Worn Out Message

Author: Murad Khan Mumtaz | Publication: The Friday Times (p.24) | Dated: 8 Sep 2006

Last week the Zahoor-ul-lkhlaq gallery at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore held a preview of Waseem Ahmad’s latest work. The paintings will be travelling to India in September for a solo show in Delhi at the Anant Art Gallery. The work is extremely in vogue as it has kept true to all the fashions doing the rounds in the contemporary miniature painting world today.

Waseem graduated from the NCA in 2000 from the miniature department and is currently teaching there. He is part of the younger generation of ‘contemporary miniaturists’, including Hasnath, Mohammad Zeeshan and Ayesha Durrani who are making a name for them in the Subcontinent and the expatriate and market. Waseem has a resume boasting of exhibitions in England, Japan, France, Greece and Oman.

Keeping up with the current trends among most contemporary miniaturists. Waseem’s work is a typical socio-political commentary that combines fashionable/modern imagery with a traditional one. A favourite theme among our artists ever since the Afghan war, and specifically in the post 9/11 world, is the burqa. From the Iranian artist Shirin Nishat’s video installations to Shazia Sikander’s and Ayesha Khalid`s miniatures to Jamil Baloch’s sculptures, the burqa has almost become synonymous with ‘revolutionary’ art emerging from the ‘oppressed’ Islamic nations. Similar to most of his previous work. Waseem Ahmad has made this once revolutionary, now decadent, image his central premise. All the eighteen paintings on display feature the burqa painted in the same monotonous shape and technique.

Another trademark image that Waseem has been using since his thesis six years ago is the Western female placed parallel to, or interacting with a traditional or popular desi image. The Western female has previously appeared in his paintings as a scantily clad Monroe with Krishna, a Harley model once again with Krishna, as Madonna (as in Madonna and Child) with a Pakistani mother and child, numerous nudes, and as Mona Lisa (one of the most over used and rehashed images in ‘conceptual’ art ever since Marcel Duchamp in the 1920s!). ln his previous work there was a vast vocabulary of marketable desi imagery, or imagery associated with contemporary miniature: the gun, Lollywood protagonists, Krishna, roses, crows and other similar hackneyed images used to death by our artists. In the current group of paintings, the artist deals solely with Western nudes, doing away with the other female metaphors. He has also thankfully let go of almost all the local cliché images mentioned above. Unfortunately the burqa remains!

The paintings generally focus on a single nude clad in a transparent burqa. The references are mostly taken from the mannerism style of the late 15th and 16th centuries, a style thus named for its degeneration into a manner or a mimickery of the Renaissance paintings. One wonders if this was a conscious choice or a visual one. The veil covering the nudes then becomes an overused image of oppression in our oh so vicious, cruel, ignorant society! A society that according to most of us. is ‘stuck in the past’, is ‘backward’, and has failed to ‘progress’, according to standards coming from `abroad’ of course! By placing the transparent white veil on the Western nude, the artist claims to ‘get an uncanny image’. An image that is quaint and outlandish to the foreign eye? Is the buriqa yet again being exploited for its marketability? Waseem’s work has become more focused than before, with a more mature sense of composition. The previous formulaic overuse of muddy tea stains along with the traditional colours in the backgrounds give way to his own colours.

Once again it is a shame that although his compositions have improved, his attempt to break away from Late Mughal and Hindu palette has failed miserably. From the previously used mature Indian ochre’s and maroons, and the Mughal emerald greens, the recent effort to make the work contemporary has made the colours immature and loud. The orange, used in three of his paintings borders on the gaudy.

In Waseem’s case, a description of one painting might suffice for an overview of the entire exhibition: a centrally placed nude stands on a garish, pseudo-pop orange ground that rises behind her into Mughalesque Mountains. The foreground is spotted with Persian/Mughal grass. The nude’s hands are raised behind her flowing hair and are melodramatically chained together. The figure, scantily draped, is wrapped in a transparent burqa. The burqa is stretched from all sides and tied to a huge circle that encloses the figure. The circle is painted red and filled with decorative calligraphic gibberish. The use of random Arab and Urdu words in calligraphy is yet another ploy that is cherished by most contemporary miniaturists. More often than not it is no more than a cosmetic effect to make the painting look complete. The reason the artist gave for using the calligraphic effect was to show stagnation, as according to him. We are forced to recite the Quran as kids without understanding a word (an expression that Shazia Sikander used almost ten years ago!). Instead of conveying the mental entrapment and suffocation of the subject matter, the paintings only manage to convey a strained ornamentalism. An ornamentation that overshadows the artist’s theme and questions his intention. I am not against ornamentation and other sellable gimmicks, but why hide them behind the garb of pseudo-intellectuality? And l is never against the expression of a socio/political message either, but why hides it behind visual trickeries?

Waseem Ahmad’s latest work shows a slight improvement in the fact that he has expunged most of his cliché imagery. But he needs to stay true to his intention, whatever it might be, rather than trying to sugar coat a socially valid, though worn-out, message.