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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Caught in crosshairs
Pakistan's Muhammad Zeeshan

By Swapna Vora

April 17, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Zeeshan's transparent metaphors of hairs and horses are in New York. Young and with a bobbing pony tail, Muhhamad Zeeshan speaks slowly and carefully, sometimes ironically, as he puts his painted stories into words. Each painting looks simple and yet the stories and strokes are really refined and moving, and like Scherazade's stories, one leads to another, to another.


Untitled ii

One rather unique painting, 'Untitled ii', shows an opium bud which resembles the female body or a bright, cherry red, lipsticked maw growing a sprightly, upright tulip. A floral version of the Shivling? Pushpalingam! That tulip, he says, is simply inspired from miniature paintings which overflow with pretty flowers. The topic is definitely erotic and he says wryly that exasperated customs officers ask, "Why can't you cover this up? Getting innocent people into trouble!" Then he solemnly replies, "Ooh, this is an opium bud, this is what nature looks like." He shows them a picture of a natural opium bud and meets with a gloomy silence. He has been told by officers to cover up his innocuous looking work and helpfully advised to use paper and stickers. "Stick two paintings together", they requested. Humans everywhere are, after all, pretty ashamed of their bodies, presumably a meet topic for modesty, for sharam! After a local exhibition, he laughs, "My wife got plenty of concerned phone calls. 'Is all well with your marriage?' the local busybodies asked her." So far he has refused to fix stickers on his paintings.

Top of the pop
Top of the pop:"Daggers mean weapons and now are used as decorative devices. Here these stickers are really from when I was observing trucks." This is like painting a picture of delight with guns and we, humans, are forever brimming with contradictions. "Art transforms deadly weapons into mocking decorations." In Pakistan, there are three sentences everywhere asking for Allah's mercy, blessings and help. Here he has stuck newspapers behind his work and bored tiny holes through which one can see random writing. This is to resonate with and remind one of the daily sight of these beseeching sentences. And so the holes in the painting show tiny Urdu letters.

In one painting, he says, 'Allah take care of me', and laughingly shows an American flag and black ribbons. "When I need help, I call out and these sentiments are everywhere, on every truck in Pakistan", he says. "I make this thing from that memory." I say, "Oh, like Indian people exclaim, 'Bhagwan ki kripa' or 'Jai mata di'". He nods. Truck art in the Indian subcontinent is a lively, colorful business of hope and heavenly aspirations. Here an Urdu newspaper serves as a background and occasionally one sees the curly letters peek out of small, asymmetrical holes in the painting. We both speak in English and lament the colonization that deprived us of our language.


Let's Make a Great Pattern II

Great pattern II: The colors of the American flag float here. Zeeshan says this is a draft, a raw form of 'A great pattern', another painting. He likes to embroider subtle comments on politics. He shows embroidery holes that resemble the fine work his neighborhood women create and throws strands of the three colors that denote America. He mentioned the secondhand shops with their heaps of used clothes, including underwear! Walls of multicolored bras!

Should be untitled: These humorous images are clearly of obsequious courtiers and perhaps need no comment. He shows somewhat pompous power bearers bowing to a horse's muscular backside. The painting is very subtle, transparent, every line is essential, there are no accidental strokes. It is in the miniature genre, very precise, and he is very sure as to exactly what tone or shade he wishes to use. "The fine grey lines are done in soft squirrel hair brushes," he says. "The hair has to be soft, so soft and pliable. Sometimes you get dead hair and then that will be useless for painting." He uses the same shade of grey, although it appears as if he has used many shades. "It is just doing it again and again that gives this work the fine appearance of wisps and tendrils of human hair." He says, "You need 'strengthful' hair, mostly the tip is needed for fine lines. For big washes I can use sable but mostly I love the Jaipur brushes. I prefer them to anything else. They are very soft, subtle! I use, usually, thirty washes of paint. Yes, the background is done repeatedly in different colors to achieve a certain patina, a luminous glow and sometimes the washes are just in plain water to get rid of excess paint. I may begin with pink tones and then go on to another color. The paper is wasli and I have to stick four sheets to get a certain feeling. I have to dye the sheet. After ten washes, I may wash off extra pigment. I use Scholar paper, which is easily available in Pakistan."

