Remembering Jinnah

March 21, 2021

Exhibition ‘Finding Jinnah’ starts at Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Find The Real Jinnah, 2008 by Imran Channa.

The cover of Finding Jinnah, a beautifully printed picture of a Jinnah cap with a white background, reminds us of a passage from Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It begins with an episode of communist leaders, standing on the palace balcony in Prague. “It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head… Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course from all photographs… Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

Today the karakul cap is recognised nationwide as the Jinnah cap. The father of the nation died in 1948, but ‘his cap’ has survived. What happened to the hat used customarily in Central Asia and Afghanistan, can be compared to how Jinnah’s figure was transformed from a real person to an icon, daubed in shades suited for each epoch and ideology. Finding Jinnah, a publication of The Furqaan Ahmed Collection, examines different aspects of Jinnah’s depiction in present-day Pakistan. Leafing through the volume, the question – and the title of Ali Raza’s essay, Will the Real Mr Jinnah Please Stand up? surface again and again – a question for many who have witnessed several transformations of the man. Sabir Nazar’s illustration (originally for The Friday Times, which is included in the book) highlights this phenomenon with Benazir Bhutto, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and Qazi Hussain Ahmed painting Jinnah as a Sindhi landlord, a soldier and a mullah.

In Ali Usman Qasmi’s essay Portraying Jinnah – A Brief History, there are further examples of the way Jinnah was portrayed in the past, especially in adversary press, such as cartoons from Milap and the Indian Nationalist Press, not always in complementary colours. The book, published this year is a great venture to bring some sanity into patriotic passions. Just the fact that the title refers to Jinnah, and not Quaid-i-Azam, indicates that the actual journey is to look for the truth, from Finding Jinnah to Finding Ourselves (preface by Dr Furqaan Ahmed).

Along with text, the publication comprises images about Jinnah: works of recognised artists, truck paintings, archival photographs, wall paintings, posters and specimens of commercial design. Arthur C Danto, observes “one cannot look at the painting of a naked person simply as a painting”, in the same lieu one is unable to see Jinnah’s image, of an immortal individual; it suggests concepts connected to statehood, power, and popularity. An artwork produced with Jinnah, may not be about the person, but the construct of nationality, malleability of the history and the changing modes of perception.

Intriguingly, Jinnah’s face appears on currency notes and coins and framed in government offices so often that it is scarcely noticed. When making a monetary transection, we are more aware of the denomination of the currency unit than the picture of the person. So Jinnah hovers most of the time as a background entity. Literally too; it appears behind a civil servant’s chair, on the back wall during the prime minister’s address, or a tiny photo at the top amid a cluster of election contestants.

In a sense, all works included in the book are political, even those commissioned paintings that adorn government buildings. Portraits by Saeed Akhtar, magazine covers, or Quaid’s face on Pakola cans unfold relationships between the image, its maker and its user. From a number of collected pieces, a few represent ideas about perception and politics. Imran Channa’s magnificent and monumental digital print on panaflex, Find the Real Jinnah (2008), delineates an impossibility. Yet it is believable. In the picture, you see seven men, with slight variations in age, in different attires and direction of the face/body, sitting for a group photo. It is a black and white visual that due to the fashion of a bygone era enhances the effect of reality. At first glance you approve of this vintage shot. Then you realise that all of them are Jinnah, in varying suits, sherwanis, hats, postures, acts. The work shows how a human being – once a popular figure – leads to many versions of its reproduction, all true.

A similar concept was dealt with by Mahbub Shah – long before Channa, in 2001. In his Historical Mispronounced Like Hysterical I, he collected several posters of Jinnah’s portraits sold during the Independence Day festivities, and framed and put them side by side. (The book has a sequel created in 2019) only to make us understand that these pictures were not of Jinnah, but of ourselves, and how we imagine him. A formal exercise, gathering ordinary prints – communicated the diversity existing in society, reflected in its leader and vice versa. Every differing representation was/is an authentic one, hence none.

So is the view from the back. Ayaz Jokhio in his MA Jinnah, 2020, renders the back of Jinnah’s stock image reproduced on every official document/product. A citizen of Pakistan is so trained regarding the picture of Jinnah, that he/she still identifies it being the head of The Great Leader, even though no features are visible. Jokhio’s painting, a comment on the phenomenon of conditioning, for political, commercial or other gains, addresses the power of the image, and the image of power.

Power in present circumstances is not just military, police and government, but money, too. Sections of society traditionally associated with absolute power have also discerned the potential of commercial ventures, hence housing societies named after armed forces (Bahria, Fizaia etc). Muhammad Zeeshan, in his Quaid (2016), forged a portrait of Jinnah by rubbing edges of one-rupee coin on an aluminium sheet. Zeeshan has been probing the link between the imagery of a revered figure and commercial activities, as witnessed in his installation Art Cash, Hard Cash (December 25, 2015, Sanat Initiative) with one rupee coins spread on the floor, a total of 139,000 to mark the 139th birthday of Jinnah. Visitors were invited to bring “exact change in the form of one-rupee coins and exchange it for a work”.

When it comes to the image of Jinnah, there are many expected and well-trodden paths. In the book, one finds a range of approaches: mockery, mimicry, allegory, interventions, collages, assemblages. Some of these seem mere visual tantalisation. These include Hasnain Ali’s oil paint on coins, Mohsin Shafi’s inkjet prints, and Adnan Miraj and Samra Faruqi’s manipulation of bank notes. However, the grand contribution of Finding Jinnah, is that it collects, compiles and compares attitudes towards nationality, sacredness, historic truths, and artistic licence; finding Jinnah in reality is finding ourselves, if not the other way round.

The exhibition, Finding Jinnah, was launched on March 20, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Remembering Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah