Sarah Zahid of Nigaah Art writes about the recently exhibited show “Ugly Pretty” at the Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore.
Growing up, we were all confronted with numerous comments that somehow we could not divert because they followed us everywhere or we, them. At times, our noses were told they were too big, at others our height asked to be accompanied by heels. Occasionally the wide forehead caught more attention than the function in attendance, at other the skin color received condemning that seemed much too familiar. And the one that never ceased to exist was the weight that kept juggling as did we the disconcerting commentary. Whatever it was (or is) the deduction of it all was something the presence of which made us uglier, the absence of which deprived us of becoming prettier. All in perfect nonchalance and mundaneness. It seemed as if the world cared nothing more of and life centered on skin colors and textures of hair, the circumference of bellies and thighs, surface area of noses, lips and eyes- only the physicality of what is otherwise life in actuality, bound by twisting tales, captivating ideologies, foolish risks and secret lives.
A couple of weeks back, on a lazy afternoon, I witnessed all of these considerations augmented in a congregation as brick steps earthed in soil within a secret garden-esque fauna-clad environment lead me into a gallery space. Prior to my solitary visit, the space and the friends on the walls who eagerly awaited guests were indeed visited by throngs of people to view this ‘congregation’ of works from 5 artists who had been culminated by Curator Aziz Sohail under contexts of the quietened ugliness, the fraudulent prettiness and everything that lies above and beyond the assumed definitions of these two hackneyed words, thus the name of the show “Ugly Pretty.
Just as I stood in the doorway, two familiar looking heads invited me in. They stood there gazing right at me, not blinking an eye or furrowing a brow. Their presence was covered in glass, their totality framed in wood; they weren’t alive but so real. I knew them not, but the familiarity they breathed was much too recognizable. I smiled remembering how some 9 years from now, the very maker of these heads held his first solo show in Lahore and the words in the catalogue that supported the show were jotted down by me. It was a dear friend from then, a recognized and worthy-of-true-praise now; Irfan Hasan, one of the most appreciable defiant descendants of the neo-miniaturists that have taken the last three decades of Pakistani miniature painting by storm. Much like Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, Hasan’s work leaves the viewer thinking where ‘miniature painting’ traipsed to- some gleefully, others in bewilderment. The artist’s ongoing works over the years have shown his mastery in the skill he learnt in miniature painting which finds itself immaculately displayed in Hasan’s large canvases that take months to unfold their complete form. For this show, in opaque water color, “Head of Hunzai” and “Head of Mehsud” delve in their well-crafted mergence of European classic aesthetic of making of “heads” with the Mughal miniature technique of water based painting. Hasan’s signature adoption of this classical aesthetic especially predominant in the Western art of 12-16th century has been taken up by the artist as his homage to his first inspirations in art which he practiced for many years before his formal training began at the National College of Arts, Lahore, where he studied and has now been teaching for several years now.
Further down the space, in striking contrast to Hasan’s excruciatingly perfect renderings stands the informal, abstract expressionist forms belonging to the Chelsea College of Arts graduate and master, Abdullah Qureshi, also owner of ‘gallery 39 K’ in Lahore. Qureshi’s work and dialogue have always remained much like his personality- daring and inexorable, unapologetic and upfront. Where Hasan’s heads stand confined to their master’s choice for detail, there Qureshi’s anonymous nude males titled “massage me” and “having anxiety” stay put in their creator’s precise and to-the-point renderings. His minimalist choice of representation through identifiable form of faces with absent features says much about how the artist perceives art to be more than just something that must please the eye with careful attention to detail and a promise to represent. Also it conveys how humans can be recognizable minus their features and only through the body language they possess. These new works, the offspring of his solo show recently displayed at the Zahoor ul Akhlaq gallery, NCA are a huge leap from what his works were like earlier for nearly a decade now. Qureshi’s canvases were playgrounds for paints that played around in his tenacious style upon the surfaces much like the work of the famed abstract expressionists. Meaning was conveyed through gestural application of enamel paint. In this year’s canvases what remained consistent for the viewer was his passionate adoption of rich color in vibrancies of yellow, oranges and blues. Males emerging critical in the artist’s personal life were characters that staged his concerns of sexuality, masculinity and desire through the human body in the series that worked as a visual diary for the artist where he paints his ‘entries’. Last summer, I witnessed at his studio the remnants of his earlier series I believe which even at that point had signaled a shift from their selves. In this show, the deviation is evident altogether when enamel paint became watercolor and abstract paint strokes shaped into studies of male figures in courageous strokes of thin application. This visual transcendence tends to speak about the obsession with the ‘presented’ version of our real selves as it is posed onto social media as well as in our lives when confronted with another. Who we really are is often clouded by who we want others to see and this murkiness and ‘ghost representation’ as it looks to me, is offered in works that one observes on the opposite wall like “post shower selfie” and “the sent nude” which contribute to the insta-series that the artist had recently been developing in which Instagram photos of males are borrowed by the artist to serve as ground inspirations that he then paints in his own technique to meaning making.
