Unbroken Wholeness


Unravelling spatial issues and exploring the interrelation between objects and space is a challenge that is unique to painters. While sculptors and ceramists focus mainly on the external world of forms, painting is largely a field of metaphysical inquiry, which seeks to find the relationship between our inner and outer reality.

Ever since the onslaught of the avant-garde movement, and more recently, with the emergence of post-modernism, painting has been struggling to maintain its central place as a medium of significance.

Currently the trend of installations and site-specific are has caught on in a big way in Pakistan. While some breakthroughs are being made, most artists get too caught up with the novelty of the new methods and current art trends, resulting in work that is directionless and unoriginal. In the midst of all this visual clutter, it is heartening to still see some artists asserting the role of painting by treating the canvas as a field of vision.

According to Karachi-based artist Unver Shafi, the medium is the message. Ever since his debut at the Indus Gallery in 1986, the self-taught artist has adhered mainly to the code of painting, moving gradually towards a minimal language of abstraction on his meticulously painted canvases. His subject matters have varied widely, ranging from cityscapes, shamiyanas and burqas to his recent preoccupation with the human figure.

In his current body of work, titled 42 degrees Celsius, on display at the Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore in October 2000, Unver depicts dismembered nudes on single and double panels. The monumental scale, coupled with his use of cadmium hues, adds to the evocative power of his oeuvre.

On one level, the erotic potential of the subject matter supplies pictorial energy to his canvases: beauty is depicted unreservedly, without shame or restraint, resulting in images that are pure and lack any of the contradictions that are present in the work of artists with the tendency to censor themselves. When looking at his red paintings for a moment, one is briefly reminded of Francis Bacons painting, titled, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. This resemblance, however, is superficial, based only on a similar choice of colours. Apart from the vastly differing subject matter, Unvers paintings, unlike the tormented images of Bacon, or for that matter, unlike the tauntingly specific depictions of Lucien Freuds nudes, are affirmations.

Another interesting aspect of the show is the polarity of the images, which effectively creates a balance of opposites. On one hand, the cadmium paintings, with their bright hues of reds, blues and yellows, pulsate with a manic, male energy, ln contrast to the somewhat macho quality of these images are a series of exquisitely sensitive white paintings. With an ethereal quality which lends them a very empathetic, female tone, akin to the paintings of Georgia O Keefe.

On another level, the work transcends physicality. Shattering the gap between illusory and physical reality and forces the audience to re-examine classical concepts of space and figure-ground relationships. This is not an easy challenge for viewers, since it drastically rearranges our conceptual constructs; it takes a paradigm shift to cast off the bonds of Euclidean concepts. lf we do, we are able to experience the unified reality of symbols, where separate parts become manifestations of the same whole.

The rules of classical logic are so deeply embedded in our everyday experience, that it rarely occurs to anyone to question them. Unver, through the power of his craft, challenges our perceptions at different levels and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.