Art Is Another Country


When Parisian gallery goers squawked at seeing the leprous blues in Claude Monets seminal 1874 Work “Impressions Sunrise” – that incidentally went on to give the Impressionist movement its name – they were reacting to the unceremonious slaying of the art worlds most sacred cow. With Monets atmospheric study of the rising sun reflecting off a body of water, the art of painting had finally ceased to be an index of the real.

The advent of the NCA-trained neo-miniaturists who began jamming gallery walls some seven years ago met with similar disdain, especially from puritanical art circles. They were lambasted for playing fast and loose with the miniaturist canon, reneging on the values of the so-called academy – meaning the cultivation of disciplined drawing skills – and passing off trendy ephemera as major utterance. The new wave, concluded many a crusty critic, comprised little more than a flock of turkeys masquerading as peacocks.

If the runaway success of this group at home and abroad has still left the naysayers unconvinced of some inherent worth in the neo-miniaturist enterprise, the work of Khadim Ali, exhibited last month at Karachis Chawkandi Art under the title Jashne Gule Surkh, could possibly do the trick. “What say you,” one of them may well quip to another in hushed tones, “amidst this duff of mediocrity is buried a raisin or two?” Never mind the underlying scepticisrn, this is acknowledgment indeed. And an opportune one at that, the inauspicious day of the shows opening – Friday the 13th – notwithstanding.

Despite making good on the dubious bandwagon that has mostly spawned a novelty art of diminishing returns, Khadim is not an artist who can be easily dismissed. Unlike many of his fellow miniaturists who are busy flogging deep thoughts and tepid high- mindedness to cloak the lack of drawing skill and technical control, Khadims formal . resources remain formidable, the intensity of detail shifting with marvelous fluency across the paintings. Though his work retains a modernist edge in its use of western quotations, there is no trace of facile appropriation to retrofit the work into a contemporary idiom. On the contrary, the taproot of Khadims imagination is fixed deep in his own culture and experience.

So when Khadim recounts the human and cultural holocaust wreaked by the Taliban in Afghanistan it assumes a pitch far beyond our expectations. There is scarcely a mark or motif in the paintings that does not deliver a depth charge. Here is a dystopia culled from our worst nightmares: the cacophony of cannons thundering from the sidelines, the line-up of gravestones and empty shells, and the looming sarcophagal form of the dynamited Bamiyan Buddha – all lashed by broad strokes of red.

Punctuating this expanse of doom and destruction are a host of indigenous references that add further resonance to Khadims lament. The perforated lines criss-crossing the paintings recall the cavernous mountain passages used by the Afghans to hide from the onslaught of the Taliban. The litter of fig leaves marking fresh graves under the Buddhas shadow point to the Talibans grave transgressions by alluding to the injunction forbidding the unnecessary plucking of a tree featured in the Quran. Mocking Mullah Omars address rallying the lashkar tasked with destroying the Bamiyan Buddha as the standard-bearers of Islam, Khadim quotes the Shahnama-e- Firdausi episode in which Rustom overcomes the Kala Deo or Black Giant by piercing his eye with an arrow delivered by angels.

This heightened sense of drama and pathos runs the risk of assuming a feeble sentimentality bordering on the mawkish in the hands of a less gifted artist. Not so in Khadims. In fact, it is his ability to calibrate the emotional underpinnings of his work that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Khadim has a knack for making depressing subject matter uplifting: he makes us stare into an abyss, only to gently pull us back.

As the name of the exhibition- which roughly translates to Festival of the Red Flowers – suggests, the enduring message is one of hope symbolised by the dandelions said to be the harbingers of good news. Meanwhile, the killing fields transform into a meadow of tulips that spring forth to soak up the life – giving light of the sun.

Now to the question that Khadim must address. When your first solo is hugely successful and garners many column inches of rave reviews, what do you do for an encore? It is on this front that many promising young artists have floundered and whittled down their output to shop-worn pictorial formulas, Khaddim must be mindful of the operatic cant that follows a triumphant debut and resist the tendency of cashing in on his recent fame by taking on more exhibitions. In art, as in most other pursuits, there is no such thing as making it straight out of the egg without gradually pecking at the shell. Khadim may have established a profile but in the end it is the work that matters. That is where skill ends and art begins. Negotiating this would be a coup indeed.