Creative Tension


Perhaps in a peevish mood at the time, the famous American art critic Clement Greenburg once commented that artists were pretentious. He resented them explaining their own work when he ought to have been their sole spokesman and law-giver. Samina Mansuri may not be aware of Greenburgs little pet peeve-not that it should have mattered-when she chose to attach a statement to her paintings on show at Chawkandi Art.

Writing statements about ones art has become a common practice, and is often an unfortunate one, especially when students resort to writing even before they have learnt to paint. In fact, students of a prestigious art school used to ask me to read statements attached to thesis work even before I saw the work, apparently because otherwise I would not understand a thing. What was even worse, their statements were often blatant copies of current American verbiage on art and sexual politics.

Of course, art schools expect students to be able to write. But I am not aware if they are ever exposed to the language and literature of their choice. I have yet to come across an artist s statement in Urdu or Sindhi, perhaps because in this country art is what Uncle Sargam, the television puppet character, would call “English- medium”. Fortunately for us, Saminas comments are actually helpful, even though they are couched in feminist jargon, her forceful denial that she is a feminist notwithstanding.

To quote another American, this time a famous poet of her time (which was long before feminism), Marianne Moore, “we must be as clear as our natural reticence allows us to be.” Moore was speaking of her poems, but Saminas 23 paintings too are distinguished by their visual clarity. At the same time, they are suggestive of a well-guarded subjectivity. Art should not be garrulous, as is much of the abstract work of the day, because it loses its contemplative silence. Rather, it should be like the elephant of Buddhist religious texts, which does not forget anything and remains still while contemplating what it remembers.

In Saminas painting, one sees images worked with painstaking detail to create a new type of realism. One is led to ponder why and how these images represent a different view of nature, depicting an otherwise typical theme of the consanguinity of woman and earth in an entirely novel way. A comparison of Khalid Iqbals realism with Saminas highlights the characteristics of her unique approach, which she describes as a subversion of landscape painting.

For Samina, nature is a coded discourse on the self. Even in her early work, she painted landscapes of a sort. What she has put together for this exhibition is a highly innovative version of still life painting, although she claims that she subverts this genre too.

The lucidity of Saminas new paintings, and the experiments she has carried out to give her surface rise, fall and the contours of land, suggest that nature is still the core metaphor of her language. Sufi masters used to compare mans body with the properties of nature. Samina turns this formulation on its head, coming up with her own interpretation of nature.

Instead of employing perspective in the traditional manner-either as it appears in classical European painting or in our own miniatures Samina raises her surface with layers of paint mixed with crushed rock, not the earth pigment of Riffat Alvis paintings. The reality Samina seeks from images, surface and the body of paint is achieved in this manner. For the viewer, not only does one respond to the imagery-the strange biological icons of dry, twisted roots, strange leaves and flowers the eye also responds to the tactile solicitation of the work.

With this exhibition, Saminas palette has become sombre, and her early fascination with red has gone. She says she can no longer paint in red, perhaps because there was too much blood in her earlier paintings of severed veins, wounded guts, landscapes of the heart and entrails turned inside out. Revulsion was her obsession then; now it is menace, carefully controlled and looked in the face, as it were, for she seems to have come to terms with it. In fact, in Saminas new work control has priority over pain and violence and it lends her strange paintings a poised realistic mien.

She began with fruits like the sharifa (custard apple) and pomegranates combined with crows and the severed legs and heads of a woman. Violation was much in evidence in these paintings, while the crows were symbols of ill omen. This was her killing field, the site of the ritual sacrifice of a womans body by a woman. Later, she moved on to cacti, not Sadequains phallic alif, but the globule of the female breast spiked with multiple thorns more menacing than porcupines. This was Saminas way of securing the inviolability of the female body. In these paintings, she used wax to give her surface the physical gradient of a plane. It is interesting how Sadequain and Samina approach and use the cactus, a subject of interest in itself.