Welcoming next to Qureshi’s initial two pieces are a series of 12 watercolor images titled “imprint” that for someone like me who has an innate penchant for things minute are most inviting. At once I develop a visual closeness with these little ‘keepsakes’ that seem to have already started a broken dialogue with its viewer. When standing before them, one can almost ‘hear’ them say a word here and there- a soliloquy and several broken verses perhaps. The composer of these little notes as his name reads next to the images is Inaam Zafar, a graduate of BNU Lhr, who has carefully hid himself in the visual trajectories that these ‘souvenirs’ take. On careful study of the pieces, one chants in their head the words “flesh”, “blood”, “skin”, “marks” which in conjunction form a narrative that talks about the seething desire of the human emotion which within moments of heightened intimacy results in these ‘autographs’-real, ‘embossed’ and bold remnants of love commonly referred to as ‘love bites’-a residue of the intensity with which two lovers have ‘projected’ their love onto each other. These pieces represent ‘keepsakes’ of love, yearning and affection that are not acceptably approached and thus ascend to hide themselves under collared or band necklines of clothing. The bluish-purple ‘imprints’ that surface from a supple skin-ish pink of the skin color under circumstantial ‘happenings’ not publicly talked of, seem to have been within doors carefully premeditated by the artist and transported through too in his watercolor drawings, though in some of the pieces or most, they could also be misinterpreted as bruises caused by acts other than love.
Adjacent to these, one finds again, skin, flesh and bones sitting in four canvases rather daringly, painted in oil by artist Amna Rehman, a recent NCA graduate. Rehman has in a small passage of time developed a reputation that people often earn in several years out of experience. Her mastery in representation of the figure in a murky color palette speaking of obscure lives that live beneath flesh and bones are at once captivating and questionable. In all of her previous works, her characters, their postures and placements, the expression in their eyes all speak a language otherwise hushed of or spoken of in undertones. Rehman boldly plays with ideas of sexuality, morality, intimacy and closeness both with the same and opposite sexual interests. The provocative women bound in her canvases seem to leap out any time with a ferocity and strength commonly considered dangerous and thus mistrusted for women. In this exhibit her fair sized canvases titled ‘Emotional liberation I-IV’’ also reveal implicit tales of intimacy that appear befalling between the same sexual orientation. This can be deduced upon one’s close look at the paintings, where the ‘other person’ emerging from behind the one in focal vision is too recognizable as a female which is when these projected stories holler their previously or commonly secret, unspoken tales.
After these endearing quadruples, the last of the displayed works are by the ever-vivacious, ever-smiling and down to earth Sara Khan whose genuineness pierces through these series of 8 watercolor on paper effigies. Before saying anything else about the work I would state how for me, the works translated a very simple meaning, that of a beautiful relationship which the artist is probably experiencing and how marital bliss and all the time that comes with it which is spent together is what makes them both not two as such (as Broadway as that sounds) but one. The closeness, the routine, the ‘knowing’ makes these two lives come together as one thus blurring the conscious roles, participations, depictions, expressions and more. As in our coincidental social meetings with people couples are often casually told “after several years of marriage, all couples start looking like each other”. In all mirthfulness, this is the phrase that accompanied me as I viewed these works. Titled as simply as is the artist and the apparent meaning making of these pieces “her”,” him”, “them”, “he”, “she” all convey a simple dialogue-the recurrent expressions which are the in-between of the what-are-to-be’s in a picture to be shot or a pose to be made. The artist aptly suggests how the real side of us lives in these moments where we are most natural, yet we present to the world that certain stretch of the lips we call a certain smile or a pout that we have established looks finest on us. Thus for every picture shot and chosen to be displayed, we present what we want the world to see. The before or after versions of ourselves may be entirely different from the ‘posed’. At some points while looking at Khan’s works one also remembers Warhol’s ‘Marilyn diptych’ that too highlighted infatuation with the represented and posed version of a personality instead of the real self and how that self gets lost in a world of consumerism and intensified expectancy from the certain media personals which in today’s world everyone has become through heightened use of social media. We are all celebrities in our little worlds as our projections interpret. The ‘he’ and ‘him’ I believe are a portrayal of the artists better half and communicate his many expressions juxtaposed one over the other as she does for the “she” and “her” images where she records her own facial expressions in a translucency that reveals the many shades of her face. In ‘them’ they come together as one, much like the notion of couples that start resembling because of their commonalities and adoption of traits, intonations and choice of words etc., which is all of course a very ‘organic’ process.
In entirety, Aziz Sohail as a Curator has brought forth a stimulating compilation irrespective of how in some ways it seems a bit disjointed especially when in retrospect one puts Irfan Hasan’s works against the others as his creations appear too ‘good-looking’, overworked and flawless while the rest appear darker and exist on a different tangent, possibly intently affirming to the whole context of the ‘ugliness’ and ‘prettiness’ of an image, a content and a reality. As a young group of artists, areas of the queer, objectified, unleashed, hidden and represented as intended to be embodied by the curator, are dealt with an appreciative effort which still embraces tremendous room to comprise further expansion and maturity visually as well as in the strong dictum it showcases in all its senses, objections, conflicts and curiosities.