Mixing past and present

November 1, 2020

Atif Khan’s solo show, More Love Songs, at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad connects 16th century with 21st century, Muslim India with Renaissance Europe, and high art with popular art

Love Song.

Atif Khan has combed three strands of Pakistani art to put forward a hybrid: a blend of Mughal miniature, truck art and computer generated imagery. Early nineties are associated with the rise of Karachi Pop and the popularity of neo-miniature (born in Lahore). Recently many artists prefer digital prints so that initial training and previous experiences in relatively conventional formats are abandoned in favour of computer based works.

Atif Khan studied printmaking at National College of Arts (1993-97), and produced prints using various techniques, but like many printmakers soon started seeking other forms of expression. Hence, the use of new technology in place of traditional methods. For several years now, he has developed a vocabulary with distinct features – rather ingredients. The language is at its loudest in the exhibition, More Love Songs, at Tanzara Gallery Islamabad; his solo show (October 22- November 5, 2020) includes archival inkjet prints from 2014 to 2020.

For an artist, there are many paths towards a past: revival, critique, adoration, rejection, playfulness, indifference, assimilation. Often the journey to pervious eras is in search of ‘now’ or ‘self’. This is a quest through many crossroads. In Atif Khan’s case, one recognises the artist’s fascination with motifs which belong to this part of the world: emblems of identity. However, this too is a paradox; because an image from heritage relates to us in terms of geography but is foreign in the sense of time. In that respect, painters working in Mughal ateliers were our ancestors. However, if by some secret miracle, they are resurrected today, we won’t be able to comprehend a single sentence they uttered. Not only due to the Persian they speak but also on account of their way of perceiving objects, situations and ideas that would be alien to us.

The situation is with local truck artists is no different; those not far in history but remote in social structure. A painter of decorative vehicles converses in a syntax that is partially understood by others – higher in hierarchy – though not appreciated or respected. Several artists, and some trendy persons have lately discovered the potential of popular truck painting, especially after it was appropriated by ‘high art’ (Karachi Pop). It is being re-produced on lanterns, teapots, utensils, charpoys, and other such mundane items. (In a sense, its descent into these pieces connects it with low-income groups and is a logical destination of truck art, originally practiced by individuals from similar social strata).

However, the charm of this art is that it picks extrinsic sounds, and turns them into familiar meanings by infusing new content in them. Various Pakistani artists have dealt with traditional miniature painting and popular transport art using a similar approach. In their work, elements from past or from a distant pictorial practice assume new guises, roles and context. Today a considerable number of artists (like Atif Khan) are enthusiastically recreating Mughal miniature paintings in digital prints, reminding one of Arthur Waley, the English Sinologist, who said that “he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation”.

An individual choosing the diction of digital has multiple questions to tackle in the privacy of his/her heart. Especially, if the pictorial substance is derived from previous examples, and peripheral sources. Why, what, how – and how far and how long? Atif Khan may have considered these points as one sees different solutions to the basic issue: what to do with an already existing matter. In his prints, past emerges in the form of king’s figure, water waves, clouds, plants (and horses, elephant, maps and architectural details). Popular art comes in its multiple manifestations: burraq, birds and fish. Yet Khan is not content with this bag of visuals, so he adds references from European Art (angel-like flying creatures), and pictures from contemporary life (banners of three major political parties of Pakistan).

What comes out of this diverse body of sources, is an apparently complex concoction that engages you, impresses you and delights you. On top of everything, it conveys something obvious. The nature and history of power: as a Mughal king, like a trapeze artist, is balancing while holding a pair of umbrellas on a rope suspended between two bridges (Naya Walah Pull IV). Political parties’ banners from this print, become prominent in another work (Naya Walah Pull III), in which one notices a range of motifs: a bridge squashed with its two sides visible simultaneously; fabrics bearing political messages; tiny figure of a Mughal ruler; a few barricades; and water, clouds and trees gathered from historic miniature paintings. In addition, side-walls of a bridge have Islamic geometric patterns. An ideal motif for an artist who desires to comment on present through past.

One happily accepts and admires Atif Khan’s attempts to comment on socio-political nature of human society, till coming across a number of works in which past images are placed in uncanny settings: a king perched on a sailboat; a king and queen conversing while standing on different rocks; a historic building on the edge of a huge stone that is submerged in water and has a pattern of blue kufiyah (it is titled Love Song).

It can be sensed that Atif Khan aims to communicate something profound, but profound does not take off common ground when it comes to a quick, easy and consumable route. The reading is reinforced by his other prints, in which pictorial segments are rotated, superimposed, and juggled around, revealing a decorative impulse. Especially in works like Mystic Flight, with a sequence of a burraq in flight against some unworldly water whirls encircled by transparent clouds. Or in Homage I and Homage II, in which fish and bird, representing colourful metal constructions made for/in transport art, expand from the centre of a circular surface.

The Palace.

A positive aspect of Atif Khan’s aesthetic is, that instead of current in-vogue monochromatic palette, he opts for a routine, rudimentary and ‘redundant’ multicolour approach with vibrant hues and vivid shades. Probably his inspiration, miniature and truck art, compels him. Treating this visual material – particularly in his latest prints, is his way of joining ages and areas: the Sixteenth Century melts into the Twenty-First, and the Muslim India meets Renaissance Europe, and high art merges with popular image-makers. What comes out of it is a certain content.

However, the content is a problem as well. Because for many artists, including Atif Khan, content is merely a manipulation of certain images: computer options. He has rendered visually attractive pieces with strong colour compositions, and recognisable entities, but seeing some in oval shape, others in round, a few in square or rectangular – formats mostly lacking logical connection to content – projects the illusion of an enticing picture. The journey is in different dimensions with different combinations.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Mixing past and present