Back to square one

April 12, 2020

Does singularity of size suffice as a common theme for a series of exhibitions at venues as far removed as Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore?

Afshar Malik: Untitled.

There is a tendency among art critics to find a common link between artists exhibiting together, whether it is a two-person show or a group exhibition. Quite frequently this assertion of a link is fallacious. The project ‘1x1’ solved this predicament by organising three exhibitions in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore based on the singularity of size — ‘One Square Foot’. The project, initiated by Zara Sajid in 2019, invited 162 artists from across the country to create works on a similar scale for exhibiting at the Full Circle Gallery in Karachi, the Embassy of France in Islamabad, and ‘O’ Art Space in Lahore.

This made it possible for artists in such a large number to participate in the same event. However, this was both good and problematic at the same time as witnessed at the Lahore venue (the ‘O’ Art Space) from March 13 to March 23.

The exhibition included all sorts of artists, from the well-established and famous to a few who are still trying to make a name for themselves. Thus, it was a rare occasion to see Afshar Malik and Abida Dahri, and Meher Afroz and Fakhra Asif in the same show.

This helped demolish the stiff hierarchies in art that remind one of the Great Wall of China. There is usually a pattern to the exhibitions and their display scheme: famous names get more exposure and get displayed at better places while unknown artists get pushed to the background regardless of the quality of work.

The order of display at ‘O’ Art Space disregarded this hierarchy. Here, the show began with Irfan Gul Dahri, and ended with Afshar Malik, with Meher Afroz, Ayaz Jokhio and Mohammad Zeeshan in the middle.

The other feature of the exhibition was the liberation of ideas. A curated show tends to restrain a creative person to perform within a certain parameter: the theme becomes an obligation if not a burden. Here, as size was the only constraint, there was no other limitation. Although all works followed the same scale, they looked different on account of imagery, ideas and techniques.

Size is an arbitrary matter in our sensibility. Works tend to escape their material scale. When we look at a snapshot of a grandfather from his work permit, or a group picture of aunts at a picnic, we ignore the presence of scale, and in our minds convert our family members to human proportions. The association of images disregards the actuality of measurement.

This is what happened at the ‘1x1’ exhibition. As we are used to seeing works of familiar artists in their preferred dimensions, when we look at, say, a canvas by Ayaz Jokhio, Adeel Uz Zafar, Maria Khan or Suleman Aqeel Khilji, we extend the one square foot surface into a larger one.

The imagery in these small art pieces also helped break the boundary of ‘one square foot’. For instance, Shiblee Munir’s OMG, in terms of its commercial hoarding visual, appeared larger-than-life. So was Mohsin Shaikh’s So What, which was based on the popular language of street graffiti.

In Mughal miniature paintings, even though they are executed on small scale, the intricacy of visuals, the details of each figure, object, building, and the overarching impact of scene, disengage a viewer from the confinements of scale. The physical format is more like a window through which we observe the other side of reality. Who will remember the window or its placement if the view is overwhelming?

Likewise, at the exhibition, one came across works of artists which represented their long-standing concerns, and occasionally a shift due to the change of scale. For example, Noor Ali Chagani’s Untitled consisted of terracotta bricks and concrete that resembled the surface of a board game. The tactile quality of material, its colour and treatment turned the square of red bricks into something enigmatic, yet endearing.

In the same way, Kiran Saleem in the Resting in Peace III painted a transparent plastic bag, tied and filled with water, with a fish inside. It is a familiar image from our roadsides (men selling fish in plastic bags) yet her imagery indicated a larger concern. The metaphor of the fish trapped in a plastic bag suggested the future of humanity.

The issue of environment was aptly approached by Ayaz Jokhio in his Masked Portrait 3x4’ made with smog/dust on canvas. The work dealt with smog that does not recognise the boundaries between India and Pakistan. Thus, a man from West Punjab is wearing a face mask quite like his counterpart from Indian Punjab. Made with dust in reference to the smog situation in the Punjab, the work transformed into prophetic imagery, the post-Corona identity of every individual covering his/her face with a protective layer.

Ahsan Javaid: Bahar ki Sham.

Some other artists displayed works of kinds we don’t normally associate with them. For instance, Rehana Mangi used grey white human hair and gouache on wasli to create layers of borders. The act of making a frame within a frame focusing on grey hair is important in the artist’s aesthetics. There is no image inside the frame, since the frame is the image. Mangi’s previous works were executed with dark hair.

Due to its inclusive nature, the show had illustrative pieces by Zahid Mayo, Abdul Jabbar Gul and Sana Arjumand. It also offered works by artists who had ventured on something new. For example, Ahsan Javed’s Bahar Ki Sham, fabric in acrylic box, referred to Van Gogh’s Starry Nights, translated into a material close at hand. Javed has been experimenting with different materials since his degree show at the NCA in 2017. Here, he transformed an iconic image into an entity that can be produced outside of art (in every sense of the word).

This work indicates a way for Javed and others that art is not about using a prescribed medium, material and manner, but a way to think beyond the tradition for appropriating the canon of art. The show provided an overview of art from the well-equipped studios of our artists to the makeshift workshops of artisans who are also manufacturing art without being conscious of it. Though their output is not recognised yet as art, it will be in future, like the images produced in the past are now accepted as art.

Does singularity of size suffice as a common theme for a series of exhibitions at venues as far removed as Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore?