After art

May 17, 2020

‘After’ symbolises the past, not the future

‘Unveiling the Visible’ by Amber Hammad.

As is the case with commonly used prefix post, ‘after’ is also understood in various ways now.

What would be the world like after Covid-19, how would people behave after the lockdown is over, or what will be the state of environment after air travel, trains, and road traffic resume.

Also, what would happen to apps such as Zoom and other networks for virtual interaction after we start meeting in the physical space?

‘After’, in that sense, indicates a future that appears most likely on the basis of experiences, practices and frustrations of the present.

In a landscape where social distancing and physical isolation are the norm, each individual starts painting vivid desires in his or her imagination.

Each of us has a unique view of what the world will be like after the pandemic is over.

Artists, collectors, connoisseurs and social historians keep wondering about the future of art after the situation gets better.

It seems that ‘after’ is something that has to happen yet. However, ‘after’ actually signifies the past.

Throughout history, artists have made art pieces after works that were produced before them.

Not only painters and sculptors, but writers and filmmakers have also created works using other individuals’ prior creations.

In Urdu poetry, there are numerous examples of utilising the past poetry for composing new verses.

A few years ago, some publishing houses approached various authors to rewrite the classics. Thus Margaret Atwood, Edward St Aubyn, Jeannette Winterson, and Howard Jacobson, (to name a few) retold stories based on Shakespearean texts. Peter Brook’s stage play (and later a film from 1989) was a version of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

The practice is common in the world of music too, especially Indian, and particularly of Qawwali, in which the artistes sing compositions by masters with some improvisations.

‘Good Day Sir Vermeer’ by Herman Braun-Vega

This was a norm throughout history, but Jorge Luis Borges and modern theorists turned it into a discipline: intertextuality, postmodernism.

The Argentinian author’s several stories pretend to be manuscripts penned by other writers that have been discovered by Borges.

To the extent that in his Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the fictional character Menard undertakes to write Don Quixote, eventually identical to the world’s first modern novel (published in 1605-15), although Menard “did not want to compose another Quixote — which is easy — but Quixote itself… he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes”.

Similarly, in visual arts, artists have been responding to works created by their predecessors.

Picasso is the best example in this regard. Some of his paintings and prints are created after Velasquez and Delacroix.

Picasso’s own work was considered a source material by other artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney.

Their works have acquired such significance that when you see the original Picasso, you are reminded of canvases by Lichtenstein and Hockney.

Can those works of Lichtenstein and Hockney be classified as ‘original’ since these were possible only after Picasso’s paintings? Should we regard them in the same league as some of their other works?

Of course, an appropriated art piece is different from the works copied from or influenced by other artists. The motives for replicating are diverse — ranging from academic concerns to marketing counterfeit products.

Influence, however, is a dimly lit area. One can detect traces of another individual in someone’s work, but sometimes these blend so well that they become ‘original’, and personal.

On the other hand, if a work clearly states its link with a prior piece, it also reveals the maker’s intention: paying homage, commenting, critiquing or denouncing history.

Interestingly, when artists use another artist’s work, they are not bound to a tradition, region or style; they pick whatever fancies them or ignites their imagination.

Often their comment is not limited to their personal choices, but addresses the separation of regions, hence standards of aesthetics due to political and colonial past.

Peruvian painter, Herman Braun-Vega incorporated Vermeer’s The Lace Maker in his painting Good Day Sir Vermeer by joining the image of a 17th Century Dutch girl at work with a 20th Century Andean tailor busy at a sewing machine. Besides building a bridge between two worlds, the painting indicates that artists from periphery are claiming the legacy and history of the West — to own, mould and domesticate the canon. Likewise, Colombian artist Fernando Botero made several paintings after European masters.

Some artists’ works have been assimilated more than others. Although Mona Lisa is perhaps the most appropriated image in the entire history of modern art, Surrealist painters Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte seem to be the favourites. Mainly because they instigate a depth (psyche, fear, guilt, sin) common to all, so it is easier to borrow from them.

Several artists in Pakistan, like Ayaz Jokhio, have been absorbing art history to create works which are not merely about a stylistic invention in the West, but address existential issues shared by all.

‘The Key To The Painting’ by Ayaz Jokhio.

Jokhio’s canvas This is not a Magritte’s Painting, a recreation of Magritte’s iconic The Treachery of Images (1929) with the line ‘This is not a Pipe’, and remaking of Magritte’s La Clef des Champs (1939) deal with ideas of originality, perception and genesis of art in art; and extends the notion of authorship in his take on Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced (1937), with him posing like the Belgian artist.

Another Pakistani artist who picks familiar, established and iconic imagery to express the state of women is Amber Hammad.

From Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, Lichtenstein’s Hopeless, Andy Warhol’s Elvis I & II, and Gustave Klimt’s The Kiss, she has fabricated a body of work that refers to representation of women in different societies — from muse to militant; from flesh to spiritual being.

Hammad’s work, even if it reminds some viewers of Cindy Sherman, testifies to a basic fact — that our bodies are a combination of other bodies that existed before or simultaneously, including the immediate family, close relatives and ancestors etc. Our ideas are also affected by what has been uttered earlier.

Artists from Pakistan are frequently responding to the past from their surroundings and from afar. Rashid Rana’s I Love Miniatures, for example, is a recreation of miniature portrait of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan that consists of billboards from our cities. It recognises the contemporary pictorial language which comes from popular visual culture, as well as comments on the dislocation of past.

The displacement is also visible in a mixed media work by Iqbal Geoffrey, Mona Lisa in Shalamar Gardens, portrayed veiled and perspiring, seemingly breathless.

These are all efforts to claim art history, the art world, and even the world after being colonised.

After art