A visual created by mankind, in most cases, conveys more than one, apparent and intended messages. It may be cinema billboards, advertisements for goods, news footage, political posters, family photographs, religious scenes, iconic imagery, travel shots or home videos. All texts have to be deciphered in multiple ways using diverse (magnifying) lenses. Often, a later-day viewer recognises and realises a different content, something that seems obvious now though previous generations remained oblivious to its meaning, or even its presence.
John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, dissects landscape painting, a genre usually associated with nature and its beauty, as: “the special relation between oil painting and property did play a certain role even in the development of landscape painting.” Berger also examines the practice of including exotic and expensive fruits, fish and fowl in lavishly arranged still life – a means of communicating owner’s power to accumulate these extravagant items.
Property is not just hectares of land, exclusive crockery, costly edibles, antique carpets and precious canvases, but animals as well. Top breed horses and dogs fetch unimaginably (or imaginably) high prices. So, when we look at the paintings of European nobility riding on their steeds or posing next to their dogs, we are directed to ‘read’ power attached to prestige, and prestige to pedigree. Hence, in several paintings aristocrats are shown standing or sitting with their pets. Their identity in a sense is linked to, if not dependent upon, the identification of their canines.
Kiran Saleem, in her new paintings, plays with this connection, rather camaraderie among power, lineage and wealth. In reality, the duke or count may be spotted as the descendant of a haughty brood, but only for his contemporaries. Once he is dead, the estate is sold, the family broken, nobody is able to connect his features with his status. It is his attire, jewels, rugs, armoury, and ‘dog’ that would ensure his esteemed position for posterity. Today, no one knows and cares who was James Stuart, or Anton Franz de Paula, but the greyhound and Jack Russell terrier remain familiar. Thus, a form of ‘respect’ is introduced and secured for men in pictures.
In her solo exhibition, His Master’s Voice, Kiran Saleem focuses on property, rather than the proprietor. Being held from July 30 to August 9, at O Art Space Lahore, the show comprises several paintings of gentlemen sans faces with their prized pets. The painter, ironically – and intelligently titles these canvases by the name of each breed, i.e., Cocker Spaniels, Greyhound, Jack Russell Terrier, Labrador Retriever, American Pit Bull Terrier, German Shepherd. These works look like colour prints taped on canvas. Immaculately and convincingly rendered, these surfaces give the illusion of a historical painting, transformed into a paper, stuck on a surface (with a bit of shadow).
This format – a postmodernist device in which a reference announces a reference – invites deliberation. Kiran Saleem has been using it in her earlier works, too. In her new paintings, this technique has served to enhance her concept and its tone. If one is not repainting an existing canvas, and just making a print of the historic example, one is not obliged to comply with the entire imagery. Certain sections and details can be skipped. It is a digital reproduction after all. Employing that strategy, Saleem crops the upper portion of the painting, a part that usually contains the head/face of the master. What we see in her canvases are contours of a canine. Dominantly visible and easily identifiable, while its keeper ends up being an unknown and extraneous entity.
Kiran Saleem is neither interested in these historic characters, nor in the genealogy of dogs, but something deeper and more relevant. Her work investigates the association of a master and his loyal companion – conditioned to please and perform for its lord. The man’s whims are a command for the animal, who works hard in obedience hoping for his approval, attention, protection and feed. The owner is also delighted in flaunting his valuable stock, his control over the living being and in the smartness of his tamed specie.
However, the owner is no longer to be found anywhere. All we see are dogs of different races, their rich coats, positioned attentively close to their owners, anticipating or receiving pats from their masters. Kiran Saleem has used samples of works by artists like Anthony van Dyck (1641-1599), Martin Ferdinand Quadal (1731-1811) and William Owen (1769-1825) to denote this master-pet union with her remarkable ability to replicate original pieces. It is only when a viewer sees the white edges of (painted) paper, backgrounds of precious red, pink, aqua green, that he fathoms the content and concerns of the artist.
Her work is not about a man from several centuries ago with his dog – both dead, but what the two signify. It deals with the union of power and patriarchy. Men who owned vast estates, prime properties, exclusive possessions and precious breeds, also prided in having ideal spouses treated no differently from other belongings.
Kiran Saleem, opting for a select apparently apolitical imagery, proposes to discern other relationships in this metaphor. The power structure noticed in the painting of a pet and his master, in her words, “can be seen in the world of politics, gender, economy and other fields of life”.
May be gender more than anything else. Because while talking about her references, Saleem observes that in “all these images, dogs’ postures allude to the virtue of loyalty, but the paintings were always recognised with the masters’ identity, never to mention the pet’s or dog’s name: just like women who modelled in many paintings but were never mentioned, identified and acknowledged.” In that sense pets were not some alien creatures, nor the formally dressed people from the past; both represent a situation close at home. In a male dominated society, such as Pakistan, a man is considered the master of his possessions, family, livestock and land. Saleem’s paintings question this accepted role of gender – a system in which females are obliged to act like pets in order to please their fathers, brothers, husbands, even sons.
Women are assigned specific duties while beautifying themselves (for their spouses). In Punjabi movies, pretty maidens are engaged in milking cows, tending cattle, chopping fodder, usual household tasks. Such tasks stress the bond between domestic women and domesticated species.
Kiran Saleem challenges this distribution of positions among genders. In one of her paintings, titled Let’s Take the Patriarchy Down 1, there is no dog and no master, but we do come across other actors – in a reversal of roles. Constructed from two historic references (Joos van Cleve’s Self Portrait, 1519 and Telegram by Luise Max Ehrlre, 1894), Saleem’s painting offers unexpected segments: a man holding a rose, and a woman carrying a gun.
This imagery can be a code for understanding other canvases, so what we see as the master, the dog, the flower, and the weapon, are not merely objects frozen in the past, but devices to reverberate voices and choices – of our turbulent times.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore