July 25, 2021

There is no denying the beauty, visual appeal and pictorial power of the colour red


“We excreted autumn and winter colours, but running invisibly through our veins, the very stuff that kept us alive, was the crimson of a mad artist – a red as brilliant as fresh paint”. (Oracle Night) Paul Auster

Artists are fascinated with blood, and so is everyone else. One can recall the processions to mourn the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased) every year on Muharram 10; blood dripping from freshly slashed backs, shirts soaked in red after repeated razor cuts on body, blood settling on the knives used for self-flagellation and images of blood-drenched drape on the stallion reminiscent of Karbala.

The substance in reality is about life, the life, as it ensures the function of body. Since we cannot see blood in our veins or heart, for us, blood is what comes out of the body: through a wound, a cut, a needle prick, an accident, a knife, a bullet. Blood is associated with pain, disease and death. It is also a mark of celebration during annual sacrifice of animals across Muslim world (the Pakistani nation has just observed Eidul Azha). It is also associated with more mundane observations like when getting a chicken slaughtered for our daily dose of biryani.

In recent times, blood became a metaphor for political and religious references. Often, the two connected. During Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, the artistic potential of blood was first discovered by the artists surviving martial law. They, including Salima Hashmi, created works with images of blood stained hands, resonating with the khamsa hand from Shia procession. However, in the context of Zia’s dictatorship, it was read as a sign of resistance, especially when covered in blood.

Blood? No, in red paint. Which substitutes blood, since both blood and paint are liquid, flow, have a body different from water. Perhaps the history of art can be measured by how far the red pigment can serve to be the blood: artists who were able to convert one, crucial/ natural substance into a commercial/ artificial material. And yet we believed. On seeing Imran Qureshi’s site-specific installation Blessing on the Land of My Love at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial, which the artist explained as “the sea of blood”, we presumed that the courtyard of the Gulf art event was splattered with blood, but – of course, it was paint.

Blood has already been part of several artists’ works from Pakistan, most notably Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet I, 2007, a large digital print that looks like a Persian carpet, but on closer inspection reveals numerous photographs of a slaughterhouse in Lahore, details of blood, entrails and flesh of recently cut animals. Ritual slaughter and animals killed for food had been a usual practice, so normal, and never reaching the level of a subject of art. Accidents, shootings, crimes were also a common occurrence, deserving not more than a column in the paper. In recent past, we also witnessed violence in the form of terrorism. That altered our views.

Artists in Pakistan, like everyone else, were trying to come to terms with terrorism, in their works that predominately had the presence of blood – as the main means to convey atrocities carried out by fanatics and militants. But having said that, one cannot deny the beauty, visual appeal and pictorial power of blood. Hence, we find images of blood sprouting from the neck, arm or chest of an enemy, frequently rendered in the miniature paintings from the Mughal courts. A similar fascination with blood can be seen in the movies of Quintin Tarantino, Kill Bill (2003), in which once the arm of a Japanese lady is sliced, it starts sprouting blood like a fountain. Blood is also in abundance in his other movie, Reservoir Dogs (1992); it is splattered everywhere - to the extent that it turns into an abstraction.

If one collects the images of violence in Mughal miniatures, movies of Tarantino, works of contemporary artists from Pakistan, one realises that art portrays violence, but also provides a venue to come to terms with it. A mirage; an illusion; or an escape? Once you start admiring the works of Qureshi, Rana, Hashmi and several others, you start raising your immunity to blood (read violence). Artists, who have focused on the issue of violence and terror in the society, often end up producing works that are ‘beautiful’ and will be admired for their superb aesthetics.

Rightly so, because in the history of art, works created on specific subjects and purpose, are now admired for other aspects: formal, historical, autobiographical. In the same way, works of art made about blood today, will be appreciated for red only (perhaps they still are). This does not perturb artists because they are dealing with blood, but not handling blood. Blood for most of them is violence. For some, however, blood has another connotation, the stain to prove virginity of a newlywed bride.

In her amazing works, Saira Sheikh has addressed this side of blood: spots of red indicate this fixation and frustration in our culture. Colours in her mixed media works are as strong, and mesmerising as the shade of a rose in the back garden.

Artists have been translating/ transmuting – muting blood into a pigment supplied by Rowney or Winsor & Newton. On the other hand, some artists have used blood to make art. The British artist, Marc Quinn, producing a self-portrait, the cast of his head that “immersed in frozen silicone, is created from ten pints of his own blood”. Reminding one of other artists who used blood for making art, Iqbal Geoffrey wrote love letters to Neelo (a popular film actor in the sixties and seventies) in his own blood, somehow confirming, or commenting on the expression of utmost love – inscribing a love letter in blood.

The blood as a physical presence disappeared from the art of Pakistan after those love letters, till I came across a small painting submitted for a group show at Alhamra Art Gallery by Kanwal Tariq.

Not familiar with the artist, subject, or history, I felt compelled to display that small canvas at a prominent place, only later to discover that the nice, reddish expressionistic surface was not a painting. The artist’s father had bought and sacrificed a chicken, and instead of the edge of a blue plastic barrel (as is the practice in shops selling chicken), he had cut the fowl’s throat on a blank canvas, which was later mounted on a stretcher, then sent to the exhibition.

Sweeping and expressive marks, were not the brush strokes of brownish red paint, but the blood of a dying chicken, which in its death throes, threw it – in its attempt to breathe. So what I saw were not the leisurely, spontaneous, calculated or careful brush marks made by a painter in a studio aiming to imitate the aesthetics of abstract expressionism. All that recorded on bare fabric was the expression of a specie struggling to survive. In a sense, art making, and all other creative endeavours of the human kind, fall into the same category.

The write is an art critic based in Lahore.