Pakistani artists take on tradition

BEIRUT: In Farid ud-Din Attar’s epic poem “The Conference of the Birds,” all the birds in the world gather together to decide on a king. The wisest among them is the hoopoe, who suggests that they should go in search of the Simorgh, a legendary creature akin to the phoenix. The birds must cross seven valleys on their journey, which is so arduous that one by one they find themselves unable to continue, until eventually only 30 birds remain. When they arrive at the Simorgh’s dwelling place, all that awaits them is a lake, in the surface of which they are confronted with their own reflections.

The fairy-tale beauty of this Sufi poem has made it an enduring favorite with artists, inspired by the image of a thousand species of colorful bird setting out on an Odyssey across the skies. Pakistani artist Atif Khan references it with poignant humor in a series of three works currently on show at Karantina’s Art Factum Gallery as part of the collective exhibition “Shape, Pattern and Form: Tracing the East,” organized in partnership with Karachi-based gallery ArtChowk.

Inspired by the symbolism of ancient tales and the delicacy of traditional miniatures, Khan employs time-honored techniques to produce bleakly humorous contemporary works, in which the juxtaposition of old and new is used to create a scathing social and political commentary.

In “Migration II,” a stunning conflagration of roiling storm clouds in shades of deep blue and gray is punctuated with jagged streaks of golden lightning. Among the safety of the white clouds below, a flock of vividly colored birds, their wings decorated in minute detail, traverse the skies. It’s an image straight out of a fairy tale – until a closer look reveals the modern passenger jet partially conceled by the stylized storm clouds.

A second work, entitled “Landscape of the Heart,” captures a compact tree, each leaf picked out in painstaking detail, around which a flock of brightly colored birds flutter. To the left of the tree, is a black-and-white sketch of a man standing on a small column resembling the plinths built to support statues.

Captured in profile in the style of traditional miniatures and clad in a white turban and a black robe, he clutches an old-fashioned musket in one hand and a modern pistol in the other. At the foot of the tree, toward which his handgun is pointed, two dead songbirds lie amid a scattering of fallen leaves.

A further three works by Khan, hung on the other side of the gallery, use black ink stamps to create traditional abstract patterns. Close-up the individual stamps resolve themselves into hundreds of identical ants or moths, overlaid to create a series of graded monochrome shades.

Exhibited alongside Khan’s six pieces are five works by Asif Ahmed, who also employs the tropes of traditional miniatures to tackle modern themes. Concerned with the exploitation of traditional imagery in contemporary art, Ahmed’s beautifully executed gouache portraits capture turbaned men with thick sideburns and luxurious moustaches in the traditional style of Mughal miniatures.

In “Making of a Traditional Portrait” a storyboard of 16 miniatures tracks the systematic rendering of one of these figures from penciled outlines to finished painting, reducing the creative process to a simple set of easily emulated steps.

“Similarities and Differences” contrasts the elegant profile of a turbaned man with an aquiline nose and perfectly styled moustache with the vacant, toothily grinning profile of a human skull. Simple red lines suggest a cord threaded through holes punched in the two images, tying them together literally as well as figuratively.

Muzumil Ruheel’s work moves away from miniatures as a source of inspiration, instead employing traditional calligraphy. Concerning itself with the topic of ever-present surveillance in the contemporary world – “the uneasy gaze of wet, popping eyes, hidden and ever watchful” – his four works combine serious themes with whimsical humor.

Enormous eyeballs, white circles each populated by the black sphere of a pupil reflecting light, become strange flowers, surrounded by a ragged green halo of carefully inked calligraphy and each supported by a single tremulous stem. His fields of startled eyes, all staring impotently at one another, are undeniably comic, belying the beauty of the calligraphy that frames them.

The rich selection of artwork is complimented by the work of German-Iranian designer Siba Sahabi. Combining art and design often risks diluting the power of an exhibition, but the thematic similarities between Sahabi’s work and that of the artists on show here allows it to overcome the potential danger.

Inspired by the traditional coiled clay pots created by artisans in ancient Mesopotamia, Sahabi’s series “Between Two Rivers” appropriates traditional ceramic designs. These are given a contemporary twist thanks to her material, strips of coiled felt, painted on either side.

An unusually tightly conceived and ably executed collective exhibition, “Shape, Pattern and Form: Tracing the East” is eminently enjoyable visually as well as conceptually. Together, the work of these four artists provides a varied set of perspective that should stimulate discussion of the role of traditional techniques and themes in contemporary practice, while demonstrating that aesthetic considerations still have their place in conceptual art.

“Shape, Pattern and Form: Tracing the East” is up at Art Factum Gallery in Karantina until March 7. For more information please call 01-443-263.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 07, 2014, on page 16.




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