Contact
Enacting Scenes of Horror and Laughter: Bani Abidi and the Politics of the Everyday by Adnan Madani

1. STAGE

About half way through Bani Abidi’s nine and a half minute long meditation on waiting (and on the agonies of deferral, arrival and boredom amongst other themes), the camera pans in a measured, long shot across the feet of an assembled group of school children – shod in well-worn dusty shoes and endearingly puckered socks. The shot is startling not only for its recognizably cinematic technique (the camera as the omniscient observer or ethnographer, capable of insights denied to human optics and focus), but also because of the way its gentle gaze is disturbed by the sudden howl of police sirens from the adjacent video screen. The sirens alert us to the imminent arrival of an unnamed dignitary to an unspecified location for an unspecified event.

Bani Abidi, Reserved, 2006
Video Still
Image courtesy the artist and Green Cardamom

At this point one might conclude that the short narrative ‘arc’ (because till now every shot has been of the variety that sets the stage at the beginning of a conventional film), has reached its point of fullness or resolution. It soon becomes obvious that there is no such resolution on offer; and we are treated to nothing more in the way of information than events of the most mundane kind, recorded in the most quotidian detail. No one arrives, and the camera leaves us uncertain about the fate of the fidgeting people seated behind the auditorium seats marked ‘Reserved’; of the drivers and passengers striking up desultory conversations or bumming cigarettes as they wait behind the roadblocks, or of the school children being somewhat unsuccessfully orchestrated into a peculiar and disciplined enthusiasm – an instantly recognizable phenomenon in parts of the world where the ruling elite receives few spontaneous gestures of affection. At a seemingly random moment, the video simply ceases. It ceases to be a narrative, as if it had run out of space or time for recording information, or simply got bored, exposing itself as a stage, itself waiting; itself deferring into a future outside its universe of nine and a half minutes.


2. SET-UP

The lack of finality (or totality) in Abidi’s works is a political gesture in itself, as is the upsetting of the contract of good faith between the work and its viewers. The pseudo-documentary style which Abidi uses as a strategy from very early in her practice, mixes elements of reality with barely distinguishable fictions, or stages ‘real’ people and their actions in ways that blur the distinction between authentic observation and the directed or edited artistic remark. To achieve this, Abidi has willingly sacrificed the preciousness of an artistic mark or stylistic vocabulary and has taken on the methods of news films, or standard documentaries in a tone of sustained irony. In the context of Pakistani art, it is this particular feature that lends her work its unique position from which to assume and critique not just the style of propagandist institutions like the official news, or hackneyed tropes about rivalries between Indians and Pakistanis, but also to unsettle the particular formations and histories of Pakistani art from which her practice has emerged. For example, while political satire or pointed political comment is a widespread tendency amongst Abidi’s generation of artists, most have chosen to engage with culturally specific historic forms such as Indian Miniature painting (challenging the conventions of the genre from the inside out), or have simply depicted political content within the matrix of stylistic issues (mostly painterly) that concerned art academies around the world with alarming consistency in the middle years of the last century. Works like Shan Pipe Band (2004) and RESERVED (2006) step cleanly out of issues of regional authenticity (while framing them), and out of universal historical imperatives by shifting the discussion to a conceptual (which is not to say neutral) space between cinema and art.

Bani Abidi, Shan Pipe Band, 2004
Video Still
Image courtesy the artist and Green Cardamom


3. PUNCH/LINE

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell proposed that ‘...if tragedy is the working out of a scene of scepticism, then comedy in contrast works out a festive abatement of scepticism (...) an affirmation of existence’¹.

On a first reading, this definition might suggest that much of Abidi’s work and humour, with its invitation to endless and self-reflexive scepticism (towards history, technology, culture), is the opposite of Cavell’s comedic situations; but the affirmative aspect of the scepticism of works such as The News (2001), and Mangoes (1999), lies in the fact that the scene of scepticism is never entirely worked out. In this sense, the narratives or anti- narratives hover on the borders between tragedy and comedy, inviting the viewer to stake their trust in works that are founded, as arguably art inherently is, on the notion of deceit. To illustrate the scene of this trust as a comic scene nonetheless, an examination of the large-scale photographs that make up The Address (2007), might suffice.

Bani Abidi, The Address, 2007
Inkjet Print, 28 × 44 cm
Image courtesy the artist and Green Cardamom

Once again, these are familiar images, stunning in their disingenuousness: a stage set for an official speech by a Pakistani leader, with the requisite official portrait of the Father of the Nation in the background, and pictures of that same empty set on television screens in locations such as barber shops and street cafes where day labourers stop to drink tea and converse. At first glance, it seems as if something is about to happen, someone will arrive to sit on the chair and deliver an address, fill the horrific vacuum of the stage as it appears on screens around the country; or else, that something has gone terribly wrong and someone who was meant to appear will not or cannot. In either case, the photographs capture a particular moment of anticipation that would be experienced simultaneously throughout Pakistan. Except: on closer inspection the set in the television screen turns out to be tackily constructed; the painting of M.A. Jinnah a cheap and distorted copy; and the photographs of the various locations, with groups of people waiting to see the address, constructed with a more careful eye for composition and spacing than their superficially documentary banality admits. This is a deceit perpetrated on a large scale, a scene of scepticism if ever there was one, and yet simultaneously a scene of humour because once the fact of the deception (if not its extent) is revealed, the frailty of the bond between perception and reality appears inescapably human and universal.

Ultimately, through the layers upon layers of irony, the implicating of the audience in the work and the shifting of frames, something almost like a loving look breaks through the work. As in the shot of the children’s feet, caressing and slow, the transformation or making strange anew, of the everyday, might well be, again in Cavell’s words, ‘...an ecstatic affirmation of life’². And, we might add: of art.

To read the full essay Download as PDF

Notes

1. Stanley Cavell, Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005)
2. Ibid

First published in Bani Abidi: Videos, Photographs and Drawings (London, Green Cardamom, 2010). Reproduced with permission.

Adnan Madani is a Pakistani artist and writer based in Karachi. His work has been exhibited in Pakistan and internationally and he writes regularly on emerging issues in South Asian art.

Muhanned Cader by Sharmini Pereira

I. “The forms in my work are usually always abstracted from close observation of things around me”

Muhanned Cader is an observer of certain things not all things. What he edits out of his work is as relevant as what remains. The affinity of one seemingly unrelated thing to another thing, such as a Sinhalese beetle nut-cracker and a brigadier’s helmet or the marrying of a horizontal landscape within a curvilinear frame is germane to Cader’s images and the processes behind their creation. From afar the pairings and juxtapositions often appear beguiling, often non-sensical. Up close things are more wittingly crafted. When things are connected they are never more than details; the beak of a bird but never its entire body; the partial reflection of a setting sun upon the water’s edge or the hilt of a sword but never with its blade. The detail is a carefully excavated fragment. Each fragment is a piece of information removed or cut free from its mooring. The specificity of what thing came from where doesn’t concern Cader other than the fact everything arises from observation of his physical surroundings as well as from the assorted printed matter that passes through his hands. In a related manner, Cader does not use abstraction to reduce content into form to capture an essential meaning or message. What matters, more tellingly, is his deployment of abstraction to relinquish a form from its original reference, just far enough so that it is neither this nor that. Cader's drawings imagine a moment before form and meaning are aligned into perfect registration. They take us back, as it were, to a time when ideograms and hieroglyphs described the world through the associative power of the image.

Muhanned Cader, Scapes in Shapes, 2008
Graphite on paper, 25 × 28cm
Image courtesy the artist and Green Cardamom


II. “My drawing practice has been concerned with the non-linguistic representation of objects and ideas themselves”

Like all writing, comprehension rests on being able to identify the appearance of characters, which then gives rise to their meaning or legibility. In Figures of Thought (2009) the legibility of the characters is deliberately held in abeyance. Their suspension of meaning is part of a conceptual conceit that lies behind Cader’s creation of a ongoing series of pictographic scripts, which when broken down in their constituents parts reveal a jigsaw of visual shapes culled from a range of printed matter. Covering a diverse list of bibliographic references, each drawing is formed by meticulously copying fragments of imagery, selected by the artist across a range of books and comics. Taking a detail of an existing illustration, such as the outline of a building and joining it with a random detail of a rooster Cader creates a new family of font-like forms that take on the legibility of writing. They hold the promise of coherence but are ultimately no more than the sum of their parts, laying bare to nothing more than a visual silhouette of calligraphic-like shapes.

Muhanned Cader, Medieval Sinhalese Art, 2008
Graphite on moleskine Japanese notebook, 4.1 × 9.3 × 1.3cm
Image courtesy the artist and Green Cardamom


III. “Whilst I try not to be obviously political, my work seeks to problematise the inherent politics of image making”

Along with fragments, Cader deploys stencil cut-outs and collage to create his drawings and paintings¹. Preferring the landscape over the figure, his scenic vistas are notable for being non-rectangular. The landscape appears instead within a cloud or a bubble like form. The effect is reminiscent of the way the world might be naturally framed as a reflected image through a puddle of water or across the surface of a tank or reservoir. Through the course of a day these naturally occurring mirrors reflect the imperceptible changes in the landscape over time. By contrast an image, whether in the form of a drawing or a painting, is necessarily limited to a singular view. One that is fixed and stationary. The conceptual reckonings of such a predicament are what interest Cader. “This is why I remove the rectanglular frame that surrounds the landscape in my drawings. It is similar to asking what surrounds our understanding or do we only ever know part of the truth? This for me is true politics, where one never sees the real or whole picture”².

Muhanned Cader, Casting Light, 2009
Acrylic ink on paper, 22.86 × 16.51cm
Image courtesy the artist

Though we quest to grasp life in its totality, Cader’s work underlines that we are by the same token limited to seeing it in fragments, through certain angles, perspectives and narratives. A series of cut-out forms containing delicately rendered light-filled spaces, wittingly titled Casting Light (2009), ponders such a proposition yet further. To what extent can an artwork voice opinion? Is an image ultimately better equipped to cast doubt rather than light on subject? While Cader’s work is not obviously political he is a political artist with a capital ‘A’ to pose such questions.

Download as PDF

Notes

1. See Art Asia Pacific, No. 61 Nov/Dec 2008 for a discussion about the influence of Ray Yoshida (1930 - 2009) on Muhanned Cader
2. Muhanned Cader in conversation with Sharmini Pereira, 2009

First published in MumbaiMutai (Colombo, Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2010). Published to accompany the exhibition 'MumbaiMutai', Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Sharmini Pereira is Director of Raking Leaves.

