Content crisis

Madiha Hyder uses symbols from children’s stories to allude to the harsh realities of our times

Content crisis


adiha Hyder’s skill mesmerises; but her content is scary. At her solo exhibition, Watermelon Uprising: A Tale of Feathers and Fur (May 10-15, O Art Space, Lahore) the two sides of her work were obvious. Hyder, a fine art graduate (2006) from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, is widely known and hugely admired for the sophistication in rendering her observations. She takes the path of realism in her visual expression but “not before she has laden it profoundly with meaning and substance.”

Content crisis

What the catalogue mentions was apparent at the exhibition – 16 pieces on paper - curated by Adeel-uz Zafar. Hyder used a range of mediums, including charcoal and graphite pencils; powder; sticks and chalk pastels; and watercolours, to construct her imagery and convey her substance. Watermelons, rats, crows, cats, a few plants and outlines of two dogs populated her world/ art. The engagement of these entities varied and hinted at multiple readings of a story. (Hyder’s artist statement is also composed in the form of a tale). In her choice of images, like the fables of Aesop, episodes of Kalila-wa-Dimna, and Walt Disney’s cartoons, serious matters are dealt in the tone of children’s stories. Superficially, the presentation is natural and playful and deals with instinctive occurrences in the animal kingdom – fabricated for children’s amusement. However, there is also content intended for grownups.

The climax of the referred works of fiction/ imagination is generally a moral lesson so that the stories teach righteous behaviour. However, once the message enveloped in captivating actions, situations and scenarios gets through, one discovers the harsh, hidden reality at the end or somewhere in the middle. Looking at Madiha Hyder’s visuals, one didn’t find it hard to comprehend what lay behind the mundane scenes: rats gnawing at the juicy red flesh of watermelons, some biting and trying to poke through its hard rind, a few resting on its rotting shell. The filthy, creepy creatures are accompanied by a bunch of crows, known for picking dead meat, scavenging trash and for greed and aggression.

Content crisis

Rodents, the most recurring characters, are associated with the spread of plague that ruined populations across continents, and was difficult to eradicate or control during past pandemics. The animal also features in Tom & Jerry cartoons, where Jerry, the mouse, enjoys the support of Spike, the dog.

An attempt at decoding Hyder’s imagery leads to a contemporary tale: the political and humanitarian tragedy unfolding in front of us. A watermelon – as everyone knows by now – represents Palestine, because of the chromatic correspondence in its national flag and the tropical fruit. Jews have historically been compared with rats, especially by the Nazi media. A number of popular German movies compared Jews to rats, since both were believed to bring societal calamity.

Writers and artists seek truth through the act of creation, a process in which facts are layered with coats of fiction and invention, making it more credible and enduring.

In portraying the shameful situation of Gaza, Madiha Hyder was probably not aware or conscious of this point of reference. For her (and millions around the globe) watermelons signify Palestine, and rats spoil the fresh, ripened and tasty fruit. On another level, the symbol, fashioned for the present situation, happens to be rooted deep in the European history/ guilt.

The picture gets clearer and complete with the inclusion of the hostile presence of crows with their sharp beaks. One guesses that the bird of darkness could be interpreted as European nations supporting the Israeli barbarism. The outlines of two hounds on their haunches and parts of a cat may be recognised as the invincible aid provided by the US and the UK to Israel in its act of genocide against Palestinians, and a mute United Nations.

When it comes to the subject, substance and intent in the art of Madiha Hyder, no one – in Pakistan, as well as a substantial majority of the world population, could disagree with the artist’s conventions.

A person familiar with Hyder’s past practice is again impressed by her amazing skill in delineating her subject/ images, a feature evident in her recent solo exhibition, since the body of work could be defined as sensitive in two ways. Unlike many creative people around, Hyder recognised the need to react against the cruel injustice reported from the besieged territory of Palestine. The work at O Art Space testifies to her sensitivity about human misery. It also reveals her sensitive handling of the material and a maturity in depicting her visuals. Her drawings of rodents, watermelons (round and split), ravens, canines and a feline are incredibly illustrated with details such as feathers, fur, fruit’s pulp, pips and stains – streaks which might be from juice or human blood. Her natural talent in denoting a tangible material, especially the inside of watermelon and the anatomy of a raven and a rodent is superb and rare in its effortlessness.

Yet when it comes to her present work, one suspects that the socio-politically conscious and formally strong artist is finding it difficult to go beyond the burden of a heavy subject. The existence – rather the dominance of current, correct and clear themes does not leave much space to approach her work through another point of view. The consensus she weaves around her visual matter is akin to the general agreement on Palestinians’ issue/ condition.

However, Madiha Hyder is not the only creative individual with this kind of baggage. A number of other artists are also concocting a similar state of clarity and correctness of content. Once they know they possess the truth, there is hardly a moment of doubt. Truth is enough; although the work of art is not embodied with truth (only the holy texts, train time tables, maps, contain the truth). A writer or an artist seeks truth through the act of creation, a process in which facts are layered with coats of fiction and invention, making it more credible and enduring.

Pablo Picasso reacted to the tragedy of Guernica, the small town in Spain that was bombarded by Franco’s military planes; but the painting Guernica, does not directly or even remotely deal with what took place on April 26, 1937. It is an outcry against war atrocities, and fascism, but except for its title, nothing connects the canvas to the incident/ place; hence its power, impact and relevance.

Poets like Pablo Neruda and Faiz Ahmed Faiz opposed dictatorships, state violence, political subjugation and international exploitation; yet while reading their verses, a person born decades after they were penned, can still relate them to his/ her time, situation and surroundings as the profound poetry has expanded its content, connection and connotations. For example, Faiz’s poem, Lahu Ka Suragh, from January 1965 and “written on early blood-letting during Ayub Khan’s election,” is still valid and relevant because what happened during that year in Karachi is not mentioned or referred in narrow terms.

In a sense the great bard was convinced that if the content is immediately accessible, it can be easily abandoned.

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

Content crisis