Monday, November 30, 2009

R M Naeem's show

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.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A photography exhibition

The Photospace Gallery, which opened early this year, has been much publicised and lauded as Pakistan's first photographic gallery. No doubt it serves the crucial purpose of providing photographers a much-needed accessible platform to display their works to the public; however the extent to which it has actually helped to endorse photography in the art market is debatable. While photography has long received recognition as an art form, it has to constantly battle with the prejudices of art buyers who are often insecure about the print's potential for mass reproduction. The latest artist to exhibit there was Stephan Andrews who admitted that although the turn out of visitors was encouraging, next to nothing sold.

His exhibition, 'Trial by Existence' displayed 27 photographs. However a single glance at the display was enough to make it evident that this was yet another black and white rendition of those on the fringes of society. Slightly let down, but not fully convinced to slot the exhibition as yet another cliche, I proceeded to a closer examination of the images to find that each subject was very sensitively portrayed. Thankfully enough, Stephan was not interested in epitomising and isolating the tragedies of the suffering 'other' but in simply recoding everyday happenings, focusing more on the atmosphere ad surroundings rather than the people themselves.

An interesting aspect of the exhibition was Stephan's incorporation of text in his images, using street graffiti to create witty interplays.

For example the photograph above, shows a dilapidated gate painted with the phrase 'No Urination Allowed'; beneath this sign is spray painted a repartee which intentionally taunts the futility of the sign - something all Karachiites are familiar with. Another photograph, shown below, showed a man sitting in a corner, with an arow and the word 'Clinic' painted on the shutter behind him. The arrow points straight at him, seeming to the viewer an uncanny revelation in a city of chance encounters.

The remaining photographs were equally varied: all fresh approaches to different subjects ranging from a bicycle to peacock feathers to dholwalas. While allowing the artist to successfully showcase his talent as an art photographer, this variety also became a drawback as the exhibition lacked a common thread tying the images together. Stephan's attempt to lend coherence to the exhibition by heading t under a poem by Robert Frost named 'Trial by Existence' came off as a forced and rather superficial imposition on the individual photographs. The pictures were too carefully composed to effectively convey the struggles and trials of existence and by relating the poem to his photographs, Stephan took for granted that the people he portrayed had 'no hopes but the suggestion of dreams'.