No Place Like Home by Jessica Morgan

Conspicuously present through its absence, human life is at the centre of Simryn Gill’s work. Her artworks show that the material culture of humankind can elicit a remarkable wealth of information about life. Comparable to that of a material anthropologist, her approach or methodology involves the collation of object, image and cultural artefact through sculpture and photography and a conscious use of museological techniques of display, but the resulting presentation offers only the most ambiguous conclusions as to the meaning of the accumulative matter of human life. Gill’s quest is directed at gathering, ordering and documenting. She leaves the final interpretation to us, the audience: here and now but, perhaps implicitly, also for a future viewer for whom the meaning of this array, with the benefit of time, may logically reveal itself. More often than not Gill’s taxonomy is not applied to a totalising presentation of fact; instead we are left with the impression of a ceaselessly shifting notion of meaning, one so dependent on place and time, on education, language, outlook and economy that our assumptions are destabilised by the artist’s ultimately complicating outlook or position on materiality. Gill suggests that there are no final conclusions to be drawn but much work to be done unravelling the possible meanings of things, should we want to take the time to do so.

Simryn Gill, A small town at the turn of the century, 1999
Type c photograph from a series of 40
91.5 × 91.5cm each
Image courtesy the artist

On the odd occasion in which people have made a central appearance in Gill’s work they are often obscured or occupied by objects, fruit or vegetation, in a humorous play on the identification of ethnic origin or chosen habitat with the natural life of their given locale. A small town at the turn of the century (1999-2000), for example, presents various individuals and families whose heads are morphed into bulbous fruits or baubled bunches thereof – the irony of course being that both the “indigenous” people and their accompanying “local” vegetation more often than not turn out to be the result of a complex process of migration and, to use a favourite term of Gill’s, “seeding”, than might be suggested by this simple equating of human and nature. The comparison of human life or culture and natural life is used gainfully in Gill’s work to mess up any neat and tidy notions of origin. The movements of people and plants and their relative success or transformation through this process of transferral is a subject that looms large in Gill’s work, and has on many occasions drawn comparison with the artist’s own far-from-simple biographical lineage: of Indian parentage, Gill was raised in the Asian diaspora of Malaysia and Singapore and now moves between Sydney, Australia, and Port Dickson, Malaysia. Unfixed from the moorings of a simply told story of identity, Gill is undoubtedly attuned and attracted to similarly migrating and conflicting narratives of national and cultural origin.

In Gill’s work very little is allowed to remain fixed in position. Not only do people become fruit, but also books become vegetation, discarded or crushed objects develop mobility, photographs become sculpture, people become books, and books become beads. There is something about this process of transferral that is highly suggestive of a form of exchange or barter, as if Gill sees our entire cultural and natural existence as one enormous economy of substitution and modification, and each person, object and natural environment constantly in the process of both becoming other and simultaneously acting on its surrounding to bring about further change. The speed of this trade and the relative dominance involved in the process of alteration is unstable, but in Gill’s work, perhaps surprisingly, nature is presented frequently as the swifter partner as it deftly surpasses any human endeavours to take root and proliferate. Human culture takes on the effect of a slow release, the outcome of exchange unclear and unchangeable, and the effect of cultural dissemination a creeping affair – books, for example, requiring centuries before their varying consequences can be seen.

Simryn Gill, Detail of Pearls, 1999 - ongoing
Image courtesy the artist and Breenspace
Photo: Silversalt Photography

Gill’s enormous recourse to books (as literature, object, idea, and information) is readily evident throughout the over fifteen years of her production. Perhaps it is the book’s relative ability to migrate with ease (once translated), its portability, and its association with the narrative of the journey or travelogue that appeals to Gill, in addition to the significance of the content within. Certainly books are a powerful symbolic presence, and recent works of Gill’s have taken advantage of the dynamic suggestiveness of our relationship to the printed word. Untitled, a project of 2006, involved the drastically violent act of destroying books through the act of taking them apart and erasing through tearing. Though this was not the first time that Gill had undertaken such a taboo act – for Forest (1996, 1998) she shredded various books and placed them in the natural environment to gradually merge back into the vegetal matter from which they first came and for Pooja/Loot (1992) various books were frontally excavated in order to form small shrines for found objects placed inside their cavities – there was a graphic quality in the extent of the destruction and the display of its effect in Untitled.

Simryn Gill, Forest, 1996, 1998
Gelatin silver photographs from a series of 16
120 × 95cm each
Image courtesy the artist

For this work, Gill, with the assistance of others, removed certain carefully selected words from a selection of over 100 books, collecting and gathering together the various excised words into separate see-through plastic bags such that the accumulation of the word “because”, for example, could be compared to the relative appearance and extraction of the word “then” or “always” according to the fullness of the bags on display. Gill deliberately chose what she deemed to be relatively “neutral” words but her choice of books was more pointed, though by no means constrained. Displayed on tables to be examined alongside the words taken from their pages, the volumes ranged from guides to studies, novels, and poetry, and were grouped together not alphabetically by author or by conventional thematic but with more playfulness and deliberation.

To read the full essay Download as PDF

Notes

1. Juliet Bingham, “Simryn Gill”, gallery brochure for the presentation of Simryn Gill’s Untitled, Tate Modern, London, 2006, unpaginated.

First published in Simryn Gill (Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art and Koln, Verlag der Buchandlung, Walter Konig, 2008). Published to accompany the exhibition 'Simryn Gill: Gathering', Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008. Reproduced with permission.

Jessica Morgan is Curator of Contemporary Art, Tate Modern.

The Birth of Venus by Virginia Whiles

To have a library 'kitabkhana' containing a workshop/atelier for manuscript illumination was the supreme sign of connoisseurship in the Islamic world. Succeeding the Koran, the book was honoured as a sacred coffer of knowledge, and if illustrated its value was treasured even more. Although religious texts forbade the making of images as idolatry, courtly traditions allowed secular texts to be illuminated and handed round an intimate circle of initiates before its preservation as a precious object in the library. Albums containing paintings, drawings and specimens of famous calligraphers were mounted with richly decorated margins and bound with fine leather or laquer covers, "... the richness of the presentation and the reputation of the painters, gilders and calligraphers involved in making the manuscript were critically important" (Grabar 2000:127).

