Maps and realities

March 24, 2024

Mubashar Iqbal’s works, fabricated in metal sheets and enamel paint, varies in its dimensions, scale and format

Maps and realities


rawing maps has been an ancient practice of human beings. It represents a desire to grasp the world around us. The knowledge facilitates control and power over one’s surroundings. The capacity to define entails the ability to transform: representation is recreation.

Demarking one’s territory is an instinct, observed in animals, too. Mankind has divided the planet into continents, countries, regions, provinces, towns, neighbourhoods, lanes, houses, rooms etc. The topography of these segregations reveals several truths. If one looks at the borders of certain North African states, for instance the frontiers between Egypt and Sudan, Libya and Egypt, Chad and Libya, Algeria and Mali, Niger and Algeria, between Mauritania and Mali, one notices the presence of man-made lines separating lands belonging to independent nations: the dominating hand of a colonial officer who drew these boundaries.

Often the intervention of an outsider is not so overpowering. Mostly, it is a form of inquiry, a means to reflect on the outside, and a search for the inner self: usually interlinked and overlapped, like the work of Mubashar Iqbal in his recent exhibition, Ephemeral Spectrum, (March 5-14) at Canvas Gallery, Karachi. The wors for the solo show was fabricated in metal sheets and enamel paint and varied in dimensions, scale and formats.

Mubashar Iqbal, a fine art graduate from the National College of Arts (2019), is the seventh recipient of the KKAF-Vasl Research Grant 2023; the triangle collaboration among Khurram Kasim Art Foundation (KKAF), Vasl Artists’ Association, and Canvas Gallery. The grant “aims to support and fund talented emerging artists who demonstrate artistic merit and commitment to their creative practice, and show a keen interest in engaging and building ties with the community.” Iqbal indicated an aptitude for pursuing his formal concerns in a serious and dedicated scheme at his degree show, as well as in various group exhibitions held in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Therefore – and not surprisingly, he “was the qualifying artist, chosen from the 15th Taaza Tareen Vasl Residency Nirala Shehar – The Peculiar City.”

The work displayed at Canvas Gallery, the outcome of his year-long exploration, experiments and contemplation, is visibly different from his canvases of 2019. The previous paintings were contained within a conventional framework of rectangle and square, even though the imagery remained minimal, subtle, subdued and constructivist. In that work he delineated mundane objects, familiar spaces and random settings, but his act of translation was more of transformation. So much so that it was hard to identify details that retained traces of reality. They appeared abstract, even though rooted in his observation. Iqbal’s method of converting the external motif into personal expression was a process of removing layers. He peeled off unnecessary elements, to present the essence of a vision, built meticulously by laying down flat sections of varying hues and shapes.

Maps and realities

Mubashar Iqbal, a fine art graduate from the National College of Arts (2019), is the seventh recipient of the KKAF-Vasl Research Grant 2023; the triangle collaboration among Khurram Kasim Art Foundation, Vasl Artists’ Association, and Canvas Gallery.
Maps and realities

It was only by carefully looking at those paintings that a viewer was able to recognise the presence of a suitcase, a windowpane, parts of a chair, a typewriter, scattered plants and a few flowers through his careful rendering of outlines and sensitive – and sensible - selection of the right tones of an appropriate colour. The precise execution of those paintings added a sense of actuality. He, at an early stage of his career – from his final year of studies at the NCA, had developed an aesthetic of producing complex imagery by composing evenly daubed areas on a smooth surface. The perfection of outlines was achieved by masking the rest to fill one part, and then repeating the process till the image was complete and looked as if various cut-outs were placed on top of one another.

In artworks created during the period covered by the grant, Mubashar Iqbal separated the pictorial slices into physical components. Hence a number of paintings do not follow the format of a square/ rectangle, but have irregular configurations, like maps; because maps depict outlines that move, turn and twist, without following an apparent logic, yet someone aware of the connection of a map to a specific country believes in its accuracy and reason. Likewise, shapes in Iqbal’s work are based upon the layout of tangible sources. Including a few gaps, the superimposed cut-outs are joined and pieces are placed side by side to conclude the narrative.

Along with the style of manufacturing his imagery, evolved from two-dimensional rendering to three-dimensional structures, the genesis of his visuals is important. Earlier, canvases were derived from views which – to some extent, did not possess or communicate routine subjects relating to the society, current affairs or personal emotions. Simple and ordinary articles were inscribed in an extraordinary language. Yet the serenity of the colour palette complimented the silence of his sources. Those were documents of absence. It was as if a person had just left the room, or glanced out of the window for a few more seconds, or touched a typewriter a bit longer (minutes, hours, months, years?) or was sitting at the chair. In every painting, there was a human connection, though remote and removed.

In the recent body of work, one occasionally finds glimpses of that human substance, like the silhouette of a staircase (Hedonic), a flower vase on a table (And Longer Since), a pair of shut windows (Most of All). A majority of these pieces portray flowers, in diverse arrangements and treatments, leaning towards a pastel chromatic order. Works such as Every Flowing, Left Behind, You Anyhow, And Only This, Something More, Wherever I goI &II, Melted, and Stayed True, have edges that accentuate the inside content – the floral motifs. A few others, such as Infinite Whispering, And Neither I am and Will Praise, represent flowers repeated within a rectangular frame.

The immaculate skill in forging his paintings in metal sheets, and the sophistication of outlines turn the paintings into substantial works of art, yet it seems that the artist, being conscious of flowers and other mundane items taking over his visual space/ vocabulary might have felt the need to add an intellectual aspect/ content. This was compensated by picking an almost incomprehensible title for the exhibition - Ephemeral Spectrum, and another, Euphonious for an artwork. The effort was unnecessary because the brilliant physicality of Mubashar Iqbal’s work is beyond the limitation of language.

The writer is an art critic, a curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design, at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Maps and realities