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A State of Flux

Author: Salwat Ali      Publications: Dawn - Gallery (p.2)      Dated: 13 Jan 2007

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Art today needs a new effort at clarification of its principles because we are living in an age that is giving itself over to self- destruction with terrifying enthusiasm. However much art was of its times, it always had something timeless about it. But present art seems completely of its times, pop art was the moment when this truth became self evident but a rapidly changing / deteriorating world order in terms of moral, social, political, economic and cultural values has radically  altered the status of selfhood. Having lost its idealism art is now a bewildering array of expressions.

Recent works by artist Samina Mansuri at Chawkandi gallery in Karachi centralise on the prevalent confusion and loss of self. In a series of drawings, paintings, mix media works, video and sculptures she portrays mans transition through mutation. Her hybrid figures, part human, part machine and part animal are genderless stereotypes with no individuality. They are malleable and capable of changing into something else – thus purporting the idea that today identity itself is not fixed but in a state of flux. The core content of Mansuris art addresses the current complexities _ this state of flux and mans ability to adapt to the pressures confronting him.

Under siege on many fronts be it psychological or physical, moral or material man is constantly battling / juggling for survival. By inventing a sub human species of mutants Mansuri endeavours to portray a humanity open to change – and capable of taking on this chaos rather than succumbing to it. Her figures are not rigid and firm but pliant and mutable as if they have accepted the fact that flexibility is the only form of permanence.

Visibly ambiguous and bizarre her paintings begin to reveal themselves, to some extent, on deeper engagement. Viewed collectively one can locate in them a complex discourse on world issues threatening humanity like poverty and hunger, environmental pollution, biological warfare, gross misuse of technology, natural calamities and manmade disasters. The dominant impact however is of the living forms that she has she invented – it is a new visual language of robotic figures. They are not persons but still occupy a social place. Apart from their social roles they appear to be sub human blanks with no inner lives. Lacking critical consciousness of their inhuman condition they mirror a soulless society. This is the most disturbing aspect of Mansuris art – an indifference to the spiritual condition. The best traditional art reveals qualities like dignity and empathy that makes us human. It is morally concerned and often shows the moral under siege in an immoral world. Integrity and generosity of spirit struggle to hold their own in a world that lacks both. Mansuris art registers a life devoid of these essentials, one that records a synthesis between humanity and the changing environment as a survival measure with scant thought of salvation through the spiritual. A loveless art is the epitome of the modern denial of love – indeed the modern inability to love. Her predictions appear farfetched and extremist but the sad reality is that this stance is generated by a very palpable current reality. This imagery because of its shock value can be considered as a wakeup call for humanity.

Art now exists in the shadow of science and technology which are worshipped more than ever. Disillusionment with art – even by artists – seems to go hand in hand with its development in modernity, so much so that disillusionment seems to drive innovation. Mansuri too, driven by an inner flux, has fabricated a novel species – an absolute antithesis of the human beings pictured in traditional art – which asserts that there is no escape from inhumanness today – from the superficial self of daily life.

Simply titled New Works this exhibition is a continuation of a series of  drawings by the same name, shown as early 2000 in Karachi at Chawkandi, when this peculiar figurative imagery first came to the fore. The current works pertaining to 2002-05, show further evolution of the same model is she moves from monochrome drawings on paper onto painting in acrylic on Mylar and casting of sculptural forms and fabrication of architectural drawings. While these works were a logical next step they were also influenced in a large measure by her move to Canada. The shift was an upheaval that Mansuri needed. An artist who assiduously courts challenge as a necessary element of growth and discovery she found relocation in the new environment a liberating experience. It gave her the scope and independence to indulge in installation and video art.

A post 9 /11 project DARR 37 Conversations, a video installation, was a discourse on fear followed by Oration, yet another installation. A 2006 drawing installation Future Lines, a series of architectural mappings was executed on the gallery walls with plastic tape. The ephemeral nature of such works aligns them with the ephemerization typical of contemporary society where the eternal is no longer the norm by which art measures itself.

It is also a coming together of the many levels on which she was working. Her conceptual and aesthetic development has been in tandem and she tries to blur the boundaries between drawing, painting and sculpture. Working in a sculptural expression was inevitable as her earlier drawings already had a sculptural feel to them. The influence of technology too was not just visible in her concepts and imagery but also in her use of painting supports like Mylar, a polyester film of high tensile strength and colour preferences which mimicked the hues of magnetic resonance imaging. The arts friendly environment gave her the breadth to expand her imagery from the two dimensional to 3 D as she moved from illusionistic painterly space to real space in which she devised installations. And carving a niche for herself while addressing a western audience changed the context of her work giving her a broader format and greater freedom with which to reinvent herself.

Another commonality that binds her work is the organic nature of all her varied expressions. Even the new architectural drawings so severely linear geometric and angular, have an emergent characteristic where they seem to spread out haphazardly from one source.

Samina Mansuri as an artist has also evolved in stages. She began her studies in Pakistan then continued them at the Pratt Institute in the US from where she acquired her BFA in 1982. This was followed by a study stint at the New York Studio School and work experience in the same city. In 1990 she returned to Pakistan to join the faculty of the Indus Valley School of Art. She has exhibited extensively in Pakistan, US, England, Paris, India and Canada, Residencies at Gasworks London in 1999, The Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta in 2004 and recently at Santa Fe Art Institute, New Mexico are other developments that have contributed to her art expression.

For an artist who asserts that “she always needs to be on the verge of things” it will be interesting to see the directions in which she moves – for the  moment Mansuri has only captured a process of transformation the rest has yet to evolve.