Bare Minimum


The work of Unver Shafi stands out in subject as well in visual treatment. His recent solo show – at Chawkandi Art in Karachi from February 14 till 22 – revolved around basic forms and minimal colours.

This aspect, of being simple and minimal, holds a special significance in the context of our art – and life in general. A majority of the work can be classified as Baroque. Most of these artworks, not only based on recognisable images and readable content, reflect great narratives that have been constructed through multiple forms and complex themes. The characteristic of having illustrative and full of interlocked visuals is not peculiar to art but is linked with other spheres in society.

In our culture, we tend to create and produce elaborate expressions in the domain of commercial art – in our sense of decoration and in usage of everyday language. Take the case of language: Urdu is structured in such a way that a simple mode of speaking is an uncommon utterance and a difficult endeavour the language is full of flowery phrases and exaggerated styles.

In contrast, English is more linear and modest. But interestingly, by adopting the foreign language, we have infused our own system of expression and thought in it (if they are two separate entities). Unlike its normal usage in its motherland, where one word (yes, no, thanks) can be sufficient, in our circumstances a single word seems to be incapable of conveying true feelings. And we say or add whole phrases or sentences for repeat the same word many times; in order to suit our desired ideas and meanings. (This article is just another example).

Perhaps, due to this particular (and cultural) habit, minimal art is hardly seen here (although minimal art because of its aesthetic formulation is a work not easily glanced at in other places) to the point of it being an extinct genre. Still in his recently displayed works, Unver Shafi, by employing the minimal means, indicated to that streak of our life, culture and art, which is not experienced often. On the whole his art can be described as the minimal representation of the human body.

The work showed the selective approach of Unver Shafi. Several paintings had monochromatic schemes or were rendered in similar type of hues. A limited range of imagery mostly part of female figure was depicted in an elementary manner. For some, these formal ingredients turned Shafis canvases into samples of slick works of art, but in reality his paintings embodied a quality that is more substantial than simplicity minimal appearance or other technical traits. Many works had a `spiritual impact on the viewers (probably of a same kind, but on a lesser degree, as the paintings of Mark Rothko).

The concept of spirituality needs to be elaborated. This term, like in other disciplines of life (and because of magicians of all sorts, visual artists included) have been equated with anything – unresolved, half-baked and superficially done. However in the realm of art, spiritual occurrence is not necessarily related to religious fervor or ritualistic practices (innumerable paintings with Islamic calligraphy in every colour and in all sizes can be presented to support this claim). On the other hand, (and after modernism in art) the absence of any realistic image, readable substance or recognizable form forces the viewer to look or search for something beyond the surface and appearance of the canvas.

This phenomenon, defined as an encounter with the sublime by American artists of the school of abstract expressionism, is parallel to the spiritual experience; and can be glimpsed in some works of Unver Shafi. Especially in paintings numbered 20 and 21. Through the careful choice of colours (green and red in one, and red, pink, orange and yellow in the second) these works captivated not only the eyes of the spectators, but their senses as well.

These large-scale works have amorophic forms, executed with even layers of paints, the presence of body or part of it was suggested through sharp lines and soft contours. Though his work is often classified as contemporary, non-representational and abstract art, but surprisingly in a few canvases the technique of creating space and gradation in background appeared close to the method of making tones – and giving an illusion of distance – in miniature painting. Actually this manner of working has no direct connection with miniature, but the (so-called?) revival of this historical art form compels an ordinary viewer to perceive it in this light.

Along with this group of paintings, a number of small works were also included in the exhibition. Some of these resembled big canvases, in terms of sensitive use of tones, selective forms and portions of female bodies _ all of which can be interpreted in multiple ways. In these, flat areas of paints were juxtaposed with hints of human bodies. The ambiguity in forms converted small paintings into objects of greater depth and contemplation. In this body of work, Unver demonstrated his craft in constructing a painting, with essential elements, and at the same time managing to create maximum visual effect.

However, in some other works – especially the most recent ones – an increasing surge to utilise the recognisable imagery can be sensed on the part of artist. Compared to the rest, in these paintings the female faces, features and torsos were more identifiable. On a few works on paper, one could easily detect the layout of hair shape of the face and portion of the bust. In addition to these details, Shafi has introduced a new technique or element in his art: of filling the outlines of the figures with a dotted line.

ln fact, these discernible details gave a local flavour and decorativeness to his work. These may be visually appealing components but they managed to move a viewer away from the most important aspect of his art: the experience of seeing less and finding more. For a substantial period his work reflected a unique approach and individual character. And it is hoped that- surviving motives, aesthetics or otherwise – Unver Shafi will keep on creating works, which signify the other side of our art and culture.