Closed Circuits


I almost did not write this review; because there was no way I would have seen the paintings destined for Huddersfield, somewhere in England. But destiny intervened and a couple of days before Chawkandi Art was to ship them abroad, along with works of other artists from Quetta, Karachi and Punjab, Samina Mansuri asked me if l would like to see her work. When l protested that she should have shown her works in Pakistan first, her reply was that no one would give her an exhibition since the paintings were not for sale. l disagreed and even succeeded in finding a place where the paintings could be exhibited. When I rang Samina, however, I was disappointed to hear that the paintings were already at Chawkandi for packing and transportation.

Of late a number of exhibitions have gone abroad from Pakistan, and we have been none the wiser for it. The Huddersfield exhibition was selected by a British national of sub continental origin who was described by someone as a “poor, young man at a loss.” He was helped by some persons who shall remain unnamed. From what one has learnt through catalogues and word of mouth, the selections have been without discrimination. We want our best works of art to go abroad, not rubbish. After all, the countrys name is at stake, and it is very important, that local selectors bear this in mind. As for the participants eagerness to be seen abroad, this is not going to help them. They must first prove their worth in their own land. Unless of course, the objective is to fabricate media art. Then Huddersfield and Bradford, or just abroad, is good news!

Over a number of years, after her return from USA, Samina, Mansuri has given us paintings which are very different from the rest. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she has brought a whiff of fresh air into our art world. Her paintings are challenging, provocative and enigmatic, fulfilling the basic conditions of art that it shock and surprise, The paintings are forbidding and do not invite us to enter their world They have sprung from certain depths of her being and, paradoxically, because of this the mediums desire to reveal is equally pressing, She is the finest draughtsperson in Pakistan today and knows how to paint academically and correctly, which gives her the base for spontaneous improvisation.

From her very first exhibition, she has shown a fine balance between skilfulness and automatism, between objectivity and spontaneity, between clarity of sight and the body of darkness behind it. Her art possesses the weight and promise which, I believe, should be known to more and more people, particularly students of art. That is why I was anxious that the recent paintings be put up at home, even at very short notice. That is why I have a bone to pick with her over her repeated self-banishment.

I told Samina long ago that she should put up a one-person show which would be the best way to establish her just reputation among her peers. She has only exhibited in group shows. The first was with a friend and it showed her to advantage. The second, in the now dead Ziggurat gallery, obscured her even though hers was the most original contribution to the exhibition. Subsequently, she fell into a trap and joined a group of painters who would rather exhibit abroad than at home. Perhaps they were motivated by the ambition of one of the group to make it to Channel 4. The Bradford exhibition is travelling in Europe. The Huddersfield one will be out for two years. lt will only be in 1997-98 that Samina will have her paintings and drawings back.

Samina Mansuri seems to have a tragic penchant for losing herself in group mediocrity. This diffidence will be fatal to her. She does not realise that she is being used or that she is abusing her talent herself. She simply adds quality to exhibitions abroad. Secondly, she stays out of Pakistan and away from Pakistan and art connoisseurs. If she wants to make a name for herself, it has to be in her own “village”. She must paint enough in the next six months or a year to exhibit entirely on her own. She is known as a groupie and not in her individual capacity. This damage, that she has inflicted upon herself, must be repaired soon.

From the very start, as we know it, she has shown that she does not paint on set themes as others do. Recollecting her first paintings, and coming to the recent ones, we become aware of a search after meaning which is as much artistic as psychological. Her paintings are a developing dialogue of great antiquity – between the young painter and her medium. lt is this interest that we wish to follow.

The paintings bound for Huddersfield start from her old preoccupation with mazes of dead, dried roots, fearful knots of thorns, the umbilical roots of mother earth and very fleshy, moist fruits. Death and life are very close in her world, and both conjointly enact rejuvenation. The thorn nobs, intertwined within the labyrinthine matrix of roots, could be a fruit, and the flowering bush in one of the recent paintings a tender, fleshy and succulent vegetable. What is new in the paintings under review is that the mazed roots have become balls, and their circuit seemes to have closed upon her, making the improbable roots and thorns her cocoon. She said that she is much more at peace with herself now, but this peace is a contrapuntal whirling, a demonic dance, still as a circle but very agonised and disturbed in the details of the drawing.

One evidence of control is that she has worked preciously on the surface of her images, tattooing them, carving them, in some primitive-rite of propitiation. She calls the closed ball of thorns and roots her mandala, the reminder of a visit in 1993 to the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in China. The caves are unlighted and you have to see the Buddhas in candle light. The prehistoric humans must have viewed the cave paintings in guttering light too. Darkness inspires touch, actual or even through the eyeballs, and it is this tactile awareness and physical plasticity that Samina transferred to her paintings. She did not learn it in China, because she had them even before her visit and used wax as well as pricking and slashing the skin of her paintings as is done in Africa to mark and disfigure women.

It is the cave and the mandala images which are of interest in the paintings. Her whorl of roots, knots and thorns, concrete objects and empty spaces, possess compelling interiority. Like Buckminster Fullers translucent, futuristic, geodesic globes, hers have a vast inner globulity, but with a difference. Sameenas inner depth is protected by nature with dry thorns and barbed-wire like botanical materials which are used to this day in our own Sindhi villages and in the African bush by the poorest. The protecting objects are dangerous and offer pain and chastisement to all and sundry touching them. They make up the artists protective shell.

There is a subtle, ironical play between concavity and convexity in the paintings. Her strange flowering bush in orange-red, moulded as much as painted, offers shallow depths by way of its own comment on this play. Curling petals and open seed pods enact variations upon the theme. Her tube-like roots are hollow from within, and they pour blood. When two such roots confront one another, they look as if menacing each other with the desire to mate. The hollow within, and what it contains by way of entrails, make her psycho-physiological terrain a very disturbing place that is acceptable only in art with its attendant pleasures and understandings.

The surface of a wall or a canvas is a challenge to artists. Herbert Read said that it terrifies them. lt certainly confronts them with nothingness, meaninglessness. In Byzantine art, it was the ceiling from which lowered Christ the King in the image of a terrible god. For Giotto it was an opening into the loving world of Christ, the two in different ways transcendental. The Rennaisance painters in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany punched a window into the wall to let light and nature in. Henry Moore did this to let space into sculpture. But Cezanne pushed what was hitherto the background into the very foreground and painted as if he was carving a relief.

Both movements, back and front, private and public, esoteric and exoteric, can be felt in Saminas recent paintings. Paradoxically, she opens her surfaces into a very private world, into incongruities, maladjustments and a commendable zeal to live her life on its own terms. In a way she, too, is a flagellant as Sadequain was and she, too, would wear a crown of thorns.

Artists of the kind to whom she belongs possess academic skills of drawing and painting. Their failure is not of art. They fall when they fail the process of what Jung called individuation. If they are artists, art puts them in touch with the awareness of their dark depths – a twilit condition of consciousness where things are apprehended but not seen clearly. What is clear in this state is either mischievously misleading or only an oblique hint of something else. Such is the ambivalence of her type of art. They survive through work again as Picasso and Sadequain did. The danger is that they may lose nerve. ln any case, their rise and fall is paradigmatic.