Women, Beasts Or Demons

DATED: 12 APR 2009

The newspaper world, like that of the wild beasts, exists solely in the present” Karel Capek The above comment by the Czech author about print media in his 1925 essay ln Praise of Newspapers could now be extended to the electronic media where life of a news item is reduced even further: from present to a moment and from a day to a couple of minutes. However, certain incidents when reported in the media, print and electronic, acquire a longer and lasting effect. These eventually turn into globally-shared images and secure a permanent place in our collective memory.

In recent years, two planes hitting the Twin Towers is a visual that has become part of everyones personal data. A number of other important visuals become a concern of a large section of population, like the video footage of Taliban beating a girl in a barbarous manner. The helpless screams of the female reveal the status of women in our society and predict a gloomy future.

Often, woman is considered a source of evil, provocateur of just and instigator of sin who must be confined to the four walls of the house, only brought, out to be punished in public (like on that disgraceful occasion, transmitted by television channels across the world).

Somehow, the work of Waseem Ahmed, being exhibited at around the same time, could be linked with this incident. In his latest work, women are depicted entangled in the web of intricate lines and forms, unfolding the way a woman is perceived in our society. All her assumed duties – performing household chores, looking after children, providing physical and social comfort to her male partner, serving the in-laws – reduce her to a domestic servant, dependant and man. So, whenever a society is in the process of transforming its norms in an orthodox way, women are the first ones to face restrictions.

The shameful incident took place in Swat, illustrating the way the Taliban led authorities will handle women but they are treated not much differently elsewhere – in our midst, minds and art. This may appear paradoxical in the art world, primarily occupied by women in the role of artists, educators, critics and collectors. Yet, in most cases, a woman is represented in art works in the same stereotypical fashion, possessing the same traits that make her a doomed person in the hands of extremists.

Waseern Ahmed – a painter trained as a miniaturist, even though this fact does not contribute much to his new body of work – has presented women as a blend of sensuality and sin. Lean figures of naked females in languid poses surrounded by numerous lines which drape them partially; hence a sense of carnal attraction attached to these figures. When examined carefully, lines which travel on naked bodies resemble a beast or a demon.

Interestingly, it is not only the female figure, which is dominated by an unknown entity but the male character (the painters self-portrait) is also destined for the identical end. In a meticulous manner, Waseem has drawn himself, usually half-hidden behind the vegetation, or amid sweeping growth of grey lines, and occasionally with the stem of a lotus flower. Study of form, grasp on anatomy and the ability to observe details and tonal values are visible in these works. But by and large male characters are not much different from the female figures in terms of treatment and placement in the composition.

Actually, it is the female figure which excites Waseem, providing him an insatiable source of inspiration; one can detect a sort of infatuation with the portrayal of his models. In more than one case, females are faceless, thus projecting a stereotype of woman as the embodiment of ideal proportion. This is reaffirmed by positioning her in classical, semi-classical postures, or making her kneel down on the floor. Even through these figures, masterfully rendered in dark hues, suggest his skill, these also signify a distinct approach towards his source of inspiration. Ahmeds interest in discovering, rather digging, and the sensuous aspect of his models is evident in the way the bodies are composed or face the spectators.

Compared to his earlier work, the new paintings of Waseem Ahmed are predominantly white, yet filled with stained layers that assume the shape of an animal or a monster: On the surface these odd creatures exist in harmony with naked models, even though one suspects that the large spans of lines that end up in some recognisable image with open jaws and canine teeth might have eaten or are about to devour the figures. The two elements, human bodies and strange species in the form of whirlwinds – echoing a deep-rooted cultural concept in which whirlwinds are normally believed to be genies or lost spirits- complement each other.

However, the blend of human beings and extraordinary creatures repeatedly created in each work cannot transcend from one meaning. Waseem tries to introduce a variation in terms of postures and even change of gender but the basic narrative remains identical in each work. This approach indicates the usual pressure on our artist to prepare a series of paintings for an exhibition (only to switch over to a different set of imagery and concept in the next one). It also reminds of the visuals printed on the covers and inside pages of monthly magazines and digests.

(A preview of his work was held on April 2, 2009, at Rohtas 2, Lahore, prior to his solo exhibition at Chawkandi Art, Karachi, which is being held from April 7-15, 2009).