Defying boundaries

November 11, 2018

Photography exhibition at Koel Gallery Karachi

Defying boundaries

The ability to sense, respect and be fully conscious of time is fundamental to the photographer’s meditative, slow and rightly cautious approach to his craft. The importance of time and the way in which it flows and accretes as space is the predominant theme of boundaries…boundless - a cavalcade of photographic images by six artists - curated by Tehmina Ahmed at Koel Gallery, Karachi.

Recognising the world and presenting it to our contemporary gaze complete with all the meaning and value it has accrued through the centuries presupposes, first and foremost, a lengthy process of soul-searching, reflection and insistent self-questioning. Photography is the right medium to expose the non-contradiction because it is not afraid of repeating itself.

Inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes, Amean J’s "quest for truth becomes essential, almost obsessive, in eternal Seascapes: a pure gaze trained on an infinite expanse of water that must have looked exactly the same in the eyes of the ancients, thousands of years ago, and that still is the repository of so much history as it slowly and majestically approaches the shore. One of the interesting consequences of this approach is the construction of images as spaces of pure perfection," uninterrupted by time.

The sea recapitulates the sky, as if hardening and epitomizing it, that exists in the space between truth and verisimilitude. We rediscover an archaic landscape shaped by nature that is yet timeless. When it slowly slides into the darkness of night and re-emerges at dawn from the realm of shadows, this landscape seems like a mystical enactment from some other world where no cocoon of colour dulls the experience of the essential; that grey seascapes radiate unbelievable energy and meditative calm.

"A person, scattered in space and time, is no longer a woman but a series of events on which we can throw no light, a series of insoluble problems," writes Marcel Proust in La Prisonniere. Even when wholly present in the picture as the subject of her self-portraits, Mehreen Khalid is never quite with us, never quite with herself. But in addition to being something else, Khalid is also perhaps trying to be somewhere else. What is meant to be at the centre of attention is, at the same time, liminal; it is always haunting the boundaries, edging out of or coming into the frame, almost slipping through the surface of representation - away from us or towards us.

In doing so, Khalid is constantly evading the fixity that the technical limits of photography would impose within that attenuated site. At the core her work, as photographic self-portraiture, promises knowledge of the self, while there is a resistant enigma of vision.

The blurry presence of the veil caused by movement has often been read as a sign of freedom. She is stationary rather than captured mid-step, but her veil or silk scarf is blurred, suggesting that she swung it in mid-air during the exposure, or that it was being blown by a fan. Here we might be looking at a heroine sleepwalking towards peril. But the whole effect is deliberately compromised when Khalid looks towards the camera knowingly, and thus to us as her spectators. The air of mystery is diffused by the distancing effect.

Guided with the precision of her intuition, Umar Riaz has walked into the blur of his aspirations to capture the dance as an art movement, with trial, error, accident, precision, and persistence evolving into an art form. The result of Riaz’s lens’ exposure to Kathak has produced a range of visual poetry - that moment of equilibrium twining weightless and acquiring gravitas; that split-second of an artist’s eye-contact with the photographer, and the glow of the quiet bliss of silent satisfaction.

Here is a hunter’s delight in seeking in all this his prey, if the same verb ‘shoot’ were to be used, which had long meant only bloodshed. But historical hindsight and wisdom show that venison does not stay in the stomach or in the mind’s eye and, sadly, the forests too are denuded of their game. But here, with the frequent hunts and shoots of the veteran artiste, Naheed Siddiqui, the tal and the laya, the tandava and the lasya will continue the connoisseur’s delight long after the curtain is down. For those who care to look deeper than just a preliminary look, Riaz’s photographs unveil themselves further and reveal other layers: when the chunni waltzes away loose, it becomes sheer wings, and the fire of the rasika is inflamed. Riaz’s slow camera aperture makes the mortal dancer, among her blurred movements, into vision of a deity forever.

Photography is the right medium to expose the non-contradiction because it is not afraid of repeating itself.

Riaz has turned to movements of dance, and extended the gauge of his camera lens capturing the sensitivity of abhinaya in the performance.

Irfan Naqi provides the viewer with several permutations of three faces. At face value, his offering plumbs the depths of physical and psychological transformation. Grafting three portraits onto new contexts, digitally splicing in new juxtapositions, he yields new stories, new histories. Thrilled ostensibly with the enormous potential of the computer to alter and amplify his images, Naqi has proceeded with customary obsession, morphing and liquefying the likenesses using Adobe Photoshop, and printing the results on an inkjet printer.

Naqi has expanded his three-man dramatis personae in these photo-transformations, assuming multiple identities and endowing them with an extraordinary emotional range. These distortions or split images convey hallucinatory moments of fury and despair. Through mutating personalities Naqi has cast the three men as shifting, ever-expanding personas - maniac, shaman, predator, sufferer, victim, and specters. The cumulative effect amounts to an evolving, disquieting visual diary of the artist’s imagination. How it relates to the theme of the show is, however, open to conjecture.

"At some point in the magic hour, object and image attain a fragile state of equivalence, before pivoting towards flat, animated luminosity," writes Alex Farquarson about twilight. Shot from inside the vehicle while driving up north to Gilgit-Baltistan, Momin Zafar looks at the landscape through a steamed-up window. As the condensation evaporates and the evening light beyond becomes more intense, the camera’s auto-focus shifts from the mountainscape to the tiny orbs of water on the windscreen. Drawing attention to a natural moment of transition in a world of artifice, the images acquire a mythical narrative into the quintessential mountainscape of our dreams while also relishing the sheer visual exuberance of the twilight palette.  Moving away from the city and from the security of a suburban homeliness, the photographs draw us into a wilder, more primeval landscape, which persists on the fringes. As D H Lawrence writes:

The night-stock oozes scent

And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:

All that the worldly day has meant

Wastes like a lie.

The quiet melodrama of Zafar’s photographs suggests a transcendent effect as well as a contemporary reworking of a Romantic sense of the Sublime, when Nature’s grandeur provokes a sense of astonishment, terror and awe. Twilight functions here as an extraordinary illumination, conjuring up supernatural worlds.

Inspired by Afzaal Ahmad Syed’s Do Zabaanon Mein Saza-e-Maut, Madiha Aijaz’s scrutinizes and navigates the mundane. Photography has continuously offered a mix of dreams, fantasy and reality to its practitioners, and Aijaz has endeavoured to show that within the artistic interpretation of the world around her and inside her, a straightforward image can become surrealistic when incompatible elements come together.

Aijaz has used photography to explore issues of language and storytelling. The work on show deals with mobility and exodus, and has a filmic and documentary quality rather than the experimental. The Arabian Sea at the centre of most of these works appears to be a site of historical, cultural and contemporary movement, and serves as a connection and separation between North and South. There is poignancy to the vision of the ocean filled with wrecks, unwanted objects, men transiting and foreign birds visiting.

Defying boundaries