Jargon, Identity And Space


Recent painting by Unver Shafi presents a visual feast in their initial impact. Showing this month at the newly renovated Chawkandi Art, Karachi, Shafis work seems to be at a crossroads; the smaller (almost) modest scale exists parallel to the larger work.

There is an interesting pull between the two scales. No matter how strong the impact of colour and form, there is an uncountable “slickness,” especially in the repetitious “Shamianah” series of paintings the large scale and sexual connotations of form might be a bit overbearing and lack originality. The smaller works exist on three levels. The light pastels, the bright ink on acrylic, and the miniature-like bird paintings.

Shafis work has grown and matured over time. It has also evolved into something new. The co-existence of different elements will prove a positive factor, if Shafi continues to explore.

Unver Shafi was born in Karachi (1961) and received a Bachelors degree in English Literature in 1984 from a US college. As with many young current Pakistani artists work, Shafis art speaks a “Western” language, which is not a stylized effort but a reality of our situation.

Shafis generation of the upper and the middle-classes has absorbed western values either through direct contact with American and European life and its art, or through the media. Thus the only “True Pakistani Art” is actually each artists own reality, whatever that may be. Only art that is open can grow to have an identity of its own.

The work of two visiting artists from New York City is also showing this month, at the A.N. Gallery, at the Coconut Grove. Huma Bhabha and husband Jason Fox are in Karachi on a short visit. Bhabha, born in Karachi on a short visit. Bhabha, born in Karachi (1962), and educated in the States, lives in New York City. She has brought to Karachi large printed images in acrylic on canvas and board. Her imagery appears to be of some organic material, or extra-territorial beings. It is anything but pleasant. In fact, it has a grotesque element, strangely humorous, which may appear very “modern” to the Pakistani audience. At the same time, one wonders why nothing significant has happened in New York since Andy Warhol!

The artist uses pure, flat colour which has a feeling of detachment to it. In fact Bhabhas work exists on a contradiction: the element of mass-production as well as the human element. The circular swirls are spontaneous marks dependent purely on the artists mood at the time of execution.

Jason Fox (born 1964), is an American artist who has painted his work in-situ. It has been an exciting experience, he says, to be painting and looking outside onto a garden or an open space. Back home, he worked in the artificial light of his basement.

Foxs imagery involves cacti, thorns, rockeries and flat green spaces. He does not paint “pretty” landscapes. Working in this new environment, he has made awkward, unsettling spaces. Creatures out of horror movies creep onto the flat green surfaces, creating a desired disharmony.

The exhibitions of the three artists raise several significant questions. The question of context is of prime significance. Is “Art now” only to be understood in a certain historical context? Can a work of art not stand on its own, without a written context explaining “it”? In short, has theory overtaken American art has been done, as Bhabha says “To go to extremes with images, materials, ideas etc.”

Finally, how much of the American jargon are we willing to accept? Unver Shafi has managed to present a thought provoking show. His paintings sustain the viewers attention, and have depth. If he can loosen the grip on the tightness of form, his compositions could burst with joy. Huma Bhabha and Jason Fox open up relevant issues in art. Foxs work does lack depth, for it seems to have been executed in a distracted hurry.