Noor Ali Chagani
Identity is crucial both for creative people and criminals. A suspect held on charge of being a thief, murderer or terrorist has to present a document verifying his identity in order to prove his innocence or seek acquittal. Even those showing remorse following a conviction are referred to and remembered for their dark deeds, in spite of their efforts to acquire and stress a new identity. Identity remains a concern, rather a curse, for them; it sticks like a stain.
Writers, visual artists, musicians and dancers, too deal with the issue of identity both in life and in art. Public are the police in their case. They are supposed to represent links to the lands of their origin, culture, history in their works. For instance, a painter from Pakistan is expected to portray local landscapes, issues and traditions. An author is admired if the book offers a glimpse of his/her surroundings, society – preferably in the mother tongue/national language. A filmmaker is expected to shoot vernacular subjects; and dancers or singers are praised for promoting vernacular tunes, instruments and movements.
Imagine an artist rendering scenes from Iceland, or a novelist writing about a Japanese gangster’s suicide, a director making a movie about some Peruvian prostitutes, a musician appropriating Medieval Spanish chants, or a dancer performing on Jewish religious rhythms. They will likely be rejected in Pakistan, before being discredited internationally. It has somehow become the norm for all creative individuals to display their identity tags in their works. Meanwhile, there is no similar demand on bankers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, shopkeepers, smugglers and pilots etc.
In that sense calling an art exhibition Shanakhat (identity) is as logical as recognising the portrait of a model to be the self-portrait of the maker. Artists, by default, imbibe elements of identity in their productions. The problem is not about identity; the issue is assumption of a monolithic, sole identity, neglecting, negating, rejecting and discarding several simultaneous identities. A person’s identity includes nationality, gender, race, religion, accent, profession, hobby, taste in fashion, sympathy for a political party, supporting a game and so forth, hence a vast arena. So when one steps into an exhibition called identity, one looks for multiple interpretations of identity, or the relevance of ‘identity’ for that matter.
The title, Shanakhat, for a group show at ‘O’ Art Space (February 9 to 15) can be translated twice: into identity, for its literal meaning; and for the use of Urdu term that implies indigenous identity. Two works, from the exhibition, extend that understanding of identity, based upon language, heritage, and a feeling of loss. Meher Afroz’s mixed media paintings, through their construction, addition of Urdu words like benayazi (disinterest) and iman (faith), and a range of greys connect a viewer to a collective past. Both works appear as pages of a manuscript, besides looking like pieces of cloth. Horizontal stripes of paper stitched together, further suggest lines of a notebook. A written/printed sheet is normally whitish, so that reading is unconstrained, but Afroz’s pieces are dark, with layers of paint making the surface dense and deep. They remind one of the lead books of Anselm Kiefer in his The High Priestess, with their pages appearing scorched, decaying and discoloured. As the German artist’s work refers to the past, the Nazi burning of books, Afroz’s work alludes to another past, disappearing soon from our present. Her art by no means longs for nostalgia or revive the past; it’s a lament for endangered values and warmth of human interaction and belief in one another.
Also in the exhibition, two figures from our history are resurrected for a specific reason. Mahbub Jokhio has painted stock portraits of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, both in grey, and both in tears. These paintings (from the series ‘I am Too Sad to Tell You…’), echo another Jokhio, Ayaz; who in his black-and-white portraits of iconic figures, depicted their ‘much seen’ upper bodies, but all back views. So an ordinary audience is able – and discomfort-able to recognise the heroes and celebrities. Mahbub’s canvases carry the concept of dislodging the static state images, bringing them back to life – of sentiments, emotions, despair. These leaders, once human, have now been turned into symbols, almost monuments, marble statutes (rendering them in monochrome reinforces this view).
Through a popular narrative, state transforms a living being into a solid, stolid entity – the image of country and power. Safdar Ali’s work deals with the presence of power, but the language he uses is one of cliché and tired connotations – army boots carved in traditional geometric patterns – that is supposed to highlight the bond between piety and power.
Power seems to be a problem for a number of artists today, but each aims at a new vocabulary. A citizen, in many countries around the world, experiences power on a daily basis. When you leave your house for work, or go for recreation, travel to another city, heed to the airport, or even rush to a hospital, you have to wait to cross security barricades. Hindrances that have entered our existence to such an extent, that we plan our days and lives accordingly. Noor Ali Chagani, in his immaculately fabricated pieces, points to that aspect of our situation. A wall made up of small concrete blocks and barbed wires on top portrays a siege mentality. Two small-scale road barriers present a familiar reality. In one, the text reads ‘prohibited area’; the other, covered in the red-and-blue typical of regional police, has a line in Urdu ‘JKP at your service’, referring to Indian Held Kashmir. However, the work is clearly manufactured for a Pakistani audience so that hence the message is not in Hindi or English. It is only in a lettering style used mostly for Urdu in Pakistan.
Chagani’s attempt can be compared to the American custom of preparing reproductions of historic documents and selling them as, what Umberto Eco calls “almost real” at museum shops. Eco observes: “Unfortunately the Manhattan purchase contract, penned in pseudo-antique characters, is in English [for today’s tourists], whereas the original was in Dutch”. Chagani, in his effort to comment upon the dire conditions of Kashmiris in India, has focused on their plight/identity for Pakistan (a country with its own barricades and barriers).
The Shanakht exhibition has brought forth different approaches towards personal, cultural and political identity, but looking through the ‘inventory of the works’, one discovers another identity: money. Two works on paper by Meher Afroz – an artist of incredible sensitivity, amazing subtlety and immense stature – are priced at Rs 95,000 each, whereas relatively unknown Mudassar Manzoor’s contrived works on paper are available for Rs 325,000 and Rs 375,000. Perhaps the cost of an art work is the ideal, if not the only identity – our true Shanakht?
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore