The stranger in the mirror

March 6, 2022

Zaam Arif’s works map an internal territory populated by alienation and disorientation

The poet, Oil on canvas.
The poet, Oil on canvas.

Zaam Arif, an unusual name, is also not quite familiar in Pakistani art. He is a young “American-Pakistani contemporary artist residing and working in Houston, Texas”. He is almost self-taught, except for some early training with his painter dad based in Karachi, who is quite successful commercially but hardly considered part of the mainstream art scene.

Here is an example of how the next generation chooses a path distinct from their elders. There is a long list of artists, who have moved away, and ahead, of their parents practicing the same profession. The link to the father or mother is often an irrelevant, if not an avoidable, detail.

One can say the same after viewing Zaam Arif’s paintings at his solo exhibition, Being and Becoming, held from January 27 to February 4 at Tanzara Gallery, Islamabad. The work looked strange, rather alien in a safely enclosed and protected circle called Pakistani art. It is distinct from Arif Senior who is famous for producing pleasant, sentimental and accessible art pieces.

The distance between the father and the son, between their two visions, between their two positions in art, and between two ideas of the world, is as undercoated in the younger individual’s canvases, as a priming material painters use before putting their first brush stroke. Anyone familiar with the chemistry of painting process (oil, tempera, fresco) knows that the initial layers to prepare the surface – eventually covered, subsequently invisible – are crucial in the success and flow of a painter’s marks. In the same lieu, the knowledge of Zaam Arif’s ancestry is essential in deciphering his imagery.

His father’s side is more important because it is a man’s world. There are twenty-one paintings of male figures, an adolescent, occasionally accompanied by an elderly person. The time, settings and colour palette of these canvases are dark, dim and grim. If the father is recognised for producing paintings of historic structures, indigenous imagery and attractive textures, the son has followed a separate course. All figures in Zaam Arif’s paintings are covered in an attire we for convenience’s sake identify with and describe as Western (though one does come across desi gentlemen wearing the same stuff and sipping their lassi in Lahore or qahwa in Karachi).

The characters are not doing anything particular, except lying on a bed, standing in a room, sitting close to a shore, relaxing on a chair or walking in the woods. Such acts are not really significant in an individual’s life or for a community. The scenario and the main protagonist of Zaam Arif’s paintings remind us of another Z, Zahid Dar, the unique Urdu poet who spent his life reading and (partially) writing, and was baptised by his contemporaries as faltoo admi (a useless person). The connection is strengthened by the work titled The Poet, a man stepping into water. This could be a metaphor for a creative being who does not reside on terra firma.

Somehow, the desolate air of Zaam Arif’s models rekindles another literary reference. Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, begins with these unforgettable lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know”. The alienation one finds in the French author’s book is evident in Arif’s paintings. More so, since another artist from Pakistan, Sadequain illustrated the book, in a vocabulary/ tone that may have had an impact on Zaam Arif.

Time, Oil on canvas.
Time, Oil on canvas.

The displacement or the disorientation that one reads in Camus and recognises in Sadequain’s imagery has been a human condition, particular to the Twentieth Century. In this era, progress in the means of travelling led to an increase in the number of migrants, ingraining a sense of dislocation. The dislocation can be geographical, cultural, political or psychological. Sadequain’s lithographs for Camus’s novel appear to be not too different from Zaam Arif’s paintings in terms of sombre and subtle postures abd the range of dark and brown hues.

After reflecting on the work of the painter’s father, Zahid Dar and Sadequain, a viewer arrives at Arif’s aesthetics. He incorporates some visual references from faraway lands. In the realm of art, physical distance is meaningless as a person living in Larkana may be closer to works produced in London than to his compatriots. Thus, for Zaam Arif, growing up in Karachi, and now pursuing his BFA in design in Houston, region, vernacular and tradition set no limits. He confidently moves about in his world.

That world includes a macro scenario and a micro one. Outwardly his paintings refer to French artists, like Corot, who blended reality with romanticism. Most of Arif’s figures are rendered with small brush lines of varying tones of browns, greys and greens. Patches, which weave a dark narrative, that instead of linking to a specific nation, say Pakistan, France or the USA, can be stretched to societies across the globe. More than an outside environment, the works map an internal territory. A few formal decisions by the painter add the feeling of an unworldly landscape. The presence of light, the blend of external and interior, colours that connote the merger of day and night (dawn or dusk), all indicate the frontier of psyche populated by people, places and possibilities.

Probably, the most striking aspect of Zaam Arif’s paintings is the lack of any striking element. Mute may be the right term to describe his canvases. Painting, by its nature, is a silent medium, but with the interplay of vibrant and aggressive hues, one does get the sensation of sound even noise. Arif’s world, on the other hand, is quiet. His colours and characters suggest a serene and subtle atmosphere. By gazing at the figure of a young man, solitary or next to an older person, with a bottle and glass or an open book, trapped inside tall trees, in front of a rural backdrop, a spectator is able to resurrect the conversation or soliloquy in his head, in his mother tongue. Because these figures, despite their European-esque clothes, can still be connected to multiple regions and societies. The situation is not dissimilar to literature, where one reads about an individual residing at a certain place and from a particular period, but the details about location, culture, food, dress, even time turn insignificant as one digs deeper and brings out the human essence despite the physical distance and detachment.

Arguably Zaam Arif’s world is populated by those who are coping with the world as The Stranger – title of three remarkable portrait paintings from the recent show, which anticipates a great future in art, a future that has just begun with him being “the youngest Pakistani artist to be published in The New Yorker.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

The stranger in the mirror