The cactus work was followed by a subjective panorama of thickets, roots and veins pouring blood like an irrigation pump. These canvases were painted in bright but unattractive colours, with a purpose: Samina was not interested in providing herself or others any satisfaction other than fulfilling the demands of her own uncompromising perception. Their artistic integrity notwithstanding, these paintings were charged with controlled hysteria and unabashed rhetoric.

The mechanism of control in Saminas work is her academic style (in the good sense), for she is visually objective and correct in an old-fashioned way. Samina Mansuri is one of the few Pakistani artists of her generation who has mastery over the traditional skills of painting, with which she claims to subvert and transgress the tenets of classicism to conduct her postmodern feminine discourse. Georgia OKeefe was another such artist, but far too obvious in her intent. Saminas work also bears comparison with Frida Kahlo and other women artists who have used fruits and vegetables to recall symbolically the prehistoric fertility goddess as alter ego. Picasso also painted his woman in the image of ripe, luscious melons. But Samina can claim, quite rightly, that her choice of the shurifa, pomegranate and cactus gives her work an indigenous originality.

From her earliest paintings to the most recent, Samina has been conducting a punishing dialogue with herself. The argument is the same, because it never exhausts itself, but her supporting evidence has definitely changed. Unlike other Pakistani women painters, Saminas quarrel is with herself, not with men. For this reason, she does not come across as a victim, but as her own prosecutor and judge. This shows her scrupulous covenant with herself, wherein lies her authenticity.

Desiccated thorny roots appear as woven balls, as untangled objects of menacing horror in her paintings. Embedded in the dead roots are not thorns, but nails, sharp enough to shred one into strips. Sometimes, the roots with pointed nails look like coiled electric wire coated with synthetic fibre. In one arrangement, she places a decorative flower amid the tangle, in memory of a friend who painted hibiscus flowers and exhibited with her in their first group show in Karachi. Dead roots, incapable of bringing forth life, but strong enough to strangle and kill, suggest the kind of “violent and uncontrollable nature” she mentions in her exhibition card. She says: “I have extended the visual language so it can express my concerns, primarily what it is to exist inside a female body and how does it exist in the political, sexual and psychological space.” There are two spaces, however, one social and the other private, and the two intertwine, Alienation, pain, punishment, are the idiom and metaphor of these spaces. The exhibition, a third space of public solicitation, shows a shift in another direction in so far as her images are concerned-a shift from dried roots to succulent leaves and flowers, from images of menace and death to flowers of innocence, from the innards to nature.

For Samina, there is much to celebrate and this is evident in the paintings of fleshy leaves and of flowers similar to our water hyacinth found in wild ponds. In her case, it is an Australian flower, perhaps of the same family, called Banksia, which a friend brought for her. What is strange is that long before she saw the Banksia with its fleshy petals, she had already painted it in red in Night Journey II (1995).

Now, it seems as if the dead roots which had trussed her up have begun to bear flowers, no matter how unfamiliar they may be, as in the woman-size cut-out, Bunksia II. If there was any moisture in her early fruit and root paintings, it was of fresh blood. Things seem to have changed, as a flower blooms from dead roots and fleshy leaves and flowers, born of water, bring new life to her paintings. If she is interested in similar flowers and leaves, she does not have to depend on Australia, but seek a water hyacinth or a lotus, the latter a flower with which the red bloom of one of her paintings has some affinity. The Banksia is likely to be a dead end, because it has little resonance in our culture, unless you consider the shape, which is vertical, but blooms into skin-close flowers from the stem.

This is Saminas first solo exhibition, and a landmark in her career as an artist as well as in terms of the painting of others from lire generation. Her work contains a strong message for our art students who are taught easy ways to become artists by limited and sometimes incompetent teachers. Saminas work strongly recommends the need to practice what she calls a “labour intensive process” of exploration in a classical style suited to her time and self.