Art within art

December 1, 2019

The work of Jokhio is a reminder, a reassertion, that in our time and space wecannot afford to be naive. Everything is repeated, rehearsed and rehashed endlessly

This is Not a Pipe by Rene Magritte 

“You never step into the same paragraph” — Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

But you may step into someone else’s paragraph as Ayaz Jokhio seems to do with his latest body of work displayed at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

The exhibition, titled This is not Magritte’s painting consists of paintings referring to famous artworks created by renowned artists, commented on by critics and collected by museums and individuals. Yet, in a truer sense, these works belong to the public, as they appear in books, are discussed in lecture halls, and imitated in art school studios.

Like Rene Magritte’s painting, The treachery of images 1928-29, known in French as This is not a pipe —led to the title of Jokhio’s solo show and — is part of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collection. It is an iconic image, which has inspired many works of art and writings across the globe.

Michel Foucault in his book This is not a pipe analyses the painting with the image of a pipe and a line negating it. The French philosopher explains: “Do not look overhead for a true pipe…. It is the drawing within the painting, firmly and manifestly outlined, that must be accepted as a manifest truth”.

This is not Magritte's painting by Ayaz Jokhio

Jokhio carves his truth out of a larger interplay of description and deception, truth and lies, appearance and concealment. He has painted Magritte’s work enclosed in a frame etched with the words “this is not Magritte’s painting”. The two texts, one from 1928-29, and other from 2019, vary in terms of the scribe and language, and writing styles.

Magritte wrote by hand — which Foucault describes as a childish scrawl — which communicates something personal. Jokhio has chosen a formal font which appears assertive and authoritative. While replicating a famous painting, Jokhio is commenting upon the nature of ideals such as originality and imitation, as well as appropriation and assimilation.

This painting and the rest of works from his solo exhibition have their genesis in Jokhio’s student days — contextualised in the artist’s self-portrait. In it, he reproduced a section of an art history book, containing a portrait of Van Gogh by Van Gogh and its description by the art historian author. The work, submitted as a third-year course project in 2000 at the National College of Arts (NCA) is remarkable since it comments on themes relevant for individuals living outside the mainsteam.

Living on the periphery, these Pakistani students, study the great works of art produced in Europe and North America — and are inspired — yet mostly never get a chance to view the actual artwork. Books, magazines and now virtual media, are their only ways to look at works that are foundational to the canon of modern, mainstream art.

Jokhio’s painting from 2000, is a statement on accepting second-hand information as a genuine form of knowledge as is his present work. Moreover, he is converting an existing artwork into his own. A feat not different from other artists of merit who were inspired by past works such as Shakespeare and Chaucer. As well as that of their contemporaries and traditions remote from their regions. They then produced works which had some features of their searched work but presented their unique and individualistic vision.

A common error in negotiating with the parameter of authenticity and detecting plagiarism — especially in academia — is relying on appearances. In reality, it is the idea and concern of an artist that define him/her as an original maker of images. The best example in this regard is of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who transformed mundane objects into art by altering their context; declaring that a urinal and mass produced products could indeed become works of art.

Jokhio’s work is a reminder, a reassertion, that in our time and space we cannot afford to be naive. Everything is repeated, rehearsed and rehashed endlessly. If a painter from Pakistan visits Tate Britain, Pompidou Centre, or the MOMA, he would be making connections between the works on walls and the images etched in his memory from art history. The crucial question is: what is more important? The rectangle he encounters (once) on the museum wall, or its picture published in a book that he can go back to whenever he requires and share with others. We live in times where simulacrum has taken over; so even when we face ourselves, we judge reflection as though scrutinising a selfie.

Jokhio indicates the state in which an artist is free to pick and transform into art whatever he likes. In the show, Jokhio has painted a number of canvases connected to Paolo Uccelo, Durer, Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Whistler, Monet, and Van Gogh. But, in each work, he has introduced an element that describes the distance between art and the object.

Vase with daisies and poppies by Vincent van Gogh.

A work of art, a painting, sculpture or a video installation is an object; yet in essence it is not about being an object, it is an objective. It is supposed to transpose the viewer to some place else, away from the presence of the work on display, to another realm — of fantasy, dream, delight, inspiration, excitement and so forth.

Today, one realises that artworks not only perform that task, they also serve another purpose. These are expensive products attracting once unimaginable sums at auction houses. The passage of a painting from an artist’s studio to a collector’s house or vault is a daunting realisation — about art and investment; or art and money.

The shift from a private and aesthetic expression to a collectable item is an existential issue encountered by many artists including Jokhio. His works comprise the imagery of old masters in frames, or handled by two gloved hands, or split in multiple gilded frames, or separated through a void. If the one hand they mark the measurement of art into commodity, at the same instance, they also invoke the broader notion of intertextuality: of art within art.

When I see a painting of Ayaz Jokhio in which a Rembrandt’s portrait, a Van Gogh’s still-life, a Whistler’s landscape is within the frame of another canvas (Jokhio’s), I start speculating the authorship of these images. Knowing that what we see on the canvas of Rembrandt and Velasquez was not invented by them, but was modifed from what they observed in their surroundings and what they learnt from their predecessors — marking their genius.

It cannot be argued that Ayaz Jokhio didn’t follow the same course.

Ayaz Jokhio's work displayed at Karachi's Canvas Gallery: Art within art