Curator Aziz Sohail continues a dialogue that first began in Blacktown Arts Centre, Sydney.
The current exhibition on view at Koel Gallery explores the dynamics of power between prevalent art forms – drawing against ceramics – which is rooted in the very history of the region and how they can be interpreted in the realm of Pakistani contemporary art.
In 2015, Abdullah M.I. Syed and Merran Esson, the renowned Australian artist, converged on the notion of “Fortress Ceramica” as presented by Garth Clark. The critical points that emerged from these discussions were how, while ceramics still continues a link with “principles of beauty and craft”, the same cannot be said to hold true for drawing, whose trajectory has not only been different, but has also taken a certain form of domination over all other visual forms. The physical manifestation of this emerged in a co-curated show titled “Drawn to Form: The Matter in Hand”, which ran from 22 August to 3 October 2015 at the Blacktown Arts Centre, Sydney, and investigated the relationship between ceramics and drawing.
However, bringing this conversation across the globe is no easy task. Aziz Sohail thus is careful to ensure that any such connection within the Pakistani context, far removed from the original line of inquiry, is not forced. The curator tells Art Radar about the project:
So I was invited to curate the exhibition as a continuation or Chapter 2 of the dialogue that had already happened in Australia at Blacktown Arts Center. This had been co curated by Abdullah M. I. Syed and Merran Esson, and was exploring these relationships between ceramics and drawing in Australia. I approached it in my context in Pakistan and of course as a curator and not an artist-curator. So for me it was important to place this in context and history but from a focused point of view. It hopes to build upon work already happening in drawing practices in Pakistan through exhibitions and also work on ceramics to initiate dialogues.
He inspects carefully the context of the Subcontinent, where the colonialist’s shadow looms large on these artistic developments, and who considered “Indians were only capable of applied arts”. How does one then dwell into the deeper intersections between these two distinct art forms who are laden with the historical baggage? It is this inquiry which has led to “Drawn to Form II: Marking New Spaces”, which looks into memories, histories – both personal and otherwise – and the overall process of how a medium speaks to an artist. The inquiry is sensitive to the personal narratives of the artist, and how the notions of progress via choice of material of an individual are openly contested within the space.
Abdullah Syed (b. 1974) looks into notions of identity and its tangible nature. In the work entitled Rose Petal Self Portrait Silhouette I – 8, the use of rose petals to depict his own silhouette points to the fragility of the human self, which links to his view of himself as a “Kundan” in which an individual opens up their heart to connect with the Divine Light.
Gulab Mala (Rose Garland) reminds one deeply of the idea of death and once again the limitation of the Self. This limitation manifests itself in the delicateness of the porcelain roses, while the contrast between the black and white and its associated meanings aid in giving the work a deeper meaning connecting with ideas of purity and darkness, eternity and burning. The employment of both drawing and porcelain within his own practice also points to how he himself is still engaged with the debate he has been part of since 2015. The fact that two media are used in two differentiating ways to convey his thoughts is an assertion of the richness that media hold within them.
The constant play of this duality continues in Kantee (Thorns), in which the exploration of materials to present a narrative end up saying much more. Hand-built Southern Ice, porcelain (clay) thorns, graphite and archival fabric matt all engage in presenting a work where the two contrasting characteristics of ice and clay engage in the debate on the eternity and fragility of life. The archival backdrop cements the debate as a constant, which is presented as an objective truth.
Ali Kazim’s (b. 1979) work is an exploration of a body of work that was presented recently at the Lahore Biennale Collateral Exhibition titled “I, too, am a part of this history”. The inspiration comes from his discovery of an old city’s remains near River Ravi in Lahore, and the subsequent discovery of pottery shards. He does not aim to recreate the past, as is obvious in his work entitled Fallen Objects. Rather, he interprets these findings as equivalent to the heart of the community, as they must have been at the centre of their lives.
Untitled (Study) is again reminiscent in it delicateness with Ali’s work that recently won him the inaugural Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation Art Prize 2017 at Karachi Biennale 2017. The work appears to be making a connection with the depths of the underground with its wide network of roots and narratives, while at the same time, remaining ever so minutely connected to the present.
Naima Dadabhoy approaches the subject from her own personal narrative. The artist comes from a family whose commercial ceramic business sold in 1996 after operating since 1962. Her work is a personal connection with the material that presents itself in the form of her family’s archive and history. The work also brings forth a certain critique for the viewer in relation to the choice of visual representation on her ceramic objects. With depictions of pretty white faces, birds, flora and fauna, and characters of some favourite English children’s stories, they adhere to a certain taste of a specific social class.
The critique presented in Dadabhoy’s work dovetails with the artist’s own simplistic desire of wanting to see certain animal forms, like turtles, rabbits, foxes and frogs. Dadabhoy achieves her dream in a presentation of her desires against these memorabilia of the past, using the same techniques her family had employed in their ceramics manufacturing. The piece thus becomes a complex intersection of history, conflict and dedication.
Noor Ali Chagani (b. 1982) presents a disconnect with the concept of construction and deconstruction, so that viewers are left to deal with their own perspectives on the subject matter at hand and develop their own narrative against the artist’s works. In Chagani’s three-part series of “Line Drawings”, the viewer is faced with lines against a white background, reminding one of the iron rod frames which are the first indicator of what is to come in the name of development. This commentary on progress links up with the debate on ceramics versus drawing in a similar manner, leading to an open-ended interpretation by viewers, and letting them question how to define ceramics as an art form.
The same point of view repeats itself in Untitled, where this time the material employed is terracotta to represent a brick wall in all its delapidated glory. The works prompts to question what a material can stand for and represent in the collective consciousness. A brick wall is just that – a sign of stagnation and economic standing.
Sadia Salim, however, seems to have made ceramics a material most natural to her and her practice. This is most evident in Memory of a Landscape IV (Study in process), in which her entire process of refining her ideas is laid out on the table. Ceramics comes forth as a material through which she thinks, visualises and then presents her work. Talking about how this body of work developed, Sadia tells Art Radar:
I was at a symposium in Turkey in 2013. And I was making an installation, experimenting with materials and as a side note also produced a couple of pieces like the ones in the show. In 2013 I had produced an installation “Every home has an expiry date” for a show at Koel. In it I had worked with abandoned nests and beehives. Later, during a residency in Latvia and daily walks in a fort of the Russian empire, I had started picking up fallen branches and other fauna. I developed the earlier work further and transformed it into porcelain. So similarly, as this show was coming up, I was travelling through Hunza and collecting branches, pine cones etc. and then made it in clay. So, it’s the idea of collecting, observing, documenting or recording as one would do in a sketch book.
This collection comes forward in the series entitled “Memory of Landscape”, which seem to be conversing with the viewer about the ever-delicate state of nature itself and of the artist’s memories, which she has opted to document in this medium. The pine cone as it ever so delicately appears to disintegrate is a testament to the height of the development of this art form in the Pakistani art context.
Undoubtedly, Aziz Sohail has conducted a remarkable curatorial investigation in the arts of Pakistan today. The curatorial extent of this exhibition in its current context allows for a new dimension to be added to the art landscape of the country, presenting a debate under various themes, including postcolonialism and the dialogue between traditional and contemporary art forms, which are issues relevant in the art discourse for the Indian Subcontinent.
“Drawn to Form II: Marking New Spaces” is on view from 5 July to 2 August 2018 at Koel Gallery, F-42/2, Block 4, Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan.
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