Mapping identity

November 28, 2021

Farrukh Addnan’s work highlights the inherent hierarchies of power and protection

Mapping identity

“It is not the glance but the stare and the gaze,” Farrukh Addnan’s comment points to a requisite in considering his art. There is a sense of unstoppable time in his work. His compelling visual language employs a highly developed and codified grammar that leads to symbolic geographies, slowly revealing interior worlds that are both familiar and strangely foreboding. Whether of the self or the site, he reveals inherent hierarchies of power and protection that these complex works, quite literally, lead us to. While Addnan’s art always embraces metaphysical issues, his consciously honed psycho-aesthetic approach has offered a new formal language with which we can investigate his “unknown room”.

This is what can be alluded to as a discreetly stylised and perfected composition within a box-like isometric space where marks advance and retreat. As a domain of transferred reality, the poetics of space, matter and mind are crucial to the work. Jacques Lacan’s words, “Putting together many sounds or many shapes yields a kind of supple thread – and when it’s all done it ‘means something’, putting simply, it speaks” – perfectly capture the highly orchestrated linearism of Addnan’s angular, totemic imagery.

If we are to map anything nowadays, then surely, in prime position, would be the way we map ourselves in the world – a very different proposition from that of the historical grand voyage undertaken by an often-violating explorer leading a bunch of sailors in his greed to colonise on behest of a founding nation.

This is the era of the lonely traveller, off on a bittersweet journey across many borders to far-flung corners of the world, reaching safely with an identity card and visa in situ, arriving on an ever-increasing volley of fast-paced budget airlines bound for a declining number of lonely destinations across the globe. It does not matter if we reach a grand old European port or a small holding in the evergreen tropics; it is reaching the destination that now makes our destiny.

Farrukh Addnan’s new body of work, Stillness in Movement, that went on show at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, is a return to a form of nomadism, of scattered references to one’s own roots, as we remember parts of ourselves in small images that remain unprinted, turned into memories and discarded in due time by fresher memoirs. On a treadmill we hike between zones that remain divided by their desire to be accessible and their desire to have access. Addnan relocates the haze that has come into our lives – the purple haze of which Hendrix talked, of memory as a distinct but fuzzy reality, having a specific meaning that, like the shoreline of any ocean, changes everyday due to the forces of the tide.

Farrukh Addnan envisions this ocular journey, from the orb of the eye to the Celestial Orb, through a multitude of imageries and metaphors of the portal. Addnan removes the traces of memory, and through acts of removal, he moves the marks to another space.

Traditionally, the culture of Farrukh Addnan’s imagery is grounded in the physical and spiritual lie of the land, given form and expression during ancestral journeys and renewed through ceremony. The environment of rock formations, ripples and dunes, grasses, trees, leaves, animal tracks, creeks and waterholes, fire and flowers, provide the imagery that is abstracted in these works in graphite, pen and washes on paper and canvas. Their energy and freshness is partly explained by the process – the artist often singing the story of his ancestors as they painted, using the same designs that have been used for generations – whether traced in the sand, incised into rock, painted on the body or carved and painted on the walls, weapons and ceremonial objects – setting up vibrations congruent with the land.

There is also tangible delight in mark-making given resonance by subtle variations in pressure and movement as the artist draws his hand along the canvas.

Too bright to be seen, too clear to be known, the hollow ovals facing each other like mirrors on postcard sized pages in Addnan’s long series of drawings on wasli with variations, emit a light to adorn the firmament. One is reminded of the cosmogony of the 12th Century mystical philosopher, Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, who claims that men forgot the Light: so when gazing upon the skies, some only see a sapphire sphere with luminous buttons sewn upon it. Yet others look at the stars with astrologer eyes; they see the stars and their houses, their conjunctions and influences, their ascents and descents, only to miss what lies beyond. But there are a few, who know that seeing is a journey with the mind’s eye, they close their eyes to see.

They see through the clouds and stars and striations, through the constellations and spheres. Where the astrologers see the twelve signs of the zodiac and the movements of the stars and planets, they see twelve workshops with seven masters overseeing scores of artisans. With the inner eye, they make the voyage beyond the first sphere, untouched by time and place, where simorgh, that immortal mythical benevolent bird, nests in the eternal Tuba tree, atop the cosmic Mount Qaf.

Perhaps inspired by this journey, Farrukh Addnan envisions this ocular journey, from the orb of the eye to the Celestial Orb, through a multitude of imageries and metaphors of the portal. Addnan removes the traces of memory, and through acts of removal, he moves the marks to another space. By leaving the ovals empty, he evokes a shrilling silence from the paper, chiselling a window; a silene that resembles Suhrawardi’s black-eyed gazelles that rain tears of wisdom and without speaking, whittle meaning. In the latter sense, Addnan might be pointing to the space protected from the perish that characterises time and space. These ‘windows’, furthermore, reveal an eye gazing back.

It might be apt to assert here that this series is created in part as an attempt to capture the Benjaminian notion of aura. In its most common usage, aura refers to an elusive essence that captures an object’s authenticity: a sense, Benjamin feels, lost both in mechanical reproduction and acts of translation. In a more neglected sense, however, Benjamin uses aura as a “weave of space and time” that endows the object with the ability to open its eyes. As such, in “empty” frames, we are no longer looking at marks that repress the unsaid, the unthought, to give us a sense of meaning; nor are we looking at the exotic original language sitting inanimately on the paper, but at something that gazes back, helping the viewer to escape the panopticon of language. In conversation with other pieces, these gaping windows invite us to look for an oculus everywhere.

Retinal stimulation is more pronounced in Whirling, almost like a spear in flight, quivering and vibrating the air around it, pushed by the elemental force of the wind, the selection of works in the show glimpse a living tradition of making art known for the shimmer created by repetitive, geometric patterns and intricate cross-hatching. One of the great pleasures of the new body of work is the chance to see how consistent Addnan has been in ambition and feeling over the course of his short career, and yet how various his efforts to create and contain that feeling. In his rarely seen ‘books’ carved out of canvas, we see a foretaste of the tussle between ripped and bleeding abstraction and resolved figuration that plays an important part in configuring art. And in his larger than life scrolls with centralised ovals and oxidised silver leaves that are heavily veiled, we are reminded of the dauntingly vast advantage of the unseen over the seen, the unknown over the known and the irretrievable past over the present. In these strange fragments an impossible dream of wholeness seems to depend on nothing more than a hand here, a look there.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Mapping identity