Fine drawing was seen by scholars to be the essence of the miniature practice since the quality of the delineation proved "...the reposition of greater aesthetic value in the art object..." promoting its status as: "...an object of exalted delight for the connoisseur”(Sheikh 1007:22). Khalid 's book, The Birth of Venus, is indeed a work of fine drawing and exquisite crafting. As an object offering its readers 'exalted delight', it pays homage to the context of the original miniatures.

Aish Khalid, Birth of Venus, 2001
Opaque watercolour on wasli (paper), 1 of 20 in fabric bound book, 38.5 × 28.5cm
Image courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora Gallery

"When I saw the exploitation of women’s bodies in a different way it pushed me to think again about my own society, I started making comparisons and I felt like writing about this, about the time ever since my first painting about womens' issues and I felt the need to make a book in which I can write the symbols...flowers and patterns.. and describe how they enter my work and how they are transformed with time...so in Birth of Venus, I started with the lotus and on the next page comes the original environment of the lotus and on the third page that lotus is transformed into a pattern on the Burqa..in the same way the colour red appears and that is transformed into a curtain and then from that curtain a rose appears...these images travel..." (Khalid 2007).

On the first page of the book, in the centre of a silver sea is posed a nine petal lotus, the heroine of this tale. On page two, floating in a blue mass, 'their original environment', are lotuses as voluptuous and free as the water lilies in Monet's vast paintings. At the centre of this miniature space of blue Mongolian waves, the lotuses hover in a window, their hues of pale pink and grey echoed in the frame. All is in gentle suspense. On the facing page the lotuses have gathered together to form the print on the burqa of a single woman. She stands alone in an empty space, she absorbs the pattern, it becomes her and she walks away.

On page four, thirteen lotuses are seated imperiously, like Arhats or Bodhisattvas lined up on a Buddhist t'hanka painting. They are enclosed in a smaller rectangle, a room drawn in perspective like the 'chardiwaris' (four walls) of Khalids' earlier paintings about purdah. The frame within the frame resembles a carpet with its intense pattern made more complex by adding blue to the red and cream tile check of the outer frame. The Muslim concept of the carpet as a garden is enhanced by the traditional process of occasionally interrupting the pattern to assure against infringement on Allah's creation. On the facing page the burqa clad woman is enthroned on a bed of lotuses carrying her into unknown territory, where a blue curtain hovers over a divided terrain: the squared page of an exercise book collaged onto the wasli.

On page six the lady is now wearing a blue burqa, embroidered with Mongolian scrolls, her face protected by the veil of a single lotus. She presents herself, standing on a tiled floor in front of a red curtain. Above the curtain is an ochre sky melting into coloured clouds, a hint of the Punjab hills in a Basohli painting as if she has come a long way. The red curtain slides anonymously across to the facing page where it blooms into full crimson, revealing rows of eyes, eyes surveying her adventure.

On page eight, as if to escape its eagle-eyed vigilance seven roses pop out from behind the crimson curtain, while above three nip across the chequered pages to the purdah-free page opposite. These roses are line-dancing across a grey, bureaucratic zone, unaware that they are being taken into 'account'.

Aish Khalid, Birth of Venus, 2001
Opaque watercolour on wasli (paper), 1 of 20 in fabric bound book, 38.5 × 28.5cm
Image courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora Gallery

On Page ten the same background frames a blue curtain decorated with red roses. The curtain simply hangs in space, it announces a performance, and encourages the voyeur to take a peek through a slit in its folds. On the right page, the inner frame encloses the claustrophobic chardiwari, the blue curtains are shut at the back, the atmosphere is tense, induced by the manic pattern of the mosaic and tiles: yellow and blue. The red roses have flown off the curtain to fill the stage, while above the fringe of an orange curtain flutters.

Page twelve and thirteen show a dissected chequer board, it half spins in from the left and becomes invisible until its other half spins off the right page. Optical games of dazzling black and red and yellow lozenges form a mandala, a diagram of the universe where globalisation is on the run, a Yantra which goes beyond geometry into dynamics, into fields of forces and thoughts, into energy patterns rooted in sound.

On page fourteen half the spinning sphere changes colours into darker red and pink in a blue-black space before becoming whole again to embrace the burqa'd lady, curled up in a foetal position in her white shroud, from her navel springs an umbilical cord, a stem of a rose, but it is the rose that is born or is she born from the rose?

On page sixteen there is a change of scene and climate, a tulip rises up graciously in its academic robe of detailed plant-drawing. It departs from the top of the page somewhat insolently, showing its hairy roots. Opposite it reappears in correct dress, framed as a specimen, calibrated and classified.

Page eighteen repeats page sixteen before moving to the right where the curtain rises on the tulip in the role of the protagonist on centre-stage of the chardiwari. She has escaped from her analysis into performance, enclosed in a velvety chintz and yet a strange cord lies lost front-stage.

On page twenty the roses return on a deep red bed, but now they are blue and three of them dance onto the picture-frame stage in full spotlight, to eclipse on the right.

To read the full essay Download as PDF

Notes

First published in Portraits and Vortexes (Hong Kong, Gandhara-art, 2007). Published to accompany the exhibition 'Aisha Khalid: Portraits and Vortexes', Gandhara-art, 2007. Reproduced with permission.

Dr. Virginia Whiles is a curator and writer. She is Associate Lecturer at Chelsea School of Art, London and teaches at National College of Arts, Beacon House University, Lahore.

Imran Qureshi: Aftermath by Suzanne Cotter

Since graduating from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 1993, Imran Qureshi (b.1972) has become one of Pakistan’s most feted exponents of contemporary miniature painting. Qureshi redefines the pictorial language of the Mughal tradition in his own personal idiom. His process is precise and painstaking, involving the gradual build up of pigment over hundreds of repetitive strokes, exquisite in their lightness and expressivity.

Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment, 2006
Gouache on wasli (paper), 182 × 291 mm
Image courtesy the artist

A defining aspect of Qureshi’s work is his merging of present day subject matter with a symbolic repertoire elaborated from traditional motifs. Set firmly in the present, his paintings reflect his personal observations on the global politics of war, religion and the day-to-day realities of contemporary Pakistan.

In Moderate Enlightenment, Qureshi has updated the miniature tradition of the portrait, historically reserved for the nobility and high-ranking officials, in both subject matter and style. Questioning what such a portrait might be today, he looked to his younger contemporaries, mainly students, and the observable changes of a growing devotion to their faith. Qureshi worked from photographs he took in formal sessions, in which his subjects were carefully posed. In the traditional portrait, the attitude is frontal with the head in profile; Qureshi’s figures assume less rigid attitudes. Part of this project was to reverse the normally serious representation of local clerics and devout muslims, presenting them taking part in prosaic and playful activities.

Imran Qureshi, Imran Qureshi: Aftermath, Modern Art Oxford, 2007
Acrylic on wall, dimensions variable
Image courtesy the artist and Modern Art Oxford
Photo: Stephen White

Every motif in Qureshi’s paintings is significant. Our eyes are drawn to the contemporary features of the two young students – the shoulder bag carried by the young woman, in a long robe and veiled, and the linen trousers and western-styled shirt of the young man, sporting the closely cropped hair and bushy beard of the devout. The length of trousers, shortened to just above the ankles, is a sign of adherence to the example set by the prophet Mohammad. The camouflage-patterned socks and leather loafers of the man in Pakistani national dress blowing bubbles, or the bared-chested man working out in the gym with weights, allude to the cross-cultural mix of contemporary fashion.

Qureshi’s playful observation also contains more subtle tones. His use of camouflage as a motif is a recurring one used by the artist to allude to the aestheticisation of war. His motifs of foliage, birds, bubbles and dragonflies signal the generative energy and fragility of life. The paintings are also expressive of Qureshi’s capacity for improvisation. Dispensing with preparatory drawings, Qureshi always begins his paintings directly on the wasli, a prepared paper surface. As he paints, other ideas and motifs take form.

Qureshi has talked of his pleasure in moving between the discipline of the miniature format and the expanded scale afforded by the different architectural spaces. His ease with both stems as much from his study of painting outside of the miniaturist school as it does from his work in theatre, puppetry and set-design. For Qureshi, the structure of a building – its walls, columns, openings and floors – becomes the grid from which abstract and figurative compositions are developed. As with his smaller paintings, Qureshi does not work to any pre-defined concept or preparatory drawings, preferring to respond to the building’s structural logic and accidents of surface.

Imran Qureshi, Imran Qureshi: Aftermath, Modern Art Oxford, 2007
Acrylic on wall, dimensions variable
Image courtesy the artist and Modern Art Oxford
Photo: Stephen White

For his installation Aftermath at Modern Art Oxford, Qureshi responded to the shape and features of the Lower Gallery to create a rich decorative cycle of projection, shadow and illusion. Here, Qureshi has painted two columns of radiating blue foliage extending the full height of one of the walls directly behind two of the gallery’s supporting steel columns. They are mirrored by the same foliage on the reverse side of the real columns, setting up a dynamic, visual interplay of projection and reflection between support and structure. Opposite, Qureshi’s luxuriating vegetation breaks down into splashes and streams which he has literally thrown over the wall and columns.

The contrast between the graceful blooms and arabesques of foliage on one side and more chaotic rivulets on the other reflect what Qureshi has described as the tension between life-giving and destructive forces. He reflects on this duality in the small abstract painting, which sits between the foliate columns, and in which he has painted delicate spheres of blue and red foliage interrupted by blots and staccato-lines of red and blue. Qureshi describes the floating spheres as being like calligraphic points on a map. From this perspective, we might read the painting, and the installation as a whole, as a symbolic cartography of place. Most of the blood-red marks are in the margins, but their impact also erupts, as if uncontrollably, into the meditative calmness of the centre. For Qureshi, this expressive symbolism might also refer to the state of different parts of the world today, in which violence and destruction are the tragic reality that lays behind the seductive rhetoric of democracy and peace.

Download as PDF

Notes

First published in Encounters: Imran Qureshi. Published to accompany the exhibition 'Encounters: Imran Qureshi', (Oxford, Modern Art Oxford, 2007). Reproduced with permission.

Suzanne Cotter is Curator of Exhibitions at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project. She was Senior Curator at Modern Art Oxford until 2009.

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan by Qadri Ismail

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan’s artistic production engages insistently, exemplarily with the predicament of the Sri Lankan Tamil in particular, and the minority more generally. He is a daring, incisive, consummate painter of contusion. For the past few decades, the Tamil has been repressed and brutalized by the majoritarian Sinhala nationalist state: made the object of pogroms, discriminatory legislation and, in the course of the war, relentless disciplining by the state apparatus and bombardment by the military. Shanaathanan responds pictorially to such brutalization by presenting the northeastern Tamil as characterized by domination, interned by violence; the Tamil body, as subordinated, disfigured. Hailing from Jaffna, the largest city in northern Sri Lanka, Shanaathanan’s early work – he had solo exhibitions in 1998 and 2001 – is marked by bright, riotous color, turbulent but whole bodies. Over the course of this decade, the colors have turned somber, the bodies become torn – in one painting by pliers, in another by an electric prod. The Tamil body is now a tortured one. ‘Krishna’ (2003) depicts an enlarged face screaming, its eyes damaged. While the contours of the face resonate with Edvard Munch’s famous painting, the image also reinscribes the mythological Hindu icon, commonly depicted in modern Sri Lankan art as a lover, repressing his military vocation. Shanaathanan’s work suggests that the postcolonial painter cannot only make pictorial statements about the local but is compelled to engage with art history.

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Krishna, 2003
Mixed media on paper, 56 × 37cm
Image courtesy the artist

‘Grandma’s Courtyard II’ (2004) presents the predicament of the minority with great subtlety. An adult male figure rides a swing in its top right or northeastern corner. He doesn’t gaze at a garden, as the title might suggest, but an aerial map, colored in dull earth-tones. Where a grandmother’s home might evoke the affective – everyday life, family, pleasant memories – the northeastern Sri Lankan here surveys an abstract depiction of property outlined from above: empty roads, a lifeless, desolate scene. The lone figure, remembering but dissociated from home, powerfully displays dislocation, loss and estrangement. War, the painting reminds us, scars more than just the body, destroys more than property. It can recolor cherished memories; transform the past into the terms of the miserable present.

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Grandma's Courtyard II, 2004
Mixed media on paper, 75 × 56cm
Image courtesy the artist

With his third solo exhibition, ‘Locating the Self’ (2006), Shanaathanan established himself as an ethically responsible, politically engaged, intellectually acute and pictorially inventive presence in the Sri Lankan art scene. Yet he makes his work public only when ready and with consideration. His paintings, while displaying thematic continuity and consistency, are singular, titled. However he is anything but an individualist. His work includes the collaborative installation ‘History of Histories’ (2004), where, together with four other Jaffna-based artists and the assistance of local residents, from whose homes they took everyday objects marked by war, he displayed the impact of the war on the civilian.

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Untitled, 1999
Dry pastel on paper, 32 × 12cm
Image courtesy the artist

Shanaathanan’s production is protest art at its most courageous, incisive and inspiring. It insists that the artist must engage with politics, especially at times of repression. And it does so with visual sophistication, challenging the viewer aesthetically and otherwise, compelling them to rethink the predicament of the Sri Lankan Tamil as well as that of minorities in general.

Download as PDF

Notes

Unpublished, (2009). Reproduced with permission

Dr. Qadri Ismail is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Minnesota.

Articulating Aesthetic Innovation and Political Protest: The Art of Chandraguptha Thenuwara by Qadri Ismail

Sri Lankan modern art is marked by the work of two remarkable collectives: the’43 Group, which often exhibited together, and the loose, but no less coherent, assemblage that constitutes the ’90s trend. Both produced art of great innovation. However, unlike the ’43 Group, the ’90s artists stage their politics insistently on the canvas. Or, as in the case of Chandraguptha Thenuwara, on and off it. Trained in Sri Lanka and the former Soviet Union, an inciter of the ’90s trend, Thenuwara’s work helped revitalize Sri Lankan art over the past two decades, through his painting and, more significantly, installation works.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Monument to the Innocent Victims of War, 1997
Acrylic paint on barrels, dimensions variable
Image courtesy the artist

Thenuwara’s installation series ‘Barrelism’ makes strong physical and intellectual demands on the viewer. Camouflage-painted barrels became a ubiquitous presence in the urban landscape during the Sinhala nationalist war against the Tamils. In his arresting response, not only to the war, but to the militarization of Sri Lanka, ‘Monument to the Innocent Victims of War’ (1997), Thenuwara collected ten barrels, arranging seven of them on top of each other, vertically, producing something like a tower, with those at the top painted sky-blue. The three remaining barrels, arranged horizontally beside the tower, were colored yellow – mimicking a shade of military camouflage. The effect of the whole, first displayed in a public Colombo space, was to fuse the militaristic with the natural (sky), calling attention to the naturalization of military presence in our everyday lives.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Camouflage no.1
Oil on canvas, 152 × 100 cm
Image courtesy the artist

The ideology of Sinhala nationalism stages war as glorious, producing its soldiers as extraordinary ‘ranaviru’. Put differently, it disguises war. Or, as Thenuwara might suggest, camouflages it. Camouflage is the title of his profoundly striking series of paintings begun in 1997. From a distance, the images appear an almost photographic reproduction of the design of camouflage uniforms. Approach closer and the viewer discovers the shapes that constitute the paintings aren’t loosely based on leaves, stems, bark and other jungle objects mimicked in camouflage clothing. Thenuwara’s shapes depict crutches, the disabled, even dead human form. War, here, is staged as beautiful only from a distance and as deadly upon closer acquaintance. We are reminded that ideology transforms the murder and misery caused by military conflict into a glorious thing.

