In his novel, Fever and Spear, Javier Marias reminds us that spaces that we inhabit have previously been occupied by others. This is true equally of a chair, a bed, a room, an office and a lover’s life. Yet, the fact hardly ever (or never) registers with us. Too often, we take a disappearance for non-existence. We move amid ghosts of humans and objects and figments surviving in memory, anecdotes and history.
Disappearance has long been a focus for Mohammad Ali Talpur. It has been fully realised in his new body of work from the solo exhibition, This-Appearance, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi (March 24 to April 5). There are small canvases that lack something: subject, content, humans, action. One sees a serene seascape, a segment of a tropical bush, details of a high-rise building, a stone wall, a courtyard, photo stripes of a galloping horse, rows of tanks on a road, waves of blue water. The visuals appear real, factual and ordinary, yet stir the feeling of the uncanny.
The feeling persists till one starts supplying the missing pieces of the jigsaw. Some of those are standard images stranded in our vision through constant exposure and transmission via media: pictures of people jumping from the Twin Towers; soldiers in tanks on Tiananmen Square; a Syrian child dying on the shore; Yves Klein leaping out of a building; Jews praying in front of the Wailing Wall; Che Guevara sitting next to a plant; army on the sea during the World War I; a man riding in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 prints. Horse Galloping. We recall them, and reconnect Talpur’s ‘empty’ canvases with those familiar, fixed and frequently seen views.
Talpur’s choice of ‘loaded’ pictures, which he liberates by eliminating the main protagonist (read man), is a conscious act. But the selection is probably not a comment on China’s crushing of students’ protest; on 9/11; on the issue of Middle Eastern migration to Europe; on Jewish religious practice; on an art practice; on revolution; on war; or on the history of photography. It maybe; but for the moment let’s stick to what is obvious, apparent and ‘logical’. Talpur has erased figures from frames that were/are not complete without the human presence. To an ordinary viewer, the web of transparent and tranquillising waves does not mean much; nor the stones in an ancient wall; neither a city square; a bunch of leaves next to a blank surface; details of a high rise; and sequence of horses running without a jockey.
Mohammad Ali Talpur appears to have brought an aspect of content-less-ness to art. He chooses not to “aim for a narrative or idea beyond what is visible on the picture plane”. His quest is to get rid of the easily accessible – and comfortable – subject matter that serves like hinges to hang your ideas (cloaks) of identity, violence, displacement, gender, politics, past from. Talpur has been seeking this ideal for many years. Since 2000 he has been rubbing out the identities of his characters in his mixed media prints by covering their faces with masking tape or wiping away their features.
His [Talpur’s] quest is to get rid of the easily accessible – and comfortable – subject matter that serves like hinges to hang your ideas (cloaks) of identity, violence, displacement, gender, politics, past from.
In his essay Kafka and His Precursors, Jorge Luis Borges, observes that a great writer not only influences the generations after him, but his predecessors too. We start perceiving authors before him through his writings. In the same way, seeing Talpur’s new paintings (a collaboration between the artist and a commercial painter) is a key to unearthing his previous aesthetics. A comparison can easily be made with the recent seashore oil on canvas to his earlier drawings in which lines move like sea weaves. A huge structure block, with its stark vertical sections, echoes his geometry-based linear paintings.
At one level, his new canvases are formal and mere pictorial, but these also have more than what one can spot on the surface. A number of other works from the exhibition, such as his large-scale black and white line-based canvases that dismantle your focus, his bands of colours that perpetually shift your gaze and his watercolours with stripes of varying shades, invite an eye to similar sojourn of finding and keeping. These works, in his words, “bring a viewer closer to an artist’s moment of creation”.
Somehow the new ‘scenic’ paintings also bring to mind his calligraphy-related works. Talpur learnt traditional calligraphy as a mature artist. He later used the essence of text in his works. Hence his calligraphic strokes are not different from the marks that alluded to, a) tracks of a flying bird, b) mapping of sea waves, c) contours of a field. These works, with lines composed in mechanical manner or loosely constructed, along with a strong, hard hitting and never-diffusing optical encounter, also affirm the artist’s stance, as he opts for a totally pictorial language despite the demands, temptations, and obligations to comment upon, or at least include important current issues in his creative output. He is conscious that the temporary will pass, and what remains is an eternal experience that eventually helps one comprehend one’s day to day existence.
In that sense, despite its formal dissimilarity, Mohammad Ali Talpur’s work appears connected to some overlapping strands. His art is a strife against meaning and message – even content. This is a remarkable point that links all his works to a pictorial contract. It is a visual exchange between the artist and the spectator. However, just the fact that the work offers something away from the content, instigates the importance of having content – if not in art, in life. The missing element thus becomes the most significant element; crucial if we shift the art discourse to socio-political situations.
Mohammad Ali Talpur has always been working ‘against content’ (in his 2019 video installation of Pulp Fiction, the movie was edited to remove dialogues). In his recent works one sees the deliberate disappearance of human figures. These paintings too can be understood in the context of the current scenario. Since the beginning of 2020, mankind has faced Covid-19, with its code of distance, creed of indifference; and fear of other humans, aptly delineated by Bernard Henri-Levy: “…. scurrying pedestrians, who seemed to be there only to remind us of the existence of the human species, but who then crossed to the other side of the street, eyes downcast, as soon as another human appeared”.
The disappearance of human presence in Mohammad Ali Talpur’s works may be about his surge for a purity of the pictorial, but an artist knows that one cannot eradicate an image. In order to delete, one adds a segment of the background, replacing and filling the ‘empty’ area with nature (birds and animals) or civic spaces. Nature, like Talpur’s work, may appear devoid of meaning, but is never divorced from it. Form and content live happily – side by side.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore