The inhuman condition

June 23, 2024

An exhibition of drawings by a man better known for his writings and photography is impressive and highly professional

Aasim Akhtar’s drawings jump at you, in an optic sense – and later psychologically. The layout of their display at his solo exhibition, Scarecrow, curated by Sajid Khan, at the White Wall Gallery, Lahore, (June 6-July 6) is impressive and highly professional. Against the dark walls these works on paper glow as if mounted on light boxes. Every piece demands and attracts a viewer’s attention to explore the creations of a person known more for his writings and photography than drawing and painting.

In a way, the sensitive, subtle and delicate drawings are linked to Akhtar’s two well known pursuits: language and camera. Both language and camera are formidable tools capable of articulating an artist’s view of the world outside as well as the inner realm. Both have a built-in element of prior-ness about them. A text can be a piece of poetry, a work of fiction, factual information, research, a reflection on politics, sports news, fashion report or a review of literature, visual arts, music, cinema. , It always has a structure. It may end abruptly, but the sentences/ verses follow the syntax of one or another language. Likewise a photograph can by a panoramic view, a detail, a blow-up; under the blazing sun or within a dim interior; focused or blurred but always adheres to a key principle: it shows reality as found through the lens of a camera.

The lens and the syntax thus become the cages to contain a creation. One can produce “automatic writing, or automatism, which sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious,” but that amounts to an attempt to dismantle the existing structure of a syntax. An artist may manipulate a photographed image, by rearranging some components of the reality. They could introduce changes in colour, variations of light and numerous other effects available due to digital technology but in doing so they would be disturbing the version of reality that existed (the snapshot).

Regardless of genres, writings and photography begin with an already-formulated reality/ narrative to delineate, extend, exploit or destroy it. A drawing or a painting, on the other hand starts with nothingness: a plain paper or a blank canvas, gradually filled inwith pencil marks or brush strokes. Aasim Akhtar’s drawings are meticulous in their execution, sensibility and softness, still one senses a narrative attached to them like a shadow.

As the title of the exhibition reasserts, the images are scarecrows in one or another form. A scarecrow is “an effigy shaped as a man to scare the birds away” (the artist notes). It is a means, also, to ponder on a hybrid entity – a blend of man and bird. A visitor comes across figures (reminiscent ofthe anatomy of Classical Greek statues) with wings on their shoulders and a crow’s head in place of a human face. Some of the drawings evoke another Greek connection, the mythological character of Icarus, especially in Untitled XIII, XIV, showing a man with outstretched arms turning into wings.

In the subcontinental culture, a crow is perceived in different ways depending upon the context. If cawing on the balcony of your house, it announces the arrival of a guest (the artist points this out by adding lines from a Punjabi film song in his introduction). Otherwise the non-captive species seen as a scavenger, associated with consumption of all sorts of trash and dead meat. Compared to some other creatures, like the domesticated pigeon, parrot or dove, and sparrow, the crow is usually considered cunning, clever and cruel.

In Akhtar’s drawings, one can decipher all these characteristics attributed to the crow. Importantly, his figures are a cross between the human and the bird. Mankind has always imagined fabulous beings, including many a combination of human and flying creatures. Angels and fairies are often represented as men or women with wings. In Semitic religions this concept is so ingrained (mainly through their depiction in art and description in folk tales) that one hardly ever questions the logic of this construct. Therefore, when writing a short story about an angel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez named it A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. The angle from the sky lands at a poor villager’s courtyard, and is kept in his chicken coop. In an interview, Garcia Marquez talked about the problem of its adaptation for film - interpreting a magic-reality tale as a believable picture - and how it was creatively solved by Fernando Birri, the Cuban director who decided that the angel should take off his wings, just like a jacket or a trench coat , and hang then on a wall hook,.

In Aasim Akhtar’s drawings, the challenge of making a fantasy credible is addressed by inculcating emotions and feelings. Most humans credit other creatures with instincts, but hardly admit their capacity for thought, love, empathy, attraction and remorse beyond their nature. The combo-creatures that populate Akhtar’s drawings appear to be contemplating on their past, loaded with love, frightened of loss and longing for companionship. These crow-men, called Scarecrows, are not scary; in some instances, they are not crow either (for example Untitled V, XI). These images can be described – to borrowing a phrase from Amit Chaudhuri, “a parable of inner and actual exile, a negotiation between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbaric’.” In these, a spectator discovers a passion on the verge of despair; or a yearning for love.

In his statement, the artist explains, “Man must rediscover man, harried and brutalised, distended and eviscerated, but noble withal, rich in intention, puissant in creative spur, and enduring in the posture of love.”

Whatever one reads through the lines drawn by Aasim Akhtar, one is conscious of the artist’s capability in infusing a lived-life in his creatures: often complete with their feathers, muscles, beaks and claws. What is achieved in these premeditated constructions – though loosely rendered, is an atmosphere of discomfort, anxiety and loneliness expressed in Untitled IV, portraying a huge bird, with an open beak, crow’s feet and feathers barely concealing the swelling body, while a part of the torso becomes human, with a hint of man’s genitals and upper thighs.

This passage from man to crow and the other way is suspended in a pair of drawings (Untitled VI, VII), in which sections of flesh are on view. You don’t see a nameable organ; and in the absence of feet, claws, heads, mouth, beak, arms, wings, a lump of meat is presented. It is so delicately drawn, and so intelligently composed that you are compelled to construct the remaining body/ narrative in your head. Where the eyes stop, the imagination takes over. This is particularly so in the diptych Untitled VII, revealing a skinned portion of anatomy that is as daunting as it’s appealing, due to its lyricism, formal purity and sophistication while dissecting/ disclosing the reality of us all: man, bird and hybrid.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Most humans credit other creatures with instincts, but hardly admit their capacity for thought, love, empathy, attraction and remorse beyond their nature. The combo-creatures that populate Akhtar’s drawings appear to be contemplating on their past, loaded with love, frightened of loss, and longing for companionship.    

The inhuman condition