R M Naeem exhibited his works at the Koel Gallery this month under the title ‘Faith Soul Search’. Each of the three words suggests something profoundly personal. Strung together, they tie in very neatly with Naeem’s belief that his art is ‘a meditative personal journey’.
The artist explains that he does not aspire to portray the chaotic contemporary circumstances in his art; rather his paintings depict a world of peace, love and hope. However, counter to his statement, the imagery exudes a solemn, almost morbid atmosphere. It is a surreal world inhabited by bald and blank figures, most of whom are frozen in the ritualistic yet mechanised act of bowing. At a time when faith and religion have become such loaded terms, the satirical overtones present in R M Naeem’s paintings are an inevitable outcome. The recurring bowing heads and closed, covered eyes seem to mock the sad state of affairs wherein faith has become so regimented and mechanical. For example, one particular painting shows a woman placing a mask on a child’s face – a reference as to how children are forced to conform to the existing religious norms rather than acquire faith through personal and spiritual exploration. The mask is present in many of his paintings, an obvious symbol for hypocrisy, concealment and deception. It also subtly refers to the identity-crisis faced by the Pakistani youth today where their sense of self and values are different from what is expected from them, and yet they are made to wear masks by fearful parents in order to conform to society.
The exhibition sustains interest through a series of juxtapositions. The expressionless figures depicted in dull, repetitive motions are meant to be ‘searching’ as the title suggests, however their submissive state makes this the least likely possibility. The background setting is composed of natural elements like soil and water juxtaposed with traffic posts and cemented, confined spaces. Nature symbolises the vastness of spirituality, whilst the latter emphasises the rules and laws imposed by men. The symbolism becomes very engaging since the artist gives free reign to his viewers to pin their own associations.
In addition to the heavy symbolism, the exhibition also leaves behind the much-needed proof that people are still willing to invest in art, even if only in name-brands like Naeem himself. The cheapest paintings were priced at Rs. 150,000, and yet almost everything sold out.