Of men and mortals

September 12, 2021

For Quddus Mirza, the recreation of life in terms of art constitutes a pagan mystery, almost on the level of primitive magic rites

Of men and mortals

Quddus Mirza rejects out of hand accepted norms of social behaviour and conventional approaches to art. If it has been said with some bewilderment that he straddles several traditions but serves none, it is because his art is a frontal assault on all aesthetic values, past and present, and a redefinition of the role of art in life.

For him, the recreation of life in terms of art constitutes a pagan mystery, almost on the level of primitive magic rites. A rational treatment of themes such as violence, however radical or modern, is dismissed as being too superficial and external to cope with experiences where the instinctual and the refined, the bestial and the spiritual are so inextricably fused that only a ‘non-aesthetic’ language, shorn of civilised niceties, can cope to portray the perverted pantomime of human existence.

A Quddus Mirza work first draws the viewer’s attention with an elegant disquiet. Next, his intriguing imagery, in intricate configuration, provokes the viewer to read the work intimately. Although distanced (distorted, to use a crude but commonly used term) from their correspondent phenomenal correlate, out-of-scale juxtaposition of motifs, and above all, configuration of delineated images on Mirza’s heavily worked pictorial surface present unmistakable pictorial events or situations. The constructed events and situations never fail to suggest or evoke parallels to the events and/ or situations from the beholder’s own memory. The manner in which each image, each motif is spatially posited against another, scale-wise and chromatically, tends to narrate an event more than describe a situation. Mirza’s fables are visual narratives of life: life under the shadow of death; death’s threat to life; lonely individuals’ resistance to darkness and death – all grim and obsessive realities.

In almost all these paintings, we see living individuals burdened with premonitory perception of death and/ or violence. Mirza’s employment of images of weapons, especially knives for cutting, chopping, plunging and slaughtering, can be ambiguous. These are weapons of aggression and violence wielded by aggressors but, at the same time, these are also instruments of self-defence. Such dualities of existence and objectification of inherent contradictions in imagist terms make the painter a distinctive essentialist or a recorder of his milieu.

In their deeply muted terror and mordent wit, the mixed-media works on show at Canvas Gallery in Karachi, titled, Once Upon Many Times, there is a careful deconstruction in a search for the internal structure that gives an image its emotional resonance. The proscenium effect, enigmatic symbolism and densely layered space suggest the uneasy, often incipiently violent mood of Mirza’s art. The strange distortions, especially the enlarged hands and heads, recall Max Beckman’s Gothic expressiveness. In Mirza’s paintings, the figures are compressed into an even more cramped and claustrophobic space, often referred to as the artist’s ‘children’ pictures.

The precise relationship between Mirza’s recent paintings and history is anything but straightforward. With delicacy, morbidity, irony and absurdity they address political history, transmuting its atrocities into the forms of a strange and enigmatic mythical world. He parodies pictorial formats, only to inhabit them with his own seething fancies. It is as if the abstract mode has been demeaned, made the mere backdrop for an increasingly wild theatre: a stage set for the Cyclopean head that takes centre stage; for the scattered tangles of skinny limbs; for the clashing knives wielded by sinewy, livid, disembodied arms and hands.

Mirza’s employment of images of weapons, especially knives for cutting, chopping, plunging and slaughtering, can be ambiguous. These are weapons of aggression wielded by aggressors but these are also instruments of self-defence.

The soul of Mirza’s latest work is ‘impurity’. Just as the motives that lie behind its creation are mixed, so too are the meanings that can be attributed to its iconography. The ubiquitous tangle of fallen bodies could stand for the victims of war or a bomb blast or, more familiarly, a suicide killing. As the work unfolds, in all its raucous, battered majesty, it creates the strong impression that the artist has found a way of depicting his thoughts, dreams and aspirations, and his anger. He has achieved the wholeness that he sought.

The effect of this nearly preposterous extravagance is to give solid matter its due, a catastrophic dignity. The joy, as grizzly as the subject may sometimes be, of painting flesh tones – delicate pinks against sunburn scarlets – in memory of a nightmare world where reason sleeps, leads us to the lynching images and swiftly from there to Goya’s Disasters of War. Probing further, it is interesting to reflect on how many of these images sit firmly within the tradition of still life as a genre. The piles of shoes, and legs and heads, are not so foreign, in their intrinsic formality and palpable authority, to a dead rabbit tossed on a stone shelf, when it comes to Chardin.

Strikingly outstanding as his draughtsmanship is, it is Mirza’s tortured, tumultuous human figures that best indicate his frantic search for expression of the anguish in his soul. It is the dehumanisation that confronts us, which, perhaps, captures the cri de coeur of the painter. The violence with which he did it articulates his protest and registers his revolt. Besides such symbols of suffering, Mirza has depicted the brutalisation caused by urban anarchy with a mass of convulsive, grappling figures. These surging forms billow out centrifugally, struggling to reach out to a better beyond.

Quddus Mirza’s mixed media works are elegies to the suffering man has inflicted on man. Who are these unknown warriors, who struggle against their destiny and death? They are the common people, who begin their toil before daybreak and lay down their weary limbs on torn mats when night has already overwhelmed them with sleep. They are the labour working in fields, raking from the bowels of the earth a meagre but life-bestowing harvest.

Landscape, the mixed-media work on show reads like an epitaph. Here death itself appears to be crucified. The outstretched arms have given up their struggle. The rigid body recounts its saga for survival. The face is stark and vacant – a cemetery for the living dead.

A dark funereal painting, An Obedient Angel, carries only the ghosts of the victims alluded to in Anatomy Lessons. In the latter, fragile white lines seem stitched into a dark ground, invaded by abstract red shapes rising up through the image like ominous stalagmites. Mirza may have felt that the tyrants, the mercenaries, and the perpetrators were best not literally described, but rather their evil and conflict projected through colour and undefined forms.

The painting is built of three large elements against a background, a shambles of air and sky, on a low, wide stretch of uneven, bloodshot ground with the atlas of the world for a patch of cerulean sky.

Mirza is a keen observer of the drama called life. He cannot wrench himself free from the pain of human sorrow and find a haven where he can forget all this. Our saddest memories are our closest companions. If Mirza has not wished to shake them off, they in turn have proved to be a rich quarry of artistic expression for him.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Of men and mortals