Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Reflections Through Another State [Devi Art - Pakistani Show] Resemble Reassemble

Bani Abidi - Security Barriers
The works in ‘Resemble Reassemble’ an exhibition of Pakistani Artists at Devi Art Foundation Gurgaon, present facets of life peculiar to Pakistan. While the art works are indicative of global influences in terms of the media and a visual language that is used world-wide, the artists do not engage with global issues, being more involved with those of immediate concern. This allows us a unique opportunity to reflect on parallel concerns prevalent here too, at less obvious levels perhaps, but existing nonetheless for centuries of a shared history cannot be wiped out in mere 60 odd years of partition. We in India are culturally linked to Pakistan in ways that would be impossible to dismiss, yet the art also reflects an ethos that sets us apart and viewing this show was an informative and touching experience.

Representing primarily the first decade of this century, from 2000 to 2009 through works of artists born after 1970, most being in their late 20’s or early 30’s, the dialogue focuses on the implications of purdah, relations between men and women in Pakistan, ties with India, gender and other such issues. Though young, some works display considerable intellectual maturity while others are yet gauche in perception and execution. Some are a direct manifestation of the experience as opposed to brilliantly creative ones, but the disarming honesty and simple intellectualization of ideas presented was refreshing. The catalogue makes frequent references to the political upheavals in Pakistan, contextualizing the conditions under which the artists have worked.
Imraan Mudassar - Aerobatics
Weapons play a major role in the work of Imran Khan. In his suspended installation,  ‘Implode 1’ parts of a rifle are placed in front of surgical instruments, making an uncanny connection between the fact that both penetrate the body, one to hurt and the other to heal. In a black and white print ‘Aerobatics’ Imran Mudassar draws a lattice of fighter planes and through the spaces between the conjoined parts, we can see what the city would look like if under siege. He suggests that death could come via terror attacks from the sky. The juxtaposed pattern of airplanes over the entire city scape asserts the disturbing and unsettling fact that you could be anywhere, praying inside a mosque or ambling through the market place and it would not make a difference. In the screen prints by Nazia H Khan, ‘Organza’ and ‘Hair’, lines and marks that denote folds of the organza fabric and the imprint of flowing hair evoke a tension, which I assumed as emanating from terrorism because of the context they were placed in, but the same lines of tension could be evocative of what we face in everyday situations, outside Pakistan. 

Nazia Khan - Organza
Some other artists have spoken of more universal human issues too, such as the essential futility of life that we all may experience as in the video by Ferwa Ibrahim – ‘I Didn’t’ Plan to Drown, the Nixes pulled me in’, where, in her struggle to contain the spill, she ends up spreading it farther and farther, becoming totally embroiled in a situation she had not counted upon occurring. In another video which is untitled, she keeps trying to draw her own shadow which is beautifully evocative of the fact that life is ever-
changing and so are we, and as the light falls and ebbs, so does our sense of self. In Huria Khan’s untitled video, the written word undergoes transformation as pages of writing become a boat which is then immersed in water and the once clear water becomes darkened with the black ink and the paper loses its content. She thus makes a rather subtle but poignant comment on the whole notion of being and non-being, of transformation from one to the other.

Ferwa Ibrahim - video stills -'Untitled'

Unum Babar too attempts to address a spiritual idea in ‘Then Both of us were Born Anew’, referring to two births, when light first strikes and a new awakened sense emerges and when two souls unite and are renewed through love, but I was drawn more to the heavily clad woman and inferred a gender reference rather than the spiritual, as referred to in the poem by William Cartwright [17th century] whom she quotes in the title. Her two other videos ‘Laminar Turbulence’ and ‘Wherein all Plunges and Perished’ were projected together, bringing forth the extreme stillness of time as water drops and ripples in a blocked bathroom sink in a slow and almost agonizing way, amplifying the torment of a woman trapped inside the drain of a bathroom sink, projected through the pedestal of a wash basin. The carefully measured precision reflects the artist’s honest sensitivity to herself and her situation as a woman in Pakistan, where she is not just subjugated by dictatorial regimes and terror but also as a woman where the do’s and don’ts are extensive. The scale of projection is miniscule, effectively revealing that size is irrelevant when making a point that is deeply felt and well examined.

