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Darkhuast bara-e-indiraj

12 March, 2013

Art fiend: Art and social responsibility
By Salwat Ali 

In countries that experience social, political, or military upheavals, how is contemporary art affected and how does it respond to such vicissitudes? In Pakistan today there is a certain expectation, from society and the art market, for contemporary art to assume a sense of social responsibility and in the past decade a considerable number of young artists have risen to this challenge with considerable aplomb. Traditional genres, including sculpture have undergone radical changes.

New generation artists have not just reinvented the medium’s potential but, most importantly have also redefined the role of the artist. The current Art Chowk show in Karachi, ‘Darkhust Bara-i-Indraj’ by Syed Faraz Ali is yet another exhibition that explores public concerns through critique of regional politics and its linkages to world politics.

The title, ‘Darkhust Bara-i-Indraj’ (applied for registration) according to Ali refers to the “refugees migrating to Pakistan during and after the war (who) are still living without identification.” Two years in the making, the show takes its cue from the imbroglio surrounding the Afghan refugee status to hit upon other issues emanating from the ‘war on terror’ that have compromised the life of the average citizen.
Relying upon symbolism and allegory Ali subverts ordinary objects and figures to sculpt his concepts in steel and bronze.

Identifying the chainak, (tea kettle) as an Afghan/Pakhtun cultural symbol, the dollar bill as a tool of foreign intervention, comic characters like Mickey Mouse and Tom (the villainous half in the Tom and Jerry duo) as crafty unwelcome mediators he creates compositions that define the common man’s thoughts about the current sociopolitical upheaval. Today contemporary sculpture enables viewers to see a common object in a very different manner — it allows them to question their assumptions and possibly understand the art and the artist in a way that previously seemed impossible.

Ali’s, ‘Souvenir from Afghanistan’, sculpture piece consists of a chirpy Mickey Mouse positioned like a juggler at the one end of a steel rod while a pair of tumbling chainaks are suspended at the other.

Here the artist rues the annihilation of an eastern culture, depicted by the awry kettle forms, while the exultant Mickey icon professes the triumph of Americanisation. Cultural strangulation at the hands of foreign powers is again indicated in the ‘Death unwanted’, sculptures where a bust of Tom attached to a kettle remains suspended in a container while a shark is on hold in another.

This work directly references Damien Steven Hirst’s, ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’, considered worldwide as an iconic symbol of Britart. It consists of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine. In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form. Here Ali has appropriated the idea and inverted it to his concept of an undesirable death.

On a lighter note, ‘Armytoon’ is a plastic and rubber concoction of heads of comic antiheroes clustered in chromatic patterning peculiar to army camouflage uniforms. Sugar coated with droll humour the work is underscored with sentiments of suspicion and mistrust of national institutions which have fallen from grace.

Cleverly a positioned reflection of dollar bills on the gleaming kettle exteriors in the ‘Hidden truth’ pieces is a pointed reference to manipulation through foreign aid. The ‘Politricks’ diptych made with welding spoons and steel rods into crawly creatures are self-explanatory. Similarly ‘Guns in roses’ articulates an extremist, culture decimating ideology.

Sculpture in steel is gaining a new palpability with young generation artists and Ali brings his own brand of political humour to his assortment. A 2005 Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, graduate he majored in painting with a minor in sculpture and initiated his career with pronounced graphic stylisations making novel use of prominent national flag imagery, political logos, emblems and insignias.

He enunciated his protest with dramatic paintings of muffled, masked, branded or muted male figures, in sparse but bold chromatics. This show marks his radical shift from paintings to three dimensional sculptures. Divulging that, “The working process was all done in my factory, where proper machines were used in developing and modelling the reliefs I wanted to project,” he further adds, “what better way of depicting a nation with nerves of steel than with (sculptures in) stainless steel.”