There's an odd, twisted fascination you feel towards Cyra Ali's sculptures of disembodied intertwined limbs on display at New York's Aicon Gallery. The limbs are adorned with bright, floral fabrics and carry a bizarre sexuality to them. The pieces evoke a gaze from the viewer, the very gaze that Ali seems to invite in her subversion of conventional femininity in Pakistani society. It's a bold challenge to the longstanding patriarchal desires to repress female sexuality by using the very body parts that have traditionally been deemed taboo. Ali's work is part of a bold, captivating new exhibit called Méré Humd(r)um: Contemporary Art from Pakistan at New York's Aicon Gallery, which is running until February 25, 2012.
The exhibit consists of work from twelve young artists - most of whom are in their 20s - that spans a variety of mediums and styles. The dual meaning of the exhibit's name, Méré Humd(r)um, evokes two parallel, yet equally potent, feelings - 'méré humdum' (my soulmate) and 'mere humdrum' (where the ordinary, the everyday, is something most Pakistanis long for). "Chaos is a big part of their lives," says Aicon New York Gallery director Andrew Shea, "so the theme we have here is how these artists react to the chaos and violence that surrounds their lives in cities like Karachi and Lahore."
This chaos and violence is very evident in its various interpretations by the artists. Abdullah M.I. Syed's Flying Rug pieces, for example, are a multi-layered commentary on various aspects of life and politics in Pakistan. Syed uses the Eastern legends of the flying carpet as the basis for two of the exhibit's most gripping works. The first is a series of US one dollar bills folded into paper airplanes, pinned together and arranged into a beautiful Islamic symmetrical pattern. The shadows it casts form the image of an ornate flying carpet. However its subtext - US capitalism, paper airplanes, prayer rug - provides plenty to trigger a discussion around the issues. Created with a similar intention, the Flying Rug of Drones, is perhaps a much more aggressive commentary by Syed. In this piece, numerous box-cutter blades are assembled into squadrons of drone-line airplanes descending from the ceiling and again forming the image of a flying carpet, albeit a much darker and dangerous one.
This generation of young Pakistani artists represents an odd dichotomy."There was a first new wave of contemporary artists," explains Shea. "Then we asked, what's the next generation doing? How do they see their country and the world?" What they found in these artists and their work was that the unpredictable political, economic and social climate of Pakistan and its lack of opportunities is in turn providing ample fodder for the transformation of the visual arts. A creative flowering, if you will, out of the crisis of a struggling state.
The artists are also deviating from their traditional artistic heritage, such as miniature painting, and using modern, local materials and concepts to offer their forms of expression. For instance, Shoaib Mehmood's re-appropriated miniature painting, Just Do It, depicts several headless figures wearing the exact same blue jeans and yellow Nike shirt. This commentary on globalization influencing traditional heritage arts is a powerful statement that peels yet another layer towards a deeper understanding of contemporary Pakistan. This threat of globalization is evident in many other parts of the world as well, further suggesting that in some ways Pakistan's struggles are no different from anywhere else.
Another artist, Sara Khan, reflects on a symbol and object that is the very epitome of violence - a gun. In her various pieces, she paints bright floral patterns all over toy guns, offering a subversive meaning for the very symbol that is a tool for so much violence. Thus it becomes clear as you explore the various works that the artists are also making a conscious effort to imbue a sense of optimism, however hidden or reluctant, into what they are expressing.
Commenting on the exposure these young Pakistani artists are beginning to receive worldwide, Shea says, "Contemporary Pakistani art is starting to pick up steam in the West. The Asia Society [in New York] did an exhibit, which was the turning point. But I don't know of any other gallery that focuses exclusively on contemporary art out of Pakistan like we do at the Aicon Gallery." It's a significant moment in the art world and for people in the West to experience a part of Pakistan that is both drowned out by the constant images of violence and is also a reaction to those very images. These artists and their work represent part of the voice of the Pakistani youth; the youth that is struggling to find opportunity and growth in a country where simply too much is uncertain.
The exhibit at New York Aicon Gallery features the work of artists Roohi Ahmed, Cyra Ali, Sara Khan, Rehana Mangi, Shoaib Mehmood, Hassan Mujtaba, Seher Naveed, Aisha Rahim, Abdullah M. I. Syed, Amjad Ali Talpur, Iqra Tanveer and Ehsan ul Haq.
For more information, visit the Aicon Gallery website. Image courtesy of the Aicon Gallery.