Should be untitled

Wait: Zeeshan was in London, trying to cross a road and kept waiting for the traffic to stop. Ultimately a lady came by, pressed a button and the traffic stopped. "Oh, I exclaimed to her, you have to do that. Yes, she said." Here he took a print of a photo of a pedestrian crossing and painted on it. He wanted the letters, '150' – 0"' Wide Road'. A pedestrian crossing, the button to stop the traffic, a road and a frisky mouse waiting, sniffing: for what? Ah, you have to view the painting. "That mouse is vitally alive," says Zeeshan as he laughs at human sexuality. He says, "Do wait before pleasing yourself: no instant gratification. Wait your turn. Delay the pleasure. The mice here are waiting to cross the road to gratification!"

This painting of a luscious, full lipped, red, open mouth is so delicate that the print comes through and the texture of the sheet is visible and palpable. Done on a print, this transparent work clearly permits the printed black lines, the words and the numbers to be visible. The printed black line appears to be on top of the paint. He says he does not care for opaque work, it is dead for him. "It is fine for others, I don't criticize opacity in others' works. But it is not for me."

Next he shows a female mouth and half a horse's behind. "Since I did not use a male figure here, I use horses to convey maleness, a metaphor." He uses bananas, guns, and vultures instead…. In many of his paintings, hair is both metaphor and a delicate delight. In the middle-east, there are many rules for what is appropriate for human hair. Is it to be covered? If so, how much and with what sort of scarf or turban? For a male, is he to sport facial hair and if so, how much and in what fashion? All these styles send subtle social signals of modesty, compliance or rebellion. And Zeeshan reflects this concern.


Portrait Remix

Portrait Remix: This has been done on a print of an invitation card originally created by Mohamed Ibrahim Qureishi, his beloved teacher. Zeeshan wanted the text at the bottom of the card and asked his teacher for permission to use it. His teacher said he could have the original copy and Zeeshan said, no, he wanted this print. He adds that he was so thrilled and honored that his teacher let him use the print of his own work.

In another set of paintings, 'Dying miniature I and II', he says some images are separate. "Pictures of great kings may not show reality and hence I have done images which are simply outlines filled with gold foil. And made the elaborate one fuzzy with embroidery threads! The white threads diffuse the painting, make it translucent. It can be viewed from far off but not from near. What we see are rich imprecise pictures of reality. All we have today is someone's opinion and memory of these kings."

Still great
Still great: This is a lovely, cunning play on the work of another painter. Manhattan Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann did a series of paintings titled 'The great American nude'. Here Zeeshan shows a sprawling female with gorgeous mice, in silver leaf and copper tints, and says, "Still so great. Yes, the great American nude is still great." Of mice and men! Like Wesselman's later paintings, Zeeshan shows mountainous bits of splayed out anatomy, like a female Gulliver. This is humorous, dear customs officers, not pornographic!

(Wesselmann work includes painted toenails, legs and lips with all American accoutrements like soft drink bottles, milk, cigarettes, radios, sandwiches, a toilet seat, and a car. As Director Jan van der Marck observed, "Wesselmann shows woman as the consumer, both consuming and being consumed." The Time magazine article compares these nudes to 'legendary divorcees, airline stewardesses or Candys who spend all day on the beach and all night in a motel room. It is hard to imagine them arguing over the household bills, or dropping the children off at the dentist." *)

"Do you come here to America often?"

"No, this is the first time. I've just been here three days." Yet he has made many observations on America in his work.

Muhammad Zeeshan works on seven or eight paintings at a time, going back and forth, adding, deleting, transforming, to get across the essence of what he is telling us. He is married to the ceramist, Kaif Ghaznavi. New York's Aicon gallery found his work in Karachi at Samira Raja's Canvas gallery. Raja curated this show. Some of his work was at the Dubai art fair. In New York, it was shown at the Aicon gallery. In April, his work will be shown in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery.

* Time magazine Friday, Jun. 14, 1968. Editor's note: Note also that the nude in "Still Great" bears a strong resemblance to Gustave Courbet's "L'Origine du Monde". This painting was exhibited in New York at the Metropolitan show on Gustave Courbet, February 27, 2008–May 18, 2008.

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