In the glow of darkness

July 11, 2021

For Mughees Riaz, men are not from Mars nor women from Venus; men are probably from the sky and women from the earth

‘Untitled 19’, oil on canvas and 24 k gold leaf
‘Untitled 19’, oil on canvas and 24 k gold leaf

Usually, it takes a supernatural effort to push one’s pen for writing on Mughees Riaz. The effort is not unlike dragging one’s feet across his long stretched landscapes – though rendered convincingly. His remarkable skill in recording sunsets, riverbanks, fields, water-buffalos, crows and occasional human beings has been evident in his paintings, but these works never made a trespass. It is only in his recent solo exhibition, Kirdar [In My – Land Space] at Canvas Gallery (June 29 to July 8) that a visitor could detect some ‘current’ in his canvases.

One image that shook a viewer’s gaze and conditioning was an untitled painting, composed (read crowded) entirely with buffalos, and women in black chadors. Both faced the same direction thereby becoming part of a gathering with a few similarities: profiles, dominant black, gender. One can easily decipher the artist’s intent in a work like this. Females and buffalos, for some, occupy the same status in a male-dominated culture. Both are considered personal property and both must contribute to children’s growth. Both are perceived docile. Riaz paints – but punctures this notion with his work, carefully constructed to indicate and challenge the fallacies.

Girls completely clad in black (with portions of their faces exposed) have their eyes shut, as if in a religious ceremony or ritualistic trance, but their grouping interjected with black (and a couple of brownish buffalos) somehow leads to another reading: independence, defiance, camaraderie. By juxtaposing women with buffalos, Riaz has provoked a sensitive situation; if not in front of our eyes then in the backyard of our minds. His superb ability to capture his subject – whether animal or human – is visible in this work. The scene appears to be a real setting rather than a painter’s invention. One can sense the texture of buffalos’ bodies, and believe in the gravity of folds in black cloaks/scarves on young females.

Like a lock, which has its key, a separate object; the code to decipher Untitled 1 is in another work, Untitled 2, of identical dimension and action, but with a shift in gender and specie. Young men supporting black beards, their eyes closed, are positioned amid rows of black crows. One speculates that this canvas complements the previous painting, and recognises the artist’s attempt to offer a composite portrayal of two genders in a traditional society. Viewed together, these two canvases suggest the divide, roles and restrictions associated with two sexes in our environment.

Forget humans for a moment, let’s just concentrate on our companions from the animal kingdom. Buffalos are domesticated, passive, dependant and useful, while crows are free flying, alert, noisy and active. Placement of buffalos with women and crows with men is not accidental therefore. It describes the genders in terms of characteristics attributed to animals represented in the paintings.

On another level, the paintings may be a comment on the phenomenon of faith. The females in black attire appear as if part of a congregation, listening attentively to what is recited by a religious scholar or a devotional speaker. A similar narrative can be traced in the second canvas, of men with neatly grown beards, being attentive to some sort of sermon, next to crows (shrewd, loud and aggressive). Such metaphors are extended in a number of works. In Untitled 5, two women attired in black are posing against the bank of River Ravi. This reminds one of the artist’s several earlier paintings with buffalos in a similar looking spot. In Untitled 6 one sees two men in a friendly pose in front of a boat stranded on the shore. An alert crow is perched on the vessel’s edge.

For Mughees Riaz, men are not from Mars nor women from Venus. The men are probably from the sky (like crows) and women from the earth (like buffaloes). The men can be as homeless as a dog, as in Untitled 7, where a bearded person is looking at the camera/ painter/ viewer in the company of a dog turned towards us. If there is no distinction between human expressions and those of a canine, there is no difference in a man’s shirt and a dog’s coat either: both are pale white. Riaz extends this substitution by painting a pair of cats in another landscape, Untitled 8 (on a background associated more with Mughees Riaz’s paintings then a specific location in Lahore).

There are some shocking moments as well. There’s a bearded man and a woman in purdah embracing, shown from two sides. Normally we don’t witness this kind of warmth in public. A woman wearing burqa, chador and hijab conveys that she is outside, and the artist points out: “a newly-wed couple attempting to control displays of affection as even an innocent gesture like holding hands may be offensive”. One guesses then It Must Have Been Love (Roxette’s song for the movie Pretty Woman), but soon makes the correction: “it must have been a selfie” since both of these paintings (Untitled, 9 &10) betray the protagonists’ desire, expectation and posture for seeing themselves in the mirror.

Mughees Riaz deals with the idea of art being a mirror, trying to represent parts of society with their assigned duties or assumed activities. In a series of circular surfaces (Untitled 12 to 16), the head of a crow, the face of a bearded man, a hijab wearing woman’s portrait, and a buffalo’s head are painted with 24k gold leaf. In the same series, one finds a sunset that may serve as a buffer zone. Mirrors traditionally are framed disk-shaped, so that a round painting is bound to evoke that link. But more than the medallion like shape of each canvas, the profile shot echoes the configuration of an identity photo. A picture in which outsiders not only see our features, but our histories too: nationality, religion, gender, age, etc.

The painter, perhaps, is still chained to his identity, to his prized/ praised imagery; and sensing the passage of time has decided to introduce some serious elements in his trademark landscapes populated with buffalos and crows. A 580-words artist’s statement on art, life, society, identity, faith accompanies the pictures.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

In the glow of darkness