. Even though the domestic snapshots are reproduced digitally on the surfaces, in comparison to meticulously painted visuals from art history, the skill is evident in the way she has joined the two elements.
Her decision to compose the images from two origins is a key to understanding her position and deciphering her aesthetics. A connection between East and West is not simple and neutral since it entails complex bounds, turns and folds. Students of art, many from South Asia, like other parts of the globe, are exposed to world art as small reproductions in glossy publications. So, no matter whether it is the Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo, or the expressive canvases of Jackson Pollock, or immersive installations of Bill Viola, it is accessed as a photograph, a medium that reduces the reality by flattening, muting and halting it. At the same time it preserves it for longer and brings it to innumerable, unknown and remote audiences.
Saleem places the pictures from a household (valuable only for the family, and for sentimental reasons) to the level of greatly admired historic artworks. She finds a logical connection between human beings and large and old canvases, since both, eventually are reduced to small (and multiple) representations. Her way of recreating paintings of Anthony van Dyck and Goya to Edouard Manet and a few others – is not to re-paint the historic imagery, but to treat these as prints on papers with white margins around. Stuck to her surfaces with a paper tape, or torn from one side (like Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, 1862), or zoomed in as the detail, comprising two hands from a painting of the French School (1610). Each of these classical paintings is seen next to photographic prints from a certain date, known for their low chromatic quality and rounded edges.
Her decision to compose two images from two origins is a key to understanding her position and deciphering her aesthetics. A connection between East and West is not simple or neutral since it entails complex bounds, turns and folds.
In this new body of work, Kiran Saleem, more than painting, seems to be presenting two ways of seeing (and saying) while establishing a link between people, acts, backgrounds and emotions. Van Dyck’s Portrait of Princess Mary (1641) is joined with a picture of the artist’s elder sister as a young girl; and another painting of the Flemish master, Portrait of King Charles II as Child (1637) includes the photograph of Saleem’s brother as a boy. This creates a picture within a picture, or History Within History (the general title of the work). The artist weaves the narrative further – in time and context; because the earlier two paintings were commissioned in the Seventeenth-Century Flanders, Belgium, and the photographs were shot in Faisalabad from the 1980s; and Saleem’s work created in 2023 at her studio in Lahore.
This chain continues in every piece, but the artist’s selection of sources formulates and differentiates her content. Portraits of royalty are combined with ordinary citizens, in a way bringing them to an equal status. Every person who has been captured in/ converted into an image becomes eternal. The images also diminish the differences of time. It is like the doomsday when the entire humanity will be resurrected, all existing in a uniform time (if the notion of time survived); or like art history, in which every work that has survived till the age is contemporary – no matter if produced in Pharaonic Egypt, Ancient Greece, Medieval India, Renaissance Italy, 19th Century France or the present-day China.
Then there is another bond, relating to the activity, relationship, pleasure, from the recent and distant past, and from South Asia and Europe. Manet’s celebrated painting of four citizens enjoying a day outside of Paris, is composed with the photograph of the artist’s family having a picnic in a garden. Likewise, the canvas with a section from a painting of French School (1610) depicting two hands of a newlywed couple held together, is placed above the artist’s parents’ wedding photograph. The same pattern is followed in another work with the picture of the artist’s father sitting at his office table, juxtaposed with the print of Antonis Mor’s self-portrait in front of his easel, holding brushes and palette.
The act of joining personal history with the history of art is explored on another level in the painting that reproduces Anton Raphael Mengs’s Madonna and Child (1770) next to Kiran’s mother holding her as an infant (from the late 1980s). More than comparing two groups of mother and child, the work suggests something complex and profound. The history of Christian art includes a phase of iconoclasm as orthodox believers were opposed to portraying the holy figures. This custom would have continued had Pope Gregory the Great’s followers in 745 AD not argued that “If God in His mercy could decide to reveal Himself to mortal eyes in the human nature of Christ, why should He not also be willing to manifest Himself in visible images?... We worship God and the saints through or across their images.”
Anton Raphael Mengs’s paintings of sacred entities, in reality were portraits of ordinary models from the late Eighteenth Century Germany, elevated to the status of God. Introducing a similar visual, Kiran Saleem, connects her family’s story with the history of art and elevates her work to the art of museums.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.