Pre-dictions of fragility

Affan Baghpati’s work explores convergences between human beings and other species

In his wonderful sculptural realms, artist Affan Baghpati joins together a range of historical and contemporary influences that interact to give his art its mesmerising visual power.

Baghpati’s primary interests have been the physical and aesthetic fragility of the material world and its specific manifestations: the convergences between human beings and other species and the imposition of culture on nature.

In his early installations, Baghpati’s tendency was to disperse individual or small communities of finely wrought objects throughout various spaces – constructing in the process sometimes surreal ‘museums’ or keeping places for what looked to be remnants of the natural world displaced from their habitat.

Combining technical virtuosity with a highly refined aesthetic sense, Baghpati’s recent work offers an enriching and provocative challenge to our perception of what is ‘natural’ and casts a critical eye on the panic-stricken late-twentieth century impulse to preserve.

When looking at Baghpati’s animals, are our own imaginations ever that far away from what we understand to be the natural state and appearance of the species or being?

In presenting us with these metamorphoses and metaphors, Baghpati’s work highlights the possibility that he could have a late awakening to the essential global economy.

Since his graduation from the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Baghpati has assembled disparate sculptural objects into cohesive environments that evoke his abiding interests in art history, science, modernist design and culture; and the traditions and aesthetics of other cultures.

Playing with such practices, Baghpati’s opulently crafted objects oscillate between the romantic and the rebellious, the poetic and the industrial. Despite their seductive, almost irresistible tactility, Baghpati’s forms unsettle the foundations on which we have based our conceptions and ideals of beauty and elemental natural states.

In his recent show held at Rohtas 2 gallery in Lahore titled Made, Bought, Used, Consumed, Given Away, Collected, Sold and Bought Again, Baghpati made imaginative interventions into the eclectic and eccentric collections of the objets trouves or found and collected objects. One may describe his creative actions as a sweep through the ethnographic gallery, unsettling old arrangements and dislodging old arguments.

To unsettle, dislodge and provoke new ways of seeing and considering the world we inhabit is the modus operandi of his art.

Baghpati’s opulently crafted objects oscillate between the romantic and the rebellious, the poetic and the industrial.

The external manifestation of Affan Baghpati’s objects is alternatively serene and spectacular. The optical illusion of camouflage, the deceptive and declarative spray of colour, or the bathing of habitat in an otherworldly light are his acknowledgment of elevation of natural life forms from a mundane to an extraordinary reality.

However, that’s only one of the many points the artist’s work makes and only one of the messages driving his work: that nature is extraordinary and we exist in a world that is, as we know, facing certain collapses in the ever-weakening structure of the diverse network.

Several human-object hybrids languish among the displays, their bizarre anatomies starkly defined in the cold, hard glare of gallery lights. The most unsettling of these hybrids, the only figure to stand on its own feet was a singular Candy Man. An oxymoronic amalgam of horror and humour, of sinister intent and childlike innocence – this diminutive character might be perpetrator or victim, producer or product, cruel ringmaster or tragic clown.

This queer figure encapsulates a compelling quality of the Karachi-based artist’s work: its refusal to be entirely one thing or another. The dissolution of binary oppositions such as male/female, light/dark, light/heavy, culture/nature, tacky/tasteful and so on, defines the work, and also encompasses a range of contemporary and historical dictionary definitions such as strange, peculiar, odd, confounding and tricky.

Baghpati stages an interest in the theatre as a tool of consciousness-raising. His work often evokes early twentieth-century movements in the arts, such as the Theatre of the Absurd and Dada that offer less direct rebukes to the politics of war by refusing to engage with authority on its own terms or with its own language.

Take, for instance, his work Pour On Portrait. Taking reproduction of a master portrait set in a gilded frame, the head is replaced by a lota or ewer suspended in air pouring water over the sitter.

Given his recurrent references to childhood and dreams, one feels compelled to ask Affan Baghpati whether he has been influenced by Freud or not?

This proclivity to read fact and theory as fiction – to deny generic distinctions and dichotomies – underlies the uncanny and idiosyncratic nature of Baghpati’s work where light can be dark and darkness brilliantly light.

For him, his assemblages are a passage from generically intelligible objects to inscrutably personal ones: from the products of a consistent industry to the results of ‘individuals trying to explain an idea with their hands.’

The botched temporality implied by these works is endemic to the artist’s fundamental urge to run things together, conjoining, he says, “what you would respect and what you wouldn’t expect to”.

Articulating, as he does so disarmingly, the pressure of choices and the anxious responsibility of self-expression, this aspect of the medium must surely provide Baghpati relief from the interminable business of being himself.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad     

Pre-dictions of fragility: Affan Baghpati’s work explores convergences between human beings and other species