Curtains at canvas

January 9, 2022

In his latest exhibition, artist Ayaz Jokhio has got a number of visuals printed on small fabrics and used them as reference to his imagery

Curtains at canvas

With new canvases of Ayaz Jokhio at his studio, I was trying to navigate his concept, till a simple, regular and much repeated question helped me find my way into his work. Responding to a query about books, Jokhio shared his recent reading of The Thousand and One Nights in Abul-Hassan Mansur Ahmed’s brilliant Urdu translation. The discussion then drifted to the structure of this classic, how stories are interwoven as one emerges out of another ad infinitum. Suddenly his paintings started to unravel.

Jokhio has drawn curtains (in all senses of the word) against flat walls, on his canvases. The blinds are printed and furled, but the artist has rendered them in such a way that a viewer is able to stretch the fabric in his/her imagination and get the complete picture: A Punjabi cinema billboard, a black and white film still featuring Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, fighter planes against a clear blue sky, a brick wall, Imran Khan addressing the nation, a clip showing a catwalk, spreads of blue, and of red flowers, and the original wallpaper of Windows XP.

The Microsoft standard image, the view of a landscape, is so real that a majority of computer users have seen it, more than any popular, famous, and iconic landscape in the history of art; and so unreal that it only exists on computer screens. The painting based on this picture denotes Jokhio’s passage in the labyrinth of real and virtual, amid fact and fiction (recalling Robert Browning’s line, “Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?”).

Connected to this canvas, the word window is what makes the entire body of his new works relevant, exciting and intriguing. Ayaz Jokhio is one of a few original, innovative and intelligent artists in Pakistani art, who never cease to surprise and impress their viewers by erasing the demarcation between concept and picture, between content and form. For these paintings – currently part of the solo exhibition, Curtained, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, (January4-13), the artist got a number of visuals printed on small fabrics, converted them into physical curtains and with their folds used those as reference to his imagery. These are pieces of fabric painted as if hanging from a rod – waiting to be straightened so that their ‘print’/picture becomes clear and legible.

Michel Foucault, in the first chapter of The Order of Things, examines Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas; a large painting in which the Spanish master depicted himself working on a big canvas with its back to the viewer. The French philosopher argues about the identity of the painting within the painting. Perhaps the painting in the composition is the one we encounter in Madrid’s Prado Museum. This brings us back to the inter-textuality of The Thousand and One Nights – and to Ayaz Jokhio’s recent work in which curtains of varying images are no different from the fabric (canvas) on which these are painted. Once installed, both the curtains and the canvases are flat surfaces, and in Jokhio’s words “hide what’s behind them”.

These entities offer a substitute to reality, physical as well as metaphoric. A curtain – also called a blind – obscures what is outside our living spaces (not unlike our eyelids). It conceals something and shows something else, either a floral pattern, a uniform colour (like one of Ayaz Jokhio’s painting of white drapes). No matter what the printed image is, it helps us distance, distract and disorient ourselves from the harsh – and hot – reality beyond our comfortable existence. In a way, art performs a similar task. It adds a new image, often unrelated to the location; a surface of abstract expressionism; a segment of pastoral scene; a cluster of cutlery, dishes and edibles; portraits and figures of individuals – everything that does not belong to the blank wall in our bedrooms, sitting areas, offices, hospitals, hotels, bus terminals, airport lounges etc.

Art, to some extent, takes our attention away from the hard and immediate situation (a patchy wall, uneasy atmosphere of a work place, tension in the house, a noisy neighbourhood, cruelty of climate) towards an ideal. This reminds one of Henri Matisse who once wrote that he sought to create art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair”. In many instances, art provides one solace to negotiate the unbearable conditions: a blind of a kind.

In Ayaz Jokhio’s work, the blind is the art, and the art is the blind. It becomes the only reality, because as we face a wall or a metal pole, we register images covering the curtains. Jokhio’s choice of imagery for curtains is significant, because these pictures are not random picks. The ‘Ms Window’ wallpaper is one example, but his other works also unfurl/unfold the fabric of the society – and the anatomy of art. A brick wall painted on a curtain in one of his canvases is a screen covering a screen covering a screen.

There are a number of other images, which deal with ‘the secret history of our desire’; about films, glamour, beauty and love. He paints a recognisable frame of Bollywood cinema, a poster of a Punjabi movie, and a shot from a fashion show, all turned into curtains that can be arranged according to one’s whim, temperament and temperature.

There are some other visuals as well, more serious, more risky, more revealing, like the jet fighters flying and the prime minister speaking to the nation. There are images of power, yet so ephemeral that they become mere backdrops.

Apart from its political or societal or cultural connotation, Ayaz Jokhio’s work certifies something strong, solid and subtle, yet not delinked from a vast, wider and wilder world. For the past few years, Jokhio’s art has been about art (whose work is not, in that respect). His paintings within paintings, his assimilations of surrealist artist Rene Magritte, his compositions of art handling at auctions, can be viewed now as background to his new work, in which artist shifts from the familiar stock of art history and incorporates visuals from our surroundings - images drenched in complex content.

Along with some of this ‘loaded’ pictorial stuff there are a few paintings in which curtains have patterns of flowers, either in blue or red (against corresponding base) or without a print. These neutral ‘curtains’ suggest something urgent and uncommon in our art. When a spectator sets his/her eyes on a white piece of fabric hanging from a bar, or two with floral motifs, he/she is not going to look for a cultural, social or political clue. The viewer is rather content in art being a formal pursuit. A curtain is a replacement for the canvas; the blind is the painting.

Even though one can still sniff deeper societal and philosophical concerns stirred by the artist, one also realises that Ayaz Jokhio addresses the distinction between reality, and its perception and its translation/transformation into art. He draws curtains to open our eyes to multiple manifestations of reality.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Curtains at canvas