Mangoes and domes.

Shahid Mirza

Courtesy: The Friday Times, Lahore

A review of recent exhibition by Ahmad Zoay

A lone erotic woman with a bird is the recurrent image in a recent show of multimedia works by Ahmad Zoay titled “celebration of life”. Painted on newspapers with markers, inks and acrylic, the heavily textured surfaces are filled with motifs, symbolic objects and text; they look like illuminated pages from an old manuscript.

The use of explicit sexual imagery in his paintings have invited wrath from both conservatives, who view his work as pornographic and the contemporary critics who notices “a sense of mockery and satire” but concludes “Hence Zoay can be placed in the category of our romantic writers, poets and preachers, who treat women as bodies only-without any intelligence, mental abilities or intellectual powers”. I think this is just the opposite of what Ahmad Zoay does in his paintings, as his women are laden with references and symbols of history and heritage but in doing so, to the dismay of our venerated critic they retain there physical charm and sensuality.

The interest of the artist in visual translation of sex and sensual experience, of expressing touch and smell in lines and tones is a universal phenomenon and the works of the artists who painted or sculptured sensuous engagement are considered the purest and highest expression of love. Gods indulging in sexual engagements was acceptable in most cultures and while the rich always had access to such treasures the general public was never trusted and moral derangement and degeneration was feared. Interestingly, to describe sexuality or sensuous engagement is permitted in literature and to a large extent in cinema but the depiction of the erotic is forbidden in painting and sculpture.

Nudes are often labeled as pornographic; the meaning of porne in Greek is prostitute or harlot. So pornography is the description of the manners of harlots. The works of painters and sculptors have nothing to do with description of whores and can be better described as erotic. The word erotic comes from Eros or Erogenesis which in ancient Greek was synonymous with sexual love. Henry Miller has rightly said that “if the portrayal of that act, whether in words, paint or any other medium is evil, degrading and demoralizing, than those who mouth such language are sick and polluted to the core. If in ancient times it was wise and instructive to furnish the uninitiated with manuals of making love, of the art of intercourse, today it is even more important to instruct the young in the profound and mysterious meaning of love itself. For whosoever lieth with a woman merely to gratify his sexual appetite has missed the supreme purpose and enjoyment of the act, which is to surrender one’s heart and soul to the tender mercy of the beloved. “Beauty is truth and truth beauty’ wrote John Keats. The artist knows better than the priest wherein true evil lies. He is a devout worshiper and expositor of the glories of creation. He does not preach; he invites us to behold what is written in our hearts”.

The winged creatures and the female nude have appeared in Shakir Ali’s paintings like swan flirting with Leda and conveyed his interest in European myth, later in Jamil Naqsh white pigeons flutter around beauties without a trace of locale and décor. Ahmad Zoay has used the locale and décor, an integral part of traditional vocabulary not just in the subcontinent but also in paintings from China and Japan to portray his views on history and culture of our region. Through his personal realism, a term he likes to describe his style, he tries to assert an alternative reading of history. River Indus and its associated cultures spread along its long course are central to his artistic pursuit. His Rajasthan women wearing camel bone bangles, silver ornamentations and shrouded with Sindhi motifs are always drawn in the same swift and sweeping lines. The female form seen in totality is impressive and expresses his strong design skills but viewed in detail the various body parts are almost comically juxtaposed to make up a body.  The various body parts double as faces and fruits and evolve into a formula which he applies to each surface he attempts. His style of painting human form has not evolved in the last forty years of his painting life but has become repetitive and predictable instead. His surfaces appear dynamic and fluid, but on closer inspection one finds that each element is worked out laboriously and to meticulous detail thus loosing all spontaneity and variety of expression.

Ahmad Zoay has developed a game plan and a set of forms, mango shaped faces and breasts, three petal cotton flower motif from the Harrappa, head of the king priest and mother goddess as envisioned by him are the forms which appear again and again in his works, he repeats these forms endlessly and his visual vocabulary is sadly limited by his desire to stay politically correct. He tends to use colors straight from the paint tube which limits his ability to discover tones, use hues and color to interpret form. He uses his hands, fingers, brushes, stencils and layers of paint to attain texture and depth but like his drawing skills his palette is equally limited and thus play of line and tonal variation does not have much meanings in his work.

The use of color is symbolic, the green and white of Pakistani flag in used in numerous contexts, the flag becomes a book, bird or body depending upon the need of his design. His dark colored women are never at play, they are always inspecting or questioning, with eyes wide open and a searing gaze they confront the viewer.

Another interesting element is the use of Mosques as background of many works, a reclining figure studies the head of the king priest in the foreground, the crouching figures of two Burqa clad Afghan women are transformed into breasts/mangoes which the female observes lovingly. The use of text varies; ranging from comical to absurd, at places the text is absolutely irrelevant and just used as texture, while selective words or phrases are used creatively to mock the present regime. CM urges Ulemma to guide Muslims, sugarcane crises, Bajur, seven US marines, MQM Punjab, Asia in focus, order and Sindhi people are few examples of text used to compliment or ridicule. In another work “meal at last” the photograph of a girl licking food from a paper is used creatively and her tongue turns into the face of a woman, the junk around her becomes the body turned green and white, viewed in totality the composition divulge a Pakistani flag on which a women lies.

Like Amrita Shergill, Zoay is fascinated by the pictorial space of miniature paintings and fluid and continuous lines which outlined the Indian sculptures and miniature figures. He uses the elements of traditional miniature for surface decoration, architectural details to give structure to his work and continuous line to outline his forms but shies from experimenting and falls back to the known set of images and hues. His style has not evolved over time; instead it is born of replicating the same vocabulary to achieve the same picture every time. Viewed as individual piece his work seems inspiring, bold and creative but collectively his works only expose the web he wove around himself and to which he falls prey every time he starts to paint.

And to quote Henry Miller once again “a walk through an art museum can put one to sleep. We have had our fill of masterpieces preserved like precious mummies. When we come to erotic art we come to life. We are not interested in who painted what or when it was done; we are simply grateful to participate in the celebration of life”.

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