Creating narratives with charcoal
Massive monochromatic hyperrealistic drawings of Pakistani women greet viewers at Ali Azmat’s show Larger than Life. Made with only charcoal on acid-free white paper, the works on display go up to almost seven feet. It is hard not to stand in awe of them.
Azmat has managed to handle each form, each layer and each texture in the paintings perfectly. From the softness of skin and the roundness of flesh, right to the fluidity of clothes, he has tackled each part of every image with intensity. His artwork immediately reminds viewers of illustrations found in Urdu-language pulp fiction digests. Every story in those digests is accompanied by a realistic drawing, often of a woman. Azmat manages to achieve the same elusive charm in his images as characterises the digest drawings.
Two other features of the works in the exhibition that stand out are their medium and their subject. The two could have easily made Azmat’s work appear raw and clichéd but he has successfully avoided that.
Use of graphite or charcoal, for instance, is often seen as a basic or initial step in the development of an artistic practice. Such dry mediums are usually used for making outlines of pieces of art because these are easy to erase and correct. Using them as the only medium for an artwork without the addition of any colour does not always work. In Azmat’s case, however, charcoal has allowed him to produce works that are both refined and mature. His drawing skills and his understanding of human form and anatomy have helped him invest his artworks with layers that make them a lot more than just one dimensional visuals. He, thus, successfully highlights themes of class, culture and social norms through his work.
Similarly, artists have employed women as muses for centuries to the extent that the idea of ‘male gaze’ emerged in the 1970s as feminist critics pointed out how a male perspective had resulted in the objectification of women in art and literature. In Azmat’s art, however, women seem to own the pages they are drawn on. He has often shown them as staring back at the audience, allowing them to assert the power and capabilities of the feminine gender — one that stands for far more than just a thing to gawk at.
The artist has also chosen to depict common women, those who have to face challenges at every step of the way in their daily lives. They are wearing no make-up. Their hair is tied casually and dark circles are often visible under their eyes. Looking at them one can easily understand what it means to be an ordinary woman in Pakistan.
Women in these artworks come from various age groups. One drawing shows two young girls, standing hand in hand, as they look out to the audience. It is Azmat’s attention to the curvature and shape of faces that helps his audience estimate the age of his subjects. Clothing and a few accessories shown in each image also often become indicators of age, social stature and even religious inclination of those painted.
The artist has drawn each image against a plain white background. The audience is given no context or history except for what is obvious from the figure itself. This, coupled with the lack of colour in the images, allows the audience to fully focus on the subject without any distractions. This perspective frees the viewers from their preconceived notions, enabling them to see the plight of each woman as she is — not with help from their own biased political and social lenses.
Azmat is able to capture his subjects as they are because of his own variegated life experiences. Born in Multan, he first studied art at the Alhamra Academy of Performing Arts, a non-elite art institution in Lahore. He then did his masters from the fine arts department at the Punjab University which, compared to the National College of Arts, usually admits students from the middle and lower middle class sections of the society.
Azmat has been drawing since 1998. His artworks usually depict women in a figurative style and he has used a lot of vibrant colours in some of his recent exhibits. The way he has drawn the images for Larger than Life with a minimalist ethos shows that he has returned to his earliest style — though, certainly, with a greater vigour and intensity.
The writer is a recent graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
This article was published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.