Morbid Yet Witty


Tasaduq Sohails solo show opened at Chawkandi Gallery late last month. Born in 1930, he is among Karachis most senior artists who, over the decades, has gained recognition with his artworks becoming part of collections all over the world.

His work in recent years had fallen into a fixed formulaic style and composition, his miniature painted storyboards is a particular favourite in commercial galleries. But at this exhibition one is taken by surprise. The paintings are refreshingly engaging, leaving the viewer without a single dull moment.

The subject matter is varied, ranging from faces and figures to animals and forests, with his canvases evoking a macabre response. He paints images, or rather feelings of death, decay and despair using a dark sense of wit. Sohail explains this is the result of “a strong loathing of those systematic forces that contained and suppressed humanity and its natural longings.” Figures of piety are for him archetypes of oppression, abuse and hypocrisy and human nature for him is forever tainted, cursed to corruption.

Also being a writer, he draws from his literary studies of Persian poetry and fables, and animals recur constantly in his works. In these stories, animals always have strange connections to man, often carriers of wisdom or harbingers of the future. The artist reveals there is a similar abundance of animals in his life and he has lived with at least 50 different ones. He says, “I love animals as much as I hate humans. At times I can almost understand what they are saying for unlike humans they are not duplicitous.” Their innocence and naive existence are a striking contrast to the degradation of humankind and the artist plays on this difference.

Inspired by the German tradition of poetic and visionary painting of forests dating back to the sixteenth century, Sohail uses forest landscape to express subjective experience. His forests convey mixed feelings of delight and depression – delight at being able to live freely in nature but in reality still imprisoned by the darker, more hostile trees. Sohail says his subjects come naturally to him. “I paint at odd hours of the night when everyone is asleep and when witches fly the sky. It is from them that I get my dark inspirations.”

Standing in front of his paintings, it is not the final product but the process that captivates; He uses surrealist techniques of frottage and decalcomania. These help record automatically the pattern of though and the flow of impulses from the subconscious mind. Sohail exploits the psychoanalytic skill of free association by making rubbings of certain textures and shapes, and then developing from them shapes and figures in a half-accidental, associative manner. In particular, he blots ink on his canvases, pressing it against glass, to reveal spidery patterns emerging from within the darkness. This texture transforms into breathing forms caught in a ghostly state of metamorphosis.

As the rough figurative brushstrokes break into these textures, they seem to follow the principle of inform which is defined as “the crumbling of boundaries, the invasion of space.” It is a principle of formlessness that aptly conveys the artists embrace of the shapeless detritus of being human, of the unavoidable decay and decomposition which awaits us all.