Fabulous fables

March 8, 2020

In his latest exhibition in Lahore, Afshar Malik opens a new door to reality through which each of us can enter

Portrait picture tray.

By some strange coincidence Afshar Malik is now using industrial materials for making his art.

Malik is an industry unto himself. He is a painter and printmaker, who has created innumerable works in every conceivable medium and technique: painting, drawing, prints, ceramics, illustrations, cartoons, sculpture, to name a few.

In his latest exhibition (Oneness in A Blue Moon, February 28–March 9, 2020, at ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore), the choice of industrial materials, enamel paint markers on melamine trays, reveals a deep-rooted choice in the aesthetics, taste and personality of the painter.

Afshar Malik taught for several years at the National College of Arts. In the past, he has also worked as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, made pieces of coloured pottery, produced glazed tiles, and is admired for his intricate coloured etchings and expressive lithographs. He has not been residing in the solitary tower of high art — that exclusive, elitist pursuit — but reaches a large audience through the medium, mode and ‘mood’ of his work. He finds a shared space where the maker and viewer of art can communicate and speak the same tongue even if they disagree on meanings and interpretations, as happens in every normal conversation.

Conversation is crucial in Malik’s oeuvre. In all 19 of his paintings, he is ‘speaking’ to his medium, imagery, and himself. The work can be classified as auto-portrait, since it depicts the personality of the painter as well as records his hand in action. He is also in conversation with the pictorial history of the region, from classic Indian miniature painting to folk imagery and from puppetry to popular art. Like a child, Malik collects whatever fancies him, and preserves all that in his soul.

His art is a recollection of all that he has observed, experienced and imagined by manipulating surfaces, mixing colours, managing several visual materials and incorporating distant and diverse sources. 

Thus, his art is a recollection of all that he has observed, experienced and imagined by manipulating surfaces, mixing colours, managing several visual materials and incorporating distant and diverse sources. One can mention the inclusion of collage in some works but the differentiation of materials is a mere deception. Once in the hands of Afshar Malik, a material is liberated from its identity, character and limitations. A god of small things, he injects new life into paint, paper, and other mediums. The viewer then may not trace the origin of the material, but recognises the originality of the artist’s vision.

In art, originality too, is a deceptive term. It’s a virtue that can easily be ‘lost’ or ‘regained’ or ‘never attained’, and hardly ensures the emergence of important works. There is the example of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who ‘invented’ Cubism. The similarity of their work makes it difficult to determine the individuality of each painter.

In the same way, when an informed viewer appreciates Afshar Malik’s recent paintings, he is bound to recall his contemporary, colleague and close friend Anwar Saeed, due to the recurrence of common elements and a bit of similarity in treatment. However, these are surface associations, because according to American art critic Arthur C Danto, “where there are resemblances between two artists, they are more or less outward, and disguise altogether different artistic agendas”.

Anwar Saeed creates a magnificent world where the reality of image replaces the reality of passing hours. It’s a parallel realm of identities: social, cultural, historical, and pertaining to class and gender. Occasionally, Afshar Malik’s work has some links with this, but in its essence it reflects the artist’s celebratory nature. He simply enjoys the making of art. In the present exhibition, you see a man with a tiger, a skeleton of an animal, an almost naked male, couples inspired from miniature paintings of various periods and regions, odd groupings of people that are only possible in dreams, some abstract scenarios and a painting full of multiple eyes.

All languages have limitations. All description is thus restricted and in a sense often misleading. The way Malik constructs these characters in a setting is unique and reminds one of fables from our past. It is logical that he reverts to the aesthetics of miniature painting, in which a picture is not a picture but a stage in the midst of a longer narrative.

Like the purity of paint used, Malik’s narratives deal with basic human emotions like a man and women in an amor-al state — playing, enjoying, and interacting in multiple ways. He also draws his references from European art history, so you spot a nude figure of odalisque appearing in two works; in one, accompanied by a man holding a tuba and under a shark; and in the second, close to a shore behind which a man is riding on a horse reminding one of Indian folk painting. In another work, a marksman on a horse galloping towards an invisible target can be linked to Assyrian reliefs.

Walk around a pillow to sleep.

The genesis of Malik’s fantastical imagery lies in pictures from his personal archives: newspaper photographs, vernacular imagery of this region and other civilisations. The vividness of colours, the loose handling of paint, stylisation of figures and the impulsive compositions connect with the decorativeness preferred in our surroundings. Malik constructs his visual elements carefully. This belies their appearance of being random and spontaneous, confirming that to him “chance is the enemy of all knowledge”, to borrow a phrase from German novelist Daniel Kehlmann.

His imagery appears momentous but is indeed monumental and calculated despite its small scale. For instance, in Little More Umbrella you come across a man sitting next to a woman holding an umbrella on the top of a car whose reflection is faithfully reproduced in a puddle on the street. The imaginary environment is made believable by interjecting a tiny device, a small detail — the light holder that casts a glow on this fictional setting and makes it physical.

In a sense, the solo show by Afshar Malik is a mini-retrospective of the artist. One can see various streaks of his pictorial practices merge here. Seeing the intricate architecture of his imagery is not far from viewing a miniature from Basohli School, Mughal court, or the Sikh period at the Lahore Museum; or appreciating a puppet in a village, or encountering some popular motif on our roadsides.

Taking inspiration from these sources, which are not just pictorial but also cultural, Malik creates a magical world in which a woman is offering a pot to a snake, a man is lighting his pipe in the presence of a striped tiger and stage curtains are about to drop on different situations. In his paintings, he refers to the often imperceptible divide between the outside and inside, the personal and the societal.

In that sense, Afshar Malik has opened a new door to reality through which each of us can enter. Being at his exhibition provides one with an occasion to sort out one’s own location in this wide world of whims.

Afshar Malik opens a new door to reality in Lahore exhibition