Fate, fairies and demons

March 10, 2024

In Hooria Khan’s work, one comes across figures of demons, surrounded by flowers, clouds, birds and animals

Fate, fairies and demons


e often encounter imaginary entities. Someone being kind-hearted or belonging to a pious family is called an angel. A beautiful and delicate girl is often described as a fairy. An untiring person who works extremely hard is mentioned as a djinn. A wicked and evil man is referred to as Satan. In Hindi movies, some characters act like Bhagwan. Momentarily, we personify those, who are invisible, but frequent our languages, beliefs, myths, folk tales and literature.

Art too. If one sifts through a book of art history, one finds angels, God, Satan, devils, djinns, monsters and fairies depicted across cultures and periods: in frescos, mosaics, paintings, sculptures, miniatures, manuscripts, rugs, illustrating the themes of Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and other religions. A follower, who has complete faith in the existence of the Creator, and His message/ teaching, also believes in these imaginary beings that emerge in visual arts, as well as in the pages of sacred texts.

In the past, the making of pictorial arts was a means to explain, communicate and document religious narrative and history, the marked difference between the makers of these works and the producers of other forms (secular, decorative, random) is of faith and speculation. Artists with religion-based work are genuinely convinced of the holiness of their imagery, whereas the fabricators of patterns, landscapes, still life and abstract surfaces do not subscribe to a truth outside of their formal practice. The strong belief makes it possible for the artists to create visuals, which invoke and instil a similar level of faith in the viewers/ consumers of those images. Invisible beings have been portrayed so convincingly that no one can doubt their presence, leave alone existence.

A similar frame of thought was visible in Hooria Khan’s recently concluded solo exhibition, The Viewing, The Viewer and The Viewed (February 25-March 5, Numaish Gah, Lahore). In a majority of her paintings – both on paper and barks – one came across figures of demons, mostly surrounded by flowers, clouds, birds and animals. In several pieces, these creatures were holding birds and small animals, or appeared to be in conversation with strange species from the animal kingdom, or in contact with each other, for instance, fighting.

One, at this point, thinks about the reason for Hooria Khan (a graduate of miniature painting from National College of Arts) to keep on repeating the motif of demons in her paintings. Khan is also known and admired for building her surfaces with fungi and incorporating it in her imagery/ content. The presence of these demons is not new either; as it was observed in her superbly executed paintings at her degree show (2021).

Probably, the world of Hooria Khan (born in Rahim Yar Khan, and living in Lahore after her graduation) is crowded with demons. According to her, in recent paintings, she is “exploring the nuances of violence, a theme often romanticised in our social fabric, yet seldom examined in depth and with empathy for those marginalised by its effect.” The presence of these odd creatures, of a static age – hence eternal (like God, angels, fairies, Satan, who would never grow old or die) indicates the existence and expansion of demonic tendencies in humans. They scheme against weaker fellows and terrorise and destroy them – on battlefields, in domestic environments, in public spaces, on social media, for a number of motives, and employing a variety of tactics; ranging from words to weapons.

Probably, the world of Hooria Khan is crowded with demons. She is “exploring the nuances of violence, a theme often romanticised in our social fabric, yet seldom examined in depth and with empathy for those marginalised by its effect.

The violence is usually against a vulnerable opponent and immediate victim: a child going to a seminary; an adolescent girl alone at home; a subordinate at office; a protestor on the street; or a community targeted because of its sect, ethnicity and cultural differences. Hooria Khan maps this situation by drawing her references from the past, the history of art, particularly of Persian, Arab, Mughal and Chinese painting. It is rare for an artist at this stage of her career to inquire about her theme and forms in such an intense, detailed, dedicated manner. In a sense, her art is about reclaiming the broader identity of miniature painting, not a replica or continuation of the Mughal School, but accepting and absorbing its multiple practices, histories and facets.

The formulation of clouds in a number of works alludes to Arab and Chinese paintings; the anatomy of demons seems to be derived from Persian miniatures. The inclusion of birds, flowers and animals is connected to naturalistic rendering favoured by the painters of Jahangir’s court (like Mansur). Imagery from the Mughal emperor’s era inspired a specific work (Pulse of the Land, 2024), in which Khan appropriates the well-known miniature Emperor Jahangir Triumphing over Poverty (1620-1625). In the original painting by Abul Hasan, the sovereign is aiming his bow against an old and blackened figure, while standing on a globe in which a lion and a goat coexist peacefully. In Hooria Khan’s version, the blue blooded monster replaces the king, and points his arrow at a distant elephant. While balanced on an identical – ideal sphere/ setting, with a lion and a goat side by side – the world is being hit by two opposing elephants.

Her new work, while featuring her earlier pictorial motifs and concerns, is a step forward in its commentary on the social and political conditions, both inner and external. The work has noticeably evolved in terms of ideas and imagery as well as in technique. Khan’s unmatched skill in delineating flowers, sparrows and hares is evident; her use of fungi has become more painterly, rather sculpturesque. Pieces of dried out fungus stuck on wasli papers, turn into an integral part of the meaning, since these add to the story of gloom, narrated in charming hues and delicate tones. The use of deep red, details of flora and fauna, sensitive textures and handling of colour persuade a viewer to discover a cruel content. Small birds lying dead under flower bushes, rabbits with red patches on their bodies gathered around the dominating demon, a scarlet devil overpowering an innocent looking hare, another one holding the animal from its haunches with fungus glued to his body, with blood spots visible on the animal’s chest. All these allude to what is unfolding in front of our eyes, on TV screens, in social media and in our waking nightmares.

The title of the exhibition, The Viewing, The Viewer and The Viewed, refers to a portion of Ghalib’s verse, about the essence of viewing, the viewer and what is viewed being one so that there is no justification for an outside, detached objective view. It seems that Hooria Khan is reiterating the fact that the victim, the oppressor and the spectator cannot be separated from one another. An individual watching atrocities in Gaza at the breakfast table has a role just like Israel, Hamas, the Arab nations and the US. Already “the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem has coined a saying: ‘All the blood flows to the wound.’”

The write is an art critic based in Lahore.

Fate, fairies and demons