Muhammad Sulaman’s recent miniatures are filled with surreal visions and narrative impressions. At times cynical, sincere, or perverse, his constructions engage restless, exaggerated characters who act out a range of emotions. Like the dreamlike atmospheres they inhabit, the fragmentary forms seem cloaked in a haze of memory. Sulaman’s figures are formed through conventional means: they are drawn and painted. Typically working in a series, he often exhibits related pieces together; this is especially true of his drawings. A medium whose inherent directness provides a natural space for recording and chronicling, drawing is central to all aspects of Sulaman’s practice. His illustrations are defined by the expressive nature of their lines and the immediacy of their marks, qualities that constitute his narratives’ emotive core. Realised without sketches or models per se, his compositions are developed through a process of layering and erasure.
Characters and symbols recur in Sulaman’s oeuvre, and these stock figures and forms function as the artist’s personal commedia dell’ arte, which he constantly reimagines and recreates. They are further complicated y references to historical figuration and dramatic imagery that he has repurposed to fit his contemporary needs. Sulaman frequently invokes the formal characteristics of his predecessors’ work, a reflection of his sincere reverence for the history of art. He draws on the expressionistic searching of Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, the dark romanticism of Rembrandt, and the mystical symbolism of Frans Hals. He is influenced by the Renaissance masters’ diverse formal practice and focused character studies, and by Honore Daumier’s strong graphic style and biting caricatures. In his narratives, characters often pause in order to restage a familiar scene, disappearing from the frame as soon as they enter. Such interruptions echo his seniors’, (Waseem Ahmed and Irfan Hassan), tableaux vivants. Layered and mixed with personal references, these influences resonate with a familiarity that adds complexity to Sulaman’s visual lexicon.
There is something strange when the clothes that wrap around someone’s flesh and skin try to sneak out, escape, and exist on their own. Like phantoms, they sink in their bulk and lose their volume. They can be folded, wrinkled, spread out carelessly or hung on the wall, drooping lifelessly. The moment we see these clothes, we can think of a body. We can imagine the smell of flesh and perspiration or hear the heartbeat and follow patterns of respiration of the person who possessed them. We can also trace the time and space that the owner has shared with his clothes. Clothes are like phantoms that substitute him/her and remain close to the spirit. In addition, they self-exist by freeing themselves from the body. At the same time, clothes are the image with colour, pattern, texture and brand. Various visual elements that cover the skin of clothes testify to their identity. Clothes are the site where vanity of humans who seek to distinguish themselves from others reveals or where the desire of affirming one’s self-image intervenes. The object called ‘clothes’ is filled with virtual or fabricated image rater than being actual articles. In other words, clothes are powerful products that, to speak realistically, stimulate and entice our senses. In that sense, the patterns and symbols that cover the clothes are phantoms of actuality. Clothes simulate the virtual existence of ‘the trace of actuality’ called the body. Now, clothes become the subject by replacing the body, and the surface of the clothes can be read like texts. Clothes chatter, and let down many metaphors like a shadow.
Muhammad Sulaman dialogues with clothes and turns them into the shape of things associated with them. He treats the matter called ‘clothes’ like living creatures, and what is known as ‘animistic reason’ takes effect. He draws out another existence hidden inside clothes. In addition he explores how clothes disguise the human body and the statements that ensue from such configurations. He creates the non-objective form while treating the clothes in a sculptural manner, reproducing in tiny miniature strokes. He draws meticulously in the manner of counting each strand of fabric, and weaves the clothes in watercolours and gouache. The clothes that were considered dead reincarnate upon being granted new life. It is a moment in which inorganic matter becomes organic, and the clothes that had been dependent on the human body are given a fresh lease of life and a self-existence. The clothes become self-igniting entities. If clothes are dependent on human flesh, the work of Sulaman shows clothes that exist without the flesh. The clothes that had lived upon human body end up voluntarily revealing certain shapes associated with symbols after freeing themselves from the latter. In this way, clothes become various living creatures by coming to life on their own or by transforming into quotidian objects.
The artist, Muhammad Sulaman, collects and selects various clothes. He pays attention to colours and patterns, and to their symbolic significance. Clothes become appealing in his hands. They are however exhibited on the body. While paying attention to the symbolic attributes of clothes that radiate certain meanings, other objects are thought and dreamt of naturally through the traces engraved on them.
It appears that Muhammad Sulaman dreams with clothes, and then creates other existences that he can think of accordingly. He draws them out neatly on waslis as paintings in gadrang. The ‘readymade’ becomes sculpture and a drawing once again. The solid becomes a sculptural object which, in turn, becomes the subject matter of painting. In other words, the object becomes sculpture and the sculpture painting. Sulaman draws the shapes found in clothes through the arrangement of strokes. To him a stroke is also the unit of minimal expression as well as the product of paranoiac gesture with body that does not include any superfluity.
Sulaman fuses classically based tradition with a contemporary impulse, forming a hallucinatory world in which the past is continually reinterpreted and corrupted. Familiar and historical imagery is resuscitated and intermingled with personal associations, while specific artists and art historical references appear throughout. These artistic precedents are important for him, but he may be just as important to them: by reconsidering and reanalysing their significance, he preserves their legacy and relevance. Sulaman’s new work reflects a palpable, inherent sense of freedom, defined by a strengthened personal vocabulary and continued sense of invention.