Straddling time and space

January 17, 2021

Artist Atif Khan believes that art must come from the heart

Song of the spring

In the day and age of the ‘articulate’ artist, Muhammad Atif Khan does his utmost to keep his message short and simple: “It must be from the heart”. For Khan, that statement is like a mantra. He unapologetically rails against conceptualism in any form. His stance, like his work, is deliberately naïve and simplistic. His career has been a careful balancing act between a dilettante and a careerist. Khan’s recent suite of digital prints titled, More Love Songs, rests on a self-created mythology of simplicity, friendship and adventure where he often swerves into the realms of social and political statement.

The taming of his characteristically exuberant manner of art-making seems almost complete. Cut back to essentials, the outback landscape is often no more than a collection of water expanses, or a few serpentine hills and tree-studded horizons. However, the dim traces of colours beneath the dark, shifting reds and blues that cover the works like a veil suggest some kind of a struggle before the final solution. The more crowded the playing field, the more confusing and problematic the game. Despite their large size, the works’ numerous pictorial vignettes and scrupulous attention to detail suggest the illuminator’s craft. In contrast, there are pared-down compositions, which contain fewer figures viewed within a telescoped space, that demonstrate evolution away from the illuminator’s meticulous vision. The distorted scale as well as the artificial context serve to remind the viewer that this is nature reclassified, a deliberate re-ordering of the natural order.

Atif Khan is a man of his age, conversant with current intellectual enquiry. He sees the foundations of civilisation torn down and pieced back together as dogmatic scholasticism gradually yields to the evidence of empirical observation. Geographic and celestial boundaries expand dramatically in his work. Filled with contradictions, humanism and vernacular folk culture, realism and fantasy, anxiety and optimism flourish together in a world of mutable boundaries and multiple perspectives in Khan’s archival prints on Hahnemuhle paper. Here, there is no division between the spiritual and the material. We need not think of Khan, therefore, as either ignorant or learned, bourgeois or aristocratic, devout or heretical, pragmatic or visionary, as there is no bar to being an interpreter of both popular wisdom and higher knowledge – realms which are not necessarily antithetical in Khan’s intellectual ambience. The fluid fusion of sacred and secular, urban and court environments produce a unique form of cultural expression (read appropriation), which Khan has absorbed. This is a parallel world different from, but no less complex than, our own.

Indeed, wherever Atif Khan actually invents something, it is always as unlike as possible what the eye is used to seeing. But let there be no mistake; these are not symbols in the accepted sense but explosions of meaning, phantasmagoria designed to lay bare the essence of reality. The result is a vocabulary of images that seldom draws its symbols out of an existing stock, and instead, experiments with possibilities, with symbols that have as yet no determinable significance but are rich in suggestion. Once you scour the work, you discover that despite the rigorous but unfettered perspicacity, there are some prints that betray the more tentative hand. When you find it, it always has to do with form as such, and its sign is a certain monotonous flatness which only gradually becomes enlivened. Take, for instance, The Palace. On a perfectly centralised and symmetrical vertical plane, the Mughal king perched on a Greek Ionic column balances a baby elephant. The tiles are from the Alhamra in southern Spain, while the galloping horses with pink hooves are a stylised version of the Arabian and Indian horse.

Atif Khan is a man of his age, conversant with current intellectual enquiry. He sees the foundations of civilisation torn down and pieced back together as dogmatic scholasticism gradually yields to the evidence of empirical observation.

As we begin to grasp just how that style developed into a virtuoso juggling with colours and finally into a sublime serenity in workmanship where all effort is concealed, we arrive at a series of criteria that make far more sense than the attempt to attribute everything to a hypothetical growth in realism.

There is scarcely a print in which Khan’s bright, flowing forms do not at one and the same time conceal and proclaim whatever it is that threatens to break through. For just that reason, it is much too narrow to think of these husk-like images as no more than cast-off incrustations such as are found in nature. Rather they involve decisive, even crudely elementary, processes that either openly take their beginnings from disguise and concealment or are brought thereby to some radical conclusion. The most powerful example of this, and the most inexorably imaginative, is The Stage.

The repeat image of the monarch – as an archer and a shooter - adorns the two sides of the horizontal frame with a two-beam balance in the centre. The king stands in one pan while the human heart sits on the other pan, above a reflection pool.

In landscapes with all sorts of covered, hollowed-out, and veiled-over forms, with equally extraordinary composite creatures, and with a strange collection of architectural details stretching to all sides, earth, water and air become an all-permeating, pulsing, interpenetrating unity. The terrain, close and distant, is so intricate, so vast, so veiled and hazy that when curious (the Buraaq), strangely seductive (sirens and nymphs), and willfully enigmatic (carps and birds) creatures pop up in it, they seem perfectly understandable denizens of such a setting. The fact that everything here is interrelated, that anything can suddenly transform itself into everything, is so immediately self-evident that, behind it all, must lie the speculative mind of the artist.

Khan has travestied tradition, and in the more specific sense of mocking the ceremonial, clung to the idea that the much victorious Mughal king proved his strength through the use of power. In any case, the theme of temptation has a double meaning: temptation, by its nature, always leaves in suspense what is yet to come and who is to be the ultimate victor.

In Love Song II, the composition circles elegantly and with delicate articulation from the remote distances forward to the lake or pond, and the meadow overgrown with foliage. For the two figures, there is no congestion but only the happiness of ‘togetherness.’ The central theme is quest, the seeking of one human being for another. Actual physical union is most often implied by the spherical blossoms, pavilions of coral, and reflections where they gather. Another kind of sweetness is expressed through the colours themselves, which are made light and clear, so that often a yellowish hue shimmers softly through the greens and the local colours stand out flickeringly. This is the gentle old-style use of light found in the Burgundian miniatures of van Eyck’s time. This cool and temperate, spring-like atmosphere in an ecstatic scenery is more the product of what might be, than of what is.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

Straddling time and space