Seeing is not believing

October 11, 2020

Hamid Ali Hanbhi’s physically interactive artwork is on display at Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Hamid Hanbhi: Jacobabad (detail).

A common practice in museums and galleries is to put a label saying “Do not touch” next to every artwork. It’s not a pandemic precaution, but makes artworks sound precious, almost sacred, items to which touching might be an act of desecration. Thus, you keep a respectful and required distance from the works on display. This restriction is sometimes enforced by placing a thick rope or metal chain between the viewer and the viewed object.

Hamid Ali Hanbhi’s work, on the contrary, is created for physical interaction. At his solo show, Out of Sight (October 6-15, Canvas Gallery, Karachi), each exhibit consists of one large image (oil on canvas or graphite on paper). Next to it is a small sheet of paper (and a copper plate) with text written in Braille, only to be ‘read’ by moving your hand across the surface. If you are not familiar with Braille, you still see the pleasant white paper, and the seductively-stained metal sheet, and get a visual sensation that is not very different from what comes out of his painted/drawn surfaces; both convey a level of skill.

Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness deals with an epidemic. It’s about the population of a city losing their eyesight, their struggle for survival, their inability to make sense of things they are not aware of and notice only after they recover their vision. It implies that people with eyes are blind to many issues — physical, social and political — that are right in front of them.

Hanbhi’s work is meant for multiple viewing. On the surface, his paintings and drawings are impressive visuals: sections of a city, depiction of clouds, texture of the sea, and a portrait of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But there is more to it: the artist is not seeking the often-quoted term in art writing and education, ‘eye and hand coordination’, that stresses the need to draw as closely as we see. But do we see honestly? Objectively? Clearly? EH Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion, answers: we see only what we want to see.

If the notion of want is tested, we realise that what we want is not always what we want; we often operate in compliance to the unwritten command of the community that trains us to comprehend the world in a certain way. A sort of Braille. Most citizens are so conditioned by textbooks, newspapers, and TV channels that they deny what is obvious; instead they believe in what they are fed by these powerful sources.

One such example is the portrayal of Jinnah, the father of the nation. The fact that Pakistanis always add the adjective The Great Leader before his name - in public discourse, for official correspondence, on media and in academia - confirms the way reality is constructed in a regimented model. The personality of a brilliant lawyer and incredible statesman is transformed by the addition of this term — turning a man who enjoyed well-stitched suits, cigars and recreation (there are photographs of Jinnah playing billiards) into a superhuman.

Hanbhi paints him in an immaculate white attire, fit for the fashion of his time, and smoking. An image picked from an authentic reference, but not appropriate to the current (purified) representation of the Quaid as etched in our minds.

Along with his works on the wall, Hanbhi has displayed a total of 150 sticks for the blind, fabricated with Collyrium, a substance used to beautify eyes and to make them see better.

While Hamid Hanbhi’s paintings and drawings are accompanied by a Braille representation, there is more material to decipher. Seemingly simple scenes - for instance hovering clouds and dark birds flying against them, shifting light on ordinary locations in Lahore, waves of a serene Arabian Sea - are pictures/phenomena that are observed, yet cannot be wholly captured in words. Because the sea current, the amount of light in a city scene, and the cloud formation at certain moment are different from the next moment, whereas their verbal accounts remain unchanged.

It seems that the entire exhibition is about this duality between seeing and saying. In a series of three graphite-on-paper drawings, he has depicted identical views of an area in Lahore at three different hours: morning, dusk, night. In words, you can utter three demarcations of time, but the physical experience of seeing these is something different. Hanbhi aims to capture and convey this pictorial sensation.

Like most of us, Hanbhi lives in more than one location. He studied fine arts at the National College of Arts (2016), was selected for Vasl Taza Tareen Residency II (2019), and has been working at his studio in Lahore. He spent most of his earlier days in his home town, Jacobabad, which emerges in two of his paintings. A view of mud houses and trees near the bypass to his city, that could be anywhere in Pakistan (or South Asia), and the pigeon house (a structure built by John Jacob, the city is named after him, and he is revered like a saint).

Along with the works on the wall, Hanbhi has displayed a total of 150 sticks for the blind, fabricated with Collyrium, a substance used traditionally to beautify eyes and to make them see better. Walking devices for those who cannot see, made with a material used for eyes only, is a comment on the boundary between the realms of the eye and the mind — insurmountable in terms of our daily existence, especially for artists who are already questioning the practice of seeing.

Besides depicting various situations (the sky, sites, human figures), these works are about vision and a system of knowledge. The prescribed information about a national leader, of an urban structure, or a sensory/optical encounter can be alien experiences for those who exist outside of this familiar set of association — those who are blind and those who are unaware of the context. Hanbhi combines the two in his installation of 150 walking sticks for the blind, as well as in his diptychs (paintings and drawings next to Braille sheets). Through these, he invokes the question of imperceptible distance between seeing and sensing. Seeing and saying.

Along with his remarkable image-making ability, and references drawn from observation and the past, the work is about physical interaction and its language.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Seeing is not believing: Hamid Ali Hanbhi’s interactive artwork is on display at Canvas Gallery, Karachi