It should be stressed, however, that the force of Thenuwara’s work isn’t only political and aesthetic, but intellectual and ethical. It directs the reader to consider the other. In his work, 'Horse Head, Jaffna' (2009) he depicts the broken head of a wooden horse, the kind used in temple festivals to carry the statue of the god. Lying on a white space, wrenched from its body, broken in many senses – from its place, wholeness, Tamil culture – the horse’s head becomes a metaphor for loss. Cultural, political, communal loss. Tamil culture, it suggests, is in pieces. Thenuwara captures the complexity, the finality of this loss with a single, aesthetically and politically stunning image.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Horse Head, Jaffna, 2009
Acrylic on canvas, 59 × 79cm
Image courtesy the artist

Such work is ethically and politically responsible. It insists that art cannot be concerned only with the formal, the beautiful, but must also say something, be responsible (to the other). By doing so himself, by protesting domination, by introducing formal innovation, Chandraguptha Thenuwara helped energize our art from the 1990s on.

Download as PDF

Notes

First published in Chandraguptha Thenuwara: A Retrospective. 23 July - 6 August (Colombo, Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2009). Published to accompany the exhibition 'Chandraguptha Thenuwara: A Retrospective. 23 July - 6 August', Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

Dr. Qadri Ismail is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Minnesota.

A Prelude to an Exhibition by Anoli Perera

“I have enough guilt to make my own religion”-Jagath Weerasinghe

Jagath Weerasinghe’s latest series of work titled ‘Celestial Fervor’ converge a number of elements that determine some of the major art ideas interrogated within the artist’s overall art practice. A deeply politically conscious, socially sensitive being, Weerasinghe’s art cannot be summarized only within an art historical discourse without really venturing into a larger socio-political canvas that includes his own habitus, in an Bourdieuian sense. Therefore I would like to look at his art practice and emphasis on certain moments and events starting from his first major exhibition Kansawa (Anxiety) held at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in 1992, the first instance that put forth his political and art ideology evolved and matured during his post student days in Sri Lanka and years spent in the US, as an graduate student. I am privileged as a writer to observe and articulate on Weerasinghe’s conceptions and thought processes because of my proximity to him as a fellow artist, a friend and a comrade in most post-1998 art activities ( interventions if one cares to call it) undertaken or initiated by him, and having the opportunity to engage in numerous discussions, disagreements and reconciliation of opinions with him . I am also aware how perilous such proximity can be to one’s perception and I will try to navigate my reading of his life and art (to Weerasinghe the division of life and art are intertwined and therefore it’s necessary to include both together) objectively within my own bias and convictions.

Jagath Weerasinghe, Celestial Violence: Men with Arms, 2007
pen on paper. Image courtesy the artist

Born to a dominant Marxist bourgeoisie father and a home making mother, growing up in an urbane middle class environment, Weerasinghe was probably exposed early on to the sympathies of the localized Marxist political ideology, its limitations and its contradictions when it came to class struggle, gender politics and social change. His identification was almost always with the ‘marginalized’ and the underprivileged (perhaps picked up from Marxist orientation at home), and his predilection for the subaltern is something that continues to underlie his political ideology. His restless years at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. Colombo (now University of Visual and Performing Arts) engaging in student politics, the rude awaking of the 1983 ethnic riots, close awareness of the 1988-90 JVP/ government killing fields, and his own violent confrontations with authority, all set against the background of an ethnic war, have obviously marked his conscience deeply and led him to realize the fundamental flaws in the Sri Lankan national psyche which boasts of its ‘Dharmishta-ness’, Buddhist-ness and Sinhala-ness, a threesome which often collapses into one composite and portent entity. I would like to read Weerasinghe’s work within three aphorisms. One is his own constant guilt for the pathologies that the society (which he is part of) has inflicted and continues to inflict on its people and his inability to intervene in it. The second is his realization of the magnitude of the destructive male power, the ‘chauvinism’ of the ‘phallus’ that manifests in different forms and forces, from gender politics to ethnic politics, from religious fundamentalism and enhanced puritanical moralism to euphoria of war victory. The third is his own conviction that the artist’s lived experience takes centrality in his/her art, therefore the artist cannot distance him/herself from its implications/responsibility which makes art political as much as it is cultural. With this position on art, he makes it impossible for art to be amnesiac. In Weerasinghe’s own words “the bleeding heart at the centre of the painting is important to my story, even though it is at odds with its modernist construction.”1

Jagath Weerasinghe, Snakes and Mikes, 2005
Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist

The most important socio-politically engaging and art-historically important, interventionist exhibition by Weerasinghe was Kansawa and Yantra Gala and Round Pilgrimage. In his exhibition Kansawa, Weerasinghe put forward a difficult narration of an unwilling participant who became such for his inability to intervene in the events of July 1983 that scarred the memories of many Tamils. The works in the exhibition and other paintings made during this period emphasized the guilt of a society and its/his cathartic need for abreaction. A large number of paintings show imagery that symbolically, as well as directly, indicate the fragmentation of a society. Depictions of burnings, distorted human figures and images of photos that are reminiscent of a scattered family album in a burning house, all denote pain and loss. The ‘Long Necked Man’, a distorted human figure that recurs in most of his paintings (throughout the 1990s) in various contorted positions (in poses of pleading, defending, sprawled on the floor) projects a dual role in the overall exhibition: one is of the artist grappling with the pain of his own guilt and the other is of the victims of 83 riots grappling with the pain of their predicament.

