The self in art
By: Quddus Mirza
French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Writing and Difference writes about the nature of language and how one can decipher the real meaning of word, not by understanding that particular word, but by discarding all other options closer to it.
For instance, how do you distinguish between a woman and a girl? But you must because it is significant to know the age, and experience, of a person. A person who has lived longer may view the world and surroundings differently from the young people even though they are more trained, intelligent, and have more exposure and better understanding of people, situations and issues.
This brings us to the question: how important is personal experience in comparison to information from other sources or learnt knowledge.
In fact, the two are linked, even though their processes and mechanism may be different. A person goes to a faraway land, meets strangers, looks at extraordinary scenery and enjoys unusual cuisine; so he gathers a unique body of information through personal experience. In contrast, another individual stays at home but has access to all sources of knowledge, collected and provided by innumerable people across ages and in a variety of languages. So, in the duration equal to the one who went out, he will have a lot more information about that land without ever stepping out of his threshold.
But you cannot prefer one over the other, because both have limitations. An actual experience with a few people, places and interactions cannot lead to a complete and comprehensive view of an alien reality. Similarly, the other option gives you a second hand and remote source of data at best.
The problem — of experience versus exposure — arises when we look at works of art, especially of autobiographical nature, where artists have used their own lives or past convincingly or how have employed their collective body of knowledge into art. Artists can draw inspiration from their pervious years in order to create works of extremely engaging quality. On the other hand, they could assimilate their education and power of imagination towards fabricating pieces of art or literature, which convey life or characters different from their own. Thus, middle-aged male writers have written stories about dogs, women and transvestites, all from research and fantasy.
Yet, when confronted with a work of art, its power of persuasion does not depend on the source of creation. Works derived from individual experience may fail to impress, and art emerging out of second or even third hand sources may appear the most convincing, and vice versa. This was experienced in a recent exhibition of three female artists showing at the Drawing Room Gallery Lahore. This exhibition, titled ‘Unbruised’ (held from Nov 20-26, 2012) included paintings by Amra Khan, Mizna Zulfiquar and Maria Khan, all graduating in the same year from the MA. Hons. Visual Arts, NCA.
Even though the artists belong to the same course and do not have much difference in their ages, their approach to work and life reflects stark diversity and individuality. Zulfiquar has painted miniature-like works, depicting her daughter in a number of poses, postures and moods against different backgrounds. Maria Khan has made large-scale stylised figures, mostly in black, in a seemingly naïve and simplistic scheme. Amra Khan’s canvases are small, in gilded and gaudy frames, portraying strange figures, like transvestites, wearing little school girls’ uniform or distorted figures and faces with imaginary backgrounds.
Comparing the three artists’ works, one realised how the element of personal was crucial in developing the imagery. Zulfiquar’s works on paper appear obvious, simple but blown-up face of a tiny kid; the addition of crows and other objects in the backdrop suggests element of fear and uncertainty in our situation. Even though the work has a clear autobiographical aspect, this (societal) feature was necessary in order to make the work more believable and to extend its meaning and impact.
Likewise, Maria Khan’s painting reveals a link with the artist’s own physique since she has stylised, thus monumentalised, her figures. The fat ladies in floral attires with a sinister grimace look like the sketches of a person who is not much different from the painter. In addition to the subject, the formal sophistication in the construction of these images is also significant because the artist has relied, mainly, on the application of a single colour — black. She has carved the features of her characters, employed matt and glaze colours and introduced some areas of other hues (in drapery).
All of these turn Maria Khan’s work into highly personal and impressive pieces in terms of her craft; this could not have been possible if she had not focused on herself. Similarly, Mizna Zulfiquar’s works are convincing due to her honest depiction (not one-dimensional though) of her little daughter, a symbolic presence. They portray the plight of all those who are destined to live in these conditions, where fear is not a fictional or poetic experience, but a painful political substance.
On the contrary, Amra Khan has relied on a ‘chosen’ topic, may be due to its exotic and extraordinary nature, but this brings a certain distance in her selected theme which does not turn into ‘real’ characters.
The show indicates there are more than one ways to deal with visual concerns, and it does not matter what age, gender and class the artists come from because art-making, in a strange way, extends all these limitations and makes it universal.