Art, like the world, has become busy. It shines, grinds, buzzes, perambulates. Take British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor’s awesome locomotive-like mass of crimson wax roving, on rails, from hall to hall at the Royal Academy of Arts, not long ago; or Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’s impressive tower of second-hand transistors presently looming in a hall at the Tate; or that comely Swiss artist Milo Moire who can be seen in risqué clips on the internet, walking around some museum in Germany, bare as the day she was born — a commentary, she boldly maintains, on traditional notions of figurative art, or something like that.
I enjoy a spectacle as much as anybody else. When I was a child, my father took me to the circus. I happened upon strongmen and small men with ornate hats and ladies negotiating a tightrope and a trapeze. But I was most affected by a pair of motorcyclists circumnavigating a steel structure, maut ka gola or the globe of death as it were, at ludicrous speeds, not to mention the pièce de résistance: a veritable, voluble sphinx — the torso of a lady emerging from the body of an indeterminate mammal. She holds forth on politics, weather and what she enjoys for dinner — moong di daal, if I remember correctly.
Theatricality undoubtedly has its place in the world – life would be mundane and mediocre otherwise, mammals with mammal heads and so on – but what of quieter modes of expression, mediums that engage me, you, adults, in other ways, other registers? What of, say, painting? Painting, it seems, has been an anachronism since Marcel Duchamp’s famous pissoir, submitted almost exactly a century ago to the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Art might not ever recover.
Writing for The New Yorker in 2015, on the occasion of ‘‘the first large survey strictly dedicated to new painting that MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) has organised since 1958”, Peter Schjeldahl, one of the more important art critics today, avers: “The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is ‘dead again’ –– no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body.” It’s an elegant postulation –– one with which one might agree or disagree. Schjeldahl continues, “But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.”
But in our neck of the woods, the broad swathe of the world known as the Subcontinent, painting persists. It has persisted long after old M F Husain did what he did –– invoking mythology in a contemporary idiom; long after F N Souza, the Bombay School, S H Raza and even Bhupen Khakhar, whose comic book canvases are at display at the Tate; long after the passing of our modernist masters Shakir Ali, Ahmed Pervez, Sadequain and their heirs –– from Bashir Mirza to Zahoorul Akhlaq to Meher Afroz to Nahid Raza. There is, for instance, the realist aesthetic of the Punjab University, exemplified in the works of Ali Azmat and Mughees Riaz, or Anwar Saeed and Quddus Mirza, and at the National College of Arts (NCA), and of course, the miniature keeps getting reinvented. There are indeed many fine contemporary exemplars of the practice.
Unver Shafi, whose latest works are featured at Koel Gallery, has been at it for thirty-odd years. Shaped in part by a liberal arts education in the United States and forged in the wilderness of the art world of the 1980s in Karachi when Ali Imam’s gallery was the only show in town, Shafi has experimented with the fundamentals: composition, form, palette, material, scale, not in any particular order. He began with small ink doodles and drawings on paper that recall Dutch graphic artist M C Escher’s vertiginous snakes-and-ladders sensibility, before trying his hand at oil and canvas: Paris, May, circa 1993, suggests a reworking more of Henri Matisse’s Red Room than Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, featuring a vacuum cleaner, decanter and a solitary high-heel pump strewn in autumnal colours. It is capable but it is something I have seen before.
Things get more interesting towards the turn of the century when the scale increases and a welcome formal minimalism takes hold. In Shamiana (1998), we behold a curtain adorned with the familiar, colourful, folk patterns that recall marquees at weddings, rising to reveal three abstracted, possibly female figures in muted shades of blue. It is as if Shafi is announcing that he is, literally and figuratively, coming into form. This rigorous, single-minded investigation takes us through the 2000s into works that include series such as Homage to Souza and Clare said Paint a Bull for Luca. Although the works from this period are ostensibly somber in palette and concept, the titles often suggest a certain whimsy. The Clare series, for instance, features voluptuous, shaded shapes – a bull from the behind perhaps – reduced to the basics: horns and rump. Who knows who Clare and Luca are and why the former told Shafi to render said bovine, if at all, but there is undoubtedly some joke in it.
The acrylic paint-based Fabulist series up at Koel Gallery continues to be informed by formal rigour and a sense of whimsy. According to a review by Saquib Hanif that appeared in 2006, soon after the inception of the series, Shafi “[takes] inspiration from traditional fables”. Although one is not privy to the featured tales, one does not have to be literal about the whole thing. It is, manifestly, a function of a certain sensibility; there are forms that suggest hats, heads, laughing dogs, a bipedal cow and dancing Burmese theater puppets. The recurring tropes of Shafi’s animate Fabulist ecosystem – Colonial Drift, Desi Wedding, Afternoon at Las Ventas – undoubtedly demand attention. Shafi invites us into his world, engaging us through movement, intricate detail, bright, Christmasy colours – reds, greens and blues – and it is a lot of fun. He has developed visual vocabulary that is his own. It is confident, and it is compelling. Shafi reminds me what makes painting a compelling medium.
So why does painting still compel us? It could be that we are not as busy as the West – we could excavate empirical data such as GDP growth or internet penetration – something to do with our moment in history. History, however, is a construct. And from Ibn Khaldun to Karl Marx to Francis Fukuyama, it is said to be teleological — a narrative of political, economic, sociocultural evolution. And in this schematic, art has also evolved: it has become self-conscious, self-reflexive. For this reason, Arthur Danto, one of the most influential critics of the 20th century, pronounced “Art is Dead”. Whether or not art is dead is something for experts to discuss in conferences and the pages of important journals, but I feel that as art has become more self-conscious, it has lost some of its force and function. Artists must be cognizant of such dynamics. If not, they risk merely being in conversation with themselves.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a novelist and has written for several publications including Forbes, Caravan and GlobalPost.