Bedside stories

September 27, 2020

With a sensuous undercurrent, artist Muhammad Ali’s work shows male figures posing as odalisques

Wounds from my Father.

Painter Muhammad Ali, aka Mirchi Ali, is also a freelance make-up artist (as mentioned in his resume). This might seem a rare side-profession for a visual artist but there is an overlap between painting a face with cosmetics, and the act of painting a person, setting or scene in oil or some other medium.

Ali graduated in fine arts from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, in 2010. His fourth solo exhibition, Love Letters to Lost Lovers, is currently being held (September 22- October 1) at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. An accomplished draftsman, Muhammad Ali astonished both the examiners and viewers with his superb skill, clever compositions, and courageous content during his degree show. His work comprises images of male figures, clad and posing as odalisques or courtesans, with a sensuous overtone.

Sexuality for an artist in Pakistan has often been a problem, especially if it’s outside of the male-dominated discourse. Traditionally, men have been portraying ‘woman’ as a symbol of beauty — mostly an object of desire. But since the last century, in the words of American art historian Linda Nochlin, “the term ‘woman’ fights back, and resists attempts to subdue its meaning or reduce it to some simple essence”.

Men or women who deviate from the kosher code of physical relationships face problems, not only from the state and religious groups, but also from the general public. Homosexuality has been there for centuries but artists have been reluctant to represent it ‘openly’ in an art form. Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf (The Quilt),1942, and Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire, 1996, faced harsh reactions (and court cases). However there are references to it in the literature produced in the subcontinent.

In spite of the dangers and the backlash, some artists have continued to pursue the subjects close that appeal to them. In the recent past, Muhammad Ali, too, had to deal with a legal threat over one of his paintings published in an academic journal.

Given the experience, and a professional journey of 10 years, the recent works of Ali, are vastly different from his earlier figures — “characters” that, to borrow a phrase from James Wood, “infect each other with the high temperature of their existence”. In the present show, one comes across various subjects and images all alluding to a person’s sexuality, but not in an overt manner.

The most striking images are depicted in paintings named after week days. In two canvases, one can see a bed somebody has recently stepped out of, with pillows, creased bedsheets and covers in a turmoil. The blankness of fabric makes the setting look like a hotel room rather than a bedroom in a home. From two days of impersonal images (Monday, Tuesday), one returns to a domestic interior in Wednesday. The bed is piled up with pillows and sheets of varying shades and patterns, almost filling the space.

Reading the works through a gender lens is an unnecessary restriction. These paintings are remarkable representations of a certain way of living.

It appears that the paintings are analogous to the division of society where people who enjoy material luxury also have the privilege of proclaiming their sexual leanings without fearing persecution.

The most striking images are depicted in paintings named after weekdays. In two canvases, one can see a bed somebody has recently stepped out of, with pillows, creased bedsheets and covers in a turmoil.

In another set of paintings, male figures are not in ordinary costumes but derived from diverse sources like “Safavid roots visible in headgear and attire” or sneakers, wrist bands and printed tracksuit trousers. In one of his paintings (with the title of 42 words long verse), one recognizes the artist’s urge to combine history with the present. A bent man with his ancient Persian helmet and metallic net vest is wearing contemporary boots and trousers. In other works, with similarly longish titles, you see bearded figures in similar headwear; though in strange situations — riding a plastic toy animal in the waters, or having a round of roses around the neck.

These canvases appear to be recreating characters known to have existed at a certain time and place that have parallels across cultures. This is reminiscent of Turkish drama series, Ertugrul Ghazi, in which contemporary actors represent legendry personalities. A spectator is mesmerized by the sophistication of Ali’s handling of the medium, but beyond that, these paintings follow a formula: converting a familiar model into a historic individual. These days you see a similar trend in billboard advertising in Pakistan.

A third group of paintings shows women in strange auras, either holding a hybrid reptile or a lobster as head dress. These surfaces, apart from confirming the artist’s mastery in rendering the visible world, do not convey more than what a good illustration does in a magazine offering unusual narratives. One recalls that in some of his previous work the artist had portrayed men as a substitute for women. These work was not a comment on gender but expounded on appropriating of history in a mocking tone. The females in the recent work appear forced, hired, and tired. Compared to the youth on a plastic animal or a bouquet of roses around a man’s neck, these fail to project an exciting spectacle.

An out of the ordinary scene is visible in only one painting — a sole example of passion. A young man’s naked torso is seen next to a monsteria plant. Apart from the contours and muscles or the shape of leaves, what happens to the body of a young male is important in order to understand Last Letters to Lost Lovers. On a closer look, the viewer deciphers the Persian couplet: If there is paradise/It is here’, inscribed on the model’s chest, whose other half is clamped with a clothes peg.

A unique, and commendable, aspect of Muhammad Ali’s exhibition is that all works produced in 2020, have different ‘layouts’. Perhaps he has been imagining the options during the lockdown. The exhibition confirms that it is the truth that sustains and survives.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Bedside stories