Thin as a playing card: ‘99 Self Portraits’ by Ayaz Jokhio

Published: April 27, 2012

PHOTO: IVS GALLERY

PHOTO: IVS GALLERY PHOTO: IVS GALLERY PHOTO: IVS GALLERY PHOTO: IVS GALLERY PHOTO: IVS GALLERY PHOTO: IVS GALLERY
KARACHI: 

I recall seeing Ayaz Jokhio’s work for the first time in 2009. My first response was mild shock, “Is this really art?”

Hosted by Grey Noise, in Lahore at the time, the show was titled “Old Father Time”. And on display were a number of familiar image forms: a series of clocks with successively erased numbers; a grossly oversized page with a quotation on time by Borges; as well as a photographic print, “The Artist’s Father”. The latter was a group photo with a red circle drawn around one of the standing figures, the artist’s father. By this solitary mark on its surface categories shifted it seemed, seamlessly, and here now was a personal portrait. I was intrigued by its playfulness but also vaguely disturbed. What manner of meditation on time was this? And, simultaneously, what was this strange sense of vertigo, issuing as it was, from such simplified and spare pictorial surfaces?

Jokhio’s visual effects are remarkable. He suggests that his aim is to demystify occluding concepts, ideas, false narratives within which we live. This intent applies as well to notions of high art, in terms of both subject matter and the artist’s choice of expressive materials. He is not interested in virtuoso performance, pictorial intricacy and aspects of depth, nor is he concerned with traditional transcendent expectations of art. In fact, his oeuvre seems to provide a sustained internal critique of the same.

A now well-known body of work involves portraits of iconic film stars and historic figures. These are rendered in newsprint collage. At once hyperreal, and disposable, and resonant of our imaginative cultural milieu, it leads one to alternatively consider Jokhio in terms of pop art. But that is not purely the case either. His aesthetic appears far more ironic than it is celebratory. Inherent to his image-making are values of visual simplification and accessibility, humour as a kind of humaneness, as well as sharp social critique. Recognisable as the images may be however, their conceptual effect remains complex.

“99 Self Portraits” demonstrates this layered theatre vividly. Currently on display at IVS Gallery, Karachi, it is part of a large, spirited group show titled “Band Baja Baraat”, curated by Sameera Raja at Canvas. The work is a follow-up to Jokhio’s 2005 collation by the same name. On A4 sized paper, a single photograph of the artist has been worked over by marker in different costumed, vocational and gendered images. Here is a proliferation of crisp monochromatic figures, self portraits, bordering on excess and childlike glee. On what terms do we recognise each other? Once again, Jokhio assumes the light visual surface, articulating stereotypes to the point of a large-scale joke, to the point of hazard.

“God could almost be a Marquezian figure,” he suggests, speaking of defiling modes of religious appropriation in Pakistan. The title of the work infers that even Sufi literature is not exempt from such usage, that is, from mystification and obscurantist effect. Of a sudden, the humorous gathering of 99 images takes on incendiary value. It becomes critical satire of another, culturally key motif of high-minded piety. And, once again, in its conceptual shape-shifting, the gesture is immaculate. It leaves the viewer entirely exteriorised, rather un-sublime and humane, and it excludes from the work any trace of sentimentality.

In a statement for a show at Canvas Gallery in late 2011, Jokhio has this to say about his work. “My ambition as an artist, if there is an ambition, is to work with all the things that I see, that I touch, that I know, that I love, or that I hate… I am only the echo, in a certain part of my work, of the anxieties of the contemporary world, of the anxieties of this part of the world where I live.” One may also consider this art as intimacy critically engaged.

A concurrent exhibition titled “A Poet’s Country: His Eyes”, by Ayaz Jokhio, is on show at Green Cardamom Gallery, London.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2012.

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