Strange Fruit


For their first exhibition in Pakistan, held at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi last month, Samina Mansuri and Julianne Pagano put their trust in fruits and a flower. If they required confidence, there exists the work of masters past and present to emulate, particularly Georgia OKeete with her highly scaled flowers. Not that there are no arbour painters in Pakistan. Aijazul Hassan now paints leaves and flowering trees after the cooling off of his revolutionary ardour. The provenance of the exhibition was their school, and its merit was theirs. The exhibition was in the nature of a coming out rather than a coming into their own, for which we have to wait for the right time with more ol their work becoming public.

While Pagano may be said to have company in Pakistan, Samina Mansuri seems to have carved out a niche for herself as a painter of fruits, especially the pomegranate and sharifa (custard apple). Mansuri says that she grew up with the sharifa and pomegranate plants in her fathers garden but there is not a hint of childhood in her paintings. Autumn, however, seems to be an immediate reality. Julianne, for her part, discovered the hibiscus in Karachi. She was attracted to it because it is both male and female at the same time. In this, the two artists share the same state of mind, where gender is viewed from a feminist perspective.

In all, there were ten paintings by Mansuri and eight by Pagano, desribed as “oil on canvas and wood”. The paintings had wooden borders worked over ornamentally, suggesting that the painters proficiency with design exists for its own sake and is the result of the effect of advertising culture on art. This culture should be used with some wariness by artists because it promotes immediacy of effect as opposed to depth of style.

Two of Mansuris canvases, Head and Pomegranate-l and Sharifa-l, stood out. The first consisted of a pair of legs cut off from the knees with a female head and pomegranates strewn on the ground. lt was not clear whether the legs were male or female, but the face was intentionally made to appear strong and manly by the painter. The confusion was instinctive, the painter suggested, and did not need to be resolved. There was a horizon to the painting which was filled with coloured mists, and could be seen as a landscape. lt could also have represented a field of carnage.

Composed from dismembered bodies and skull-like fruits, its design was reminiscent of battle scenes from academic historical paintings of the past. Order and finish ruled. What made the painting interesting was that it seemed to have been painted with colours like that of pomegranate extract. Draughtsmanship in this and other works was assured, in keeping with the academicism of her style.

Sharifa-l was of a different order in that it could be called a still life, or even a portrait of the fruit. It was there, gargantuan in proportion, after having broken all laws of nature to come into a life of its own. Viewers seemed to find it as disturbing as a mutant alien. The fruit was born of the most opaque shades of green, seemingly oblivious to light and colour. The rough scales of its skin and its mass and volume were highlighted with shadows. Other sharifas in improbable colours, including strident red, were targets of the ravenous crows. There were crows in other paintings too, but their presence was inconsequential, as if they had no rhythmic beat of their own to contribute.

Speaking of her fruits, Mansuri mentioned fecundity. The first ever image of art made by man was an opulent but ugly woman called a Venus by its discoverer. But herface emerged, according to the painter, as strong and manly. Fruits represent fecundity, and the sharifas rough exterior belies its voluptuously soft and fleshy within. It is the only fruit which seems violated by its own ripeness. While other fruits rot from within, the sharifa makes an open spectacle of its end and the pomegranate has a hard exterior, but its inside is full of tangy juice. These ideas can be associated with feminism and were present as static charges in the exhibition, but only at the level of sensation.

Violation, however, was suggested strongly in one of the sharifa studies in which the fruits lie broken and exposed, with a female head floating against a horizon. The only painting in which sexuality was obliquely explicit was of another neutral head and a golden trumpet close to its ear. Mansuris paintings require finish, and when this is not done, they show uncertainty and a loss of grasp, as in Woman Eating Stones. Women are known to eat especially prepared clay in the early stages of conception.

Thematically, androgyny could be said to be Paganos special interest. Hibiscus flowers, in which stamens and pistils feature together, are hermaphrodites. This theme was cultivated by Hellenistic sculptors in the fourth century BC. Two of Paganos charcoal drawings of the flower were strong but uncharacteristically crystal-hard. ln her paintings, flowers seem to bloom from twigs without leaves. Several studies, one with embracing figures. Showed confusion and uncertainty in their handling. Pagano also used the man-woman faces, like Mansuri. The heads had their mouths open in empty chatter, without resonance. Paganos draughtsmanship was much more convincing in her paintings, particularly in a study of a lemon tree, rendered with leaves in soft green and yellow.

Pagano would do well in future to focus on painting like her Rain and River Sindh, with its trickles, smudges and stains, a method of work cultivated by painters in the abstract expressionist mould. Mansuri, meanwhile, displayed work which seemed unfinished on purpose. Perhaps she does not care for photo-realism for which she has obvious talent. She could move away from order and correctness to make incompleteness convincing.