Jagath Weerasinghe, Untitled, 2006
Acrylic on paper. Image courtesy the artist

While this duality opens up the problematics of equating both pains at one level, ignoring their specificities, it also reveals the unrepentant silence of the perpetrating society and its unacknowledged responsibility for the violations inflicted, or the absence of an apology for its failure to protect its own citizens. Kansawa is Weerasinghe’s lonely effort to do exactly what Sri Lanka, as a nation, miserably failed to do. In this exhibition, the images of ‘broken stupa’s and ‘burning edifices of temples’ do not refer to archeological remains showing the desecration of a religion, but the religion’s desecration of the psyche of a society, and a betrayal of its core principle of non-violence. Kansawa also registers Weerasinghe’s initial grouses with the contemporary manifestations of institutionalized and politicized Buddhism and its links to the dangerous lineage of ethno-chauvinism within discourses of nationalism.

To read the full essay Download as PDF

Notes

1. Jagath Weerasinghe, Sunday Observer, November 22 ,1992.

First published in Celestial Fervor: The Art of Jagath Weerasinghe (Colombo, Red Dot Gallery/Theerta, 2009). Published to accompany the exhibition 'Celestial Fervor: The Art of Jagath Weerasinghe', Red Dot Gallery/Theerta, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

Anoli Perera is an artist based in Colombo.

Bani Abidi
Born 1971, Karachi
Pakistan

Lives and works in New Delhi and Karachi

Selected solo exhibitions
Bani Abidi
Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, 2011
Section Yellow
Project 88, Mumbai, 2011
Bani Abidi: Karachi
V.M Art Gallery, Karachi, 2011
Standing Still Standing Still Standing: Video and Prints by Bani Abidi
Green Cardamom, London, 2008

Selected group exhibitions
Making Normative Orders: Demonstrations of Power, Doubt and Protest
Frankfurter Kunstverein, 2012
Home Spun
Devi Art Foundation, Delhi, 2011
Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and Fotomuseum, Winterthur, 2010
10th Lyon Biennale: The Spectacle of the Everyday
France, 2009

Muhanned Cader
Born 1966, Colombo,
Sri Lanka

Lives and works between Oxford, UK
and Colombo, Sri Lanka

Selected solo exhibitions
MumbaiMutai
Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo, 2010
Drawing Sculpture in Red and Black
Barefoot Gallery, Colombo, 2007
79 Days In Lahore
National College of Arts, Lahore, 2002

Selected group exhibitions
Drawn From Life
Green Cardamom, London, 2008–10

Simryn Gill
Born 1959, Singapore

Lives and works in Sydney
and Port Dickson, Malaysia

Selected solo exhibitions
Simryn Gill: Gathering
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2010
Perspectives: Simryn Gill
Interiors, Tracy Williams Ltd., New York
Simryn Gill
Level 2 Gallery, Tate Modern,
London, 2006

Selected group exhibitions
Revolutions – Forms That Turn
2008 Biennal of Sydney
documenta 12
Kassel, Germany, 2007
2007 News From Islands, Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW

Aisha Khalid
Born 1972, Pakistan

Lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan

Selected solo exhibitions
Pump House Gallery, 2008
Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2006
Corvi-Mora, London, 2004

Selected group exhibitions
Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi at the Pao
Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2010
Corvi-Mora, London, 2010
Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art
from Pakistan

Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, 2010
East-West DIVAN: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan
La Scuola Grande della Misericordia,
Venice, 2009

Imran Qureshi
Born 1972, Hyderabad, Pakistan

Lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan

Selected solo exhibitions
Encounters: Imran Qureshi
Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 2007
Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2006
Corvi-Mora, London, 2004

Selected group exhibitions
Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi at the Pao
Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2010
Corvi-Mora, London, 2010
Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art from Pakistan
Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, 2010
East-West DIVAN: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan
La Scuola Grande della Misericordia, Venice, 2009

Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan
Born 1969,
Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Lives and works in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Selected solo exhibitions
T. Shanaathanan
Saskia Gallery, Colombo, 2011
Heritage Art Gallery, Colombo, 1998
Paradise Road Galleries, Colombo 2005 and 2001

Selected group exhibitions
Non-Aligned
Barefoot Gallery, Colombo, 2011
Toured Landscape
ICES, Colombo, 2004
Aham Puram
Jaffna Library, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 2004
New Sri Lankan Art
October Gallery, London, 2003

Chandraguptha Thenuwara
Born 1960,
Galle, Sri Lanka

Lives and works in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Selected solo exhibitions
Neo-Barrelism
Lionel Wendt Gallery, Colombo, 2007
Wall of Death and Other Works
Lionel Wendt Gallery, Colombo, 2007
Barrelism:Camouflage
Maroondah Gallery, Victoria, Australia, 2006

Selected group exhibitions
Soft Power: Asian Attitude
Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, 2007
Asian Attitude
The National Museum of Poznan, Poland, 2007
Common Goods
Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, 2006

Jagath Weerasinghe
Born 1954, Sri Lanka

Lives and works in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Selected solo exhibitions
Paradise Road Gallery, Colombo, 2003
The Heritage Gallery, Colombo, 1997
Lionel Wendt Gallery, Colombo, 1995
Anxiety
National Art Gallery, Colombo, 1992

Selected group exhibitions
Ten Artists from Sri Lanka
Milles Garden, Stockholm, 2005
Aham Puram
Jaffna Library, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, 2004
Urban and the Individual
Phenomenal Space Gallery, Colombo, 2004

Related Projects
Book Project



Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Short Film
Special Edition


Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Special Edition

Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Short Film
Special Edition

Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Short Film
Special Edition


Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project 2010–11
Book Project 2008–09
Special Edition 2010–11
Special Edition 2008–09
Short Film

Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Special Edition
Short Film

Back to Top

Related Projects
Book Project
Special Edition
Short Film

Back to Top