In his solo exhibition at Zulfi’s Gallery in Lahore, Akram Dost’s imagery excites us and makes us think about our existence
Man’s relationship with his surroundings is complex and contradictory in many ways. We are composed of clay, connected to our environment, and end up in ground that is beneath our feet. For many, the soil in our surroundings is not just a substance but a metaphor and manifestation of the land or location, which brings forth a particular identity or several identities.
Akram Dost’s new work comprises multiple identities. Faces, rendered with incredible skill and utmost ease, remind of people who belong to various eras and areas. Yet their link with a place that has been subjugated to and is a target for tyrannies of all sorts can be discerned in his canvases. Tortured expressions, contorted features, piercing eyes and huddled bodies narrate a situation that is specific to a certain place but can be identified with by many from other regions.
Thus, his work completes the ultimate idea of art -- converting a particular example into a universal experience.
For many years, Dost has been describing the plight of his place, a situation to which several can relate with and understand but cannot help. The political turmoil of Balochistan has ceased to be political since it has turned into a human catastrophe. People who have never been to that province and only know the conditions through media are unable to imagine the racial, tribal, sectarian and political threats faced by innocent citizens. In that context, there is hardly a difference between man and woman.
However, like most parts of Pakistan, women are even more suppressed. But in most cases they are voiceless, especially in traditional systems. Some independent and successful women who created and secured a place for themselves in a male-dominated society do not diminish the awful reality of women at large.
Likewise, men too experience control because of their political stance as well as economic status. This situation was well-portrayed by Mohsin Hamid in one of his essays from the collection Discontent and its Civilizations where he says that in Pakistan there is no majority; everyone belongs either to a religious, racial or linguistic minority.
It seems that Akram Dost focuses on the marginalised sections of society, as in his new works (from his solo exhibition being held between April 15-30, 2016 at Zulfi’s Gallery, Lahore) human being are represented as if they are embedded in land or surrounded by patterns. Both scenarios describe the picture of our times where social, religious, economic and political pressures, customs and conditions control us. Humans are thus destined to exist in the realm of uncertainties or on the threshold of freedom and captivity.
The manner of depicting his concept in the present exhibition is especially remarkable, because it marks a new phase in the aesthetic journey of a painter who has been dealing with these issues since early 1980s. From his works produced at NCA to his later canvases, Dost has developed a diction that was initially inspired from Egon Schiele and Kathe Kollwitz but now bears his distinct style. Expressive lines to denote contours of bodies in painful postures often remind of German Expressionist painters, a point that may be irksome to some who believe that artists, like fashion designers/fashion houses who bring out new collection every season, should abandon a certain way of working after every exhibition or phase of their creative process. A demand that has been criticised by Julian Barnes: "There is nothing more humiliating and counter-productive for an artist than jumping through the train doors just as the next style is about to leave."
More than the artist’s close commitment to his people and politics, the work indicates how an artist’s voice evolves with the passage of time. In his recent works, the faces and features are rendered in a scheme that portrays the facility of the artist as the maker of images with minimum effort as well as the fate of people. It looks as if Dost has drawn his models by moving his hand and wiping off excessive paint on the surface. The manipulation of material and tools (human hand being the first tool of art) is not just a technique; it can be related to psychological portrayal of certain communities. Not only women, but men are represented by merging different hues on the surface, and in some works these figures are placed as integral part of patterns (pattern reasserts the concept and convention of conformity and nationality).
This stylistic selection of blending humans into a background with multiple motifs can be comprehended by what Octavio Paz describes in the Labyrinth of Solitude. Discussing the psychological and cultural pressures of negating oneself as individual, Paz writes that when he is entering a room and asks who is here, the maid replies, "there is no one, it’s me"! So her self is denied as a living human, is integrated into her backdrop where she is like another prop to furniture, carpets and curtains. In Akram Dost’s work one can see how the artist deals with this idea through a formal device -- the faces and figures are not detached or disconnected from their surroundings but become a meaningful part of their backdrops.
Akram Dost’s work testifies the way an artist who is socially conscious creates an imagery that involves ideas, emotions, feelings, fears and fate on the same plane. With his immense command over drawing, intuitive approach towards colour and a brilliant sense of combining different elements, he makes a composite representation of our reality -- offering a new version of facts, physicality and reality.
So when we look at his paintings, it is impossible not to think about the politics of our times. Like every great work of art, these operate on various -- personal, painterly and political -- levels. His imagery excites us, makes us think about our existence and impresses us with its strong colours, intense lines and rich texture. When we look at these canvases, we just don’t see works of visual arts, we are exposed to important texts and truths, connected to as well as beyond our reality; echoing what Verdi, the Italian composer, once said: "To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better."