Are You in Character?

Gandhara-art, Karachi, 22 August – 20 December

By Zarmeené Shah

Adeel uz Zafar, Monster I, 2013, Courtesy the artist

Gandhara-art’s Are You in Character? showcases the work of four young, Karachi-based artists in a show comprised of mixed media, (mostly) two-dimensional, wall-mounted works that challenge notions of traditional image-making practices embedded within a complex sociopolitical framework.

Cyra Ali’s Garden Party I and II employ her customary technique of painted surfaces layered with intricate embroidery, recalling the subversive feminist practices of artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago and Tracey Emin. 

these figures speak of damage and disintegration, and mechanisms of power and control 

Garden Party I, a large-scale canvas painted with a dreamlike forestscape – reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau – is embroidered with a repeat pattern of red roses and disembodied legs of dancers whose upper torsos are replaced by tabletops draped with white lace-cloths on which delicate, china tea sets rest. 

Working in conjunction with that, Garden Party II is much smaller, embroidered with similar roses and a portrait of Bollywood film icon Shahrukh Khan, addressing (distinctly Foucauldian) issues of the constitution of a female sexual identity in a heavily prescribed and proscribed society.

A wall-mounted diorama accompanies Sara Khan’s small archival prints of the doll-like characters within that intricately detailed three-dimensional scenario. The photographs are digitally treated, scratched and inscribed, posing as vintage (and real). 

A woman and child stand on a prayer mat, ready to offer namaz; a little boy waits excitedly to cut his birthday cake; benign and nostalgic prints, fondly recalling cherished histories and memories. It is perhaps the title of the print of the military general in front of a portrait of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah – POF – that gives away an intrinsic truth: underneath their clever and elaborate disguises, the bodies of the characters are fabricated from bullet shells, made at the Pakistan Ordnance Factories, a government-owned organisation whose primary objective is the production of arms and ammunition for the Pakistan armed forces.

Muzzumil Ruheel’s ink-and-marker calligrams of illustrative, cartoon-like characters deploy a contemporary critique of culture through a subversion of received notions of tradition and modernity, at once through the use of the marker on the traditional surface of the vasli, as well as through the distinctly Pop-oriented images that are created through the use of the tughra, an Islamic calligraphic script traditionally used for the monogram of the Sultan during the Ottoman period. 

Works such as Mr D’s Portrait refer to the failure of democracy and corruption of political leaders. Appearing also in the creatures exploding out of Mr Big Head, the three grinning faces of Mr D are composed of the Urdu word kuttay (dogs) referring to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s political poem of the same name.

Meticulously etched into black surfaces, Adeel uz Zafar’s use of the image of the stuffed toy emerged from his experience in illustrating children’s books. In Zafar’s work, however (Flying Tiger and Monster I, II and III), these toys are no longer symbolic of innocence and a sense of security and companionship, but are instead much darker. 

Wrapped in gauze bandages, each fold and fibre of which is irreversibly scored into the surface, these figures speak instead of damage and disintegration (at once concealed and unravelling), and mechanisms of power and control (simultaneously visible and invisible) – an unmistakable nod to the rapidly crumbling economic and sociopolitical milieu from which the works arise.

Tying the works together is a humour and quirkiness, immediately visible at an aesthetic level: a lighthearted wit that masks the heavy concerns it addresses: the formulation of identities, tradition and modernity, war and economics. 

Are we then to consider these works to be ‘political’ or ‘critical’? In her 2010 essay ‘Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?’ Martha Rosler describes the exercise of defining particular artworks and practices as ‘politico-critical’ as being almost absurd. However, she goes on to define an important function of such work: that of rendering geopolitical realities visible, ‘which means that art continues to have a mapping and even critical function in regard to geopolitical realities.

Artists have the capacity to condense, anatomize, and represent symbolically complex social and historical processes.’ In an era of increasing global connectivity and awareness, where biennial culture and internationalism has enabled art’s dialogue to transcend boundaries and geographical specificity, it is perhaps best to view these works (and art at large) as a testament to the particular times in which it is produced.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview Asia