Aisha Khalid - Gul-e-Haan
There were a number of works dealing with gender issues. Aisha Khalid uses dizzy designs of very intricate patters painted with superb craftsmanship in the tradition of miniature paintings but her handling is contemporary. In ‘Gul-e-Haan’ the pattern of the veil occupies the full page without any physical representation of the woman. She thus speaks of the implications of purdah, where in excluding the woman the artist signifies that women have virtually been reduced to being a piece of patterned cloth.  Hamra Abbas in ‘Please do not Touch, Stay Out and Enjoy the Show’ speaks of woman and her home as being a kind of showpiece, not to be touched. She uses the English script on the ‘jaali’ which is an easily recognized form of Islamic architecture used in India too. A brightly coloured self-portrait is framed and neatly hung within the contours of a house such that a child would draw, but defined through an intricate jaali which overlaps the portrait, thus also denoting her imprisonment within the home. She uses the Islamic ideal of the ‘jaali’ signifying the veil between God and us, to speak of seclusion and exclusion in a temporal sense. While the idea resonates on an emotional and intellectual plane, it falls short at the level of execution where greater finesse was required, especially in the making of the paper jaali which comes unglued at various points. 
Bani Abidi. Security Barrier Type G,
Traffic Police, Karachi
By Contrast Bani Abidi’s digital prints of ‘Security barriers A-L’, has clarity in thought and articulation and is presented with minimal fuss. She uses icons that are universal security barriers, but by contextualizing them within specified locations occupied by the international community in Pakistan, she makes her comment about the kind of scrutiny that people undergo on a daily basis. This however is not specific to Pakistan alone, but a universal phenomenon which a preoccupation with terror has inflicted upon  the whole world.  Abidi’s videos bring into play parallels and dissimilarities between India and Pakistan both culturally and politically. In ‘The News’ she  uses the double channel format to project the news being read in India and Pakistan simultaneously wherein the subtitles inform of the difference in how each interprets the same situation. ‘Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star and Spangled Banner’, is a layered commentary on the relationship between Pakistan and America, where traditional Bandwallas, a colonial inheritance such that is still part and parcel of life in India too, are learning the American anthem possibly to please some visiting dignitary. They could have been Bandwallas from Chandni Chowk or anywhere in India and it is difficult to really see the difference.                                                               

Bani Abidi - Shaan Pipe Band, video stills
India and Pakistan have had strained relations for the last 60 years where there is considerable distrust even as there is bonhomie. There have been many attempts at a dialogue towards peace, but the general opinion is that we are working to keep us apart rather than to bring us closer together. Looking at the show, I was rather touched as I became aware of situations and life in Pakistan such that have never really been considered in the mayhem of everyday lives, having no real connection with Pakistan except when affected by terrorist attacks of identified Pakistani origin. Then it was convenient to believe the national propaganda, but now Pakistan has begun to have a more humane face. The conditions they live in, as exemplified through the works in this exhibition - the curtailing of freedom, the implications of wearing a veil and the fact that death by terror is considered normal are factors that generate self reflection.

The artistic dialogue may well appear insular and the works not highly intellectual in content and while this may be true because most artists are young and haven’t developed their full potential, it was their honest interrogation of ideas and situations that appealed. In Delhi we see a lot of ideas that have their rooting in the mind and often become obscure because of this and I think the most interesting revelation of this exhibition was that when threat sits at your door-step daily, there really is very little scope for elaborate thought. Then honesty of how you ‘feel’ is the only way to tackle any situation, where the vulnerability of being connected to this is the way forward, towards an expression of it.