Art review: One for the Birds - who to believe?

Muhammad Zeeshan’s art contemplates religion, mythology and diversity in an increasingly intolerant age

Shanzay Subzwari January 11, 2015
Ganymede (2014) Gouache and laser scoring on wasli. PHOTO COURTESY: GANDHARA GALLERY

In today’s world, artists are paradoxically required to innovate, to constantly reinvent themselves while ‘remaining true to their roots’. How does one do that? Muhammad Zeeshan a former billboard painter, and now an NCA-trained miniature painter shows the way in his new show at the Gandhara Gallery titled One for the Birds.

Zeeshan was taught to skillfully use a squirrel-tail brush and deftly render tiny, detailed areas on handmade paper called vasli. Zeeshan brought new life to the centuries-old tradition by juxtaposing traditional artisanal work with lasers. Put machine-scoring and hand-painting together, and you get a fascinating conversation about the boundaries of miniature painting, technology and the ideas of tradition and modernity themselves.

Pyar Ka Khuda (2014) graphite. PHOTO COURTESY: GANDHARA GALLERY

A sweeping first glance of Gandhara Gallery will show you large, wall-sized works boldly filled with symbols from religion and mythology. A closer look shows flat, bright backgrounds, accentuating Zeeshan’s painstakingly rendered subjects, painted in opaque watercolour called gouache. The rest—visuals taken from high-end art, pop culture and moving images — is laser-scored.

The subject matter is disparate — his pieces show figures from Hinduism, Greek mythology and Islam — but it transcends time, geography and religion, ultimately alluding to cultural diversity, reverence and belief systems.

In Pyar Ka Khuda, Zeeshan borrows imagery from miniature painting and composes it to his liking on a large scale of 65x40 inches, roughly the size of a large television. A Mughal king hunts with a bow and arrow, accompanied by a large parrot. A closer look reveals that the parrot is actually four women whose postures combine to form the image of the bird. This introduces ideas of playfulness and deception, and the title positions the king as a playboy figure.

In another piece with the same name and similar imagery — Pyar Ka Khuda — Zeeshan uses a different technique. He pushes the boundaries of delicate miniature painting by using a coarse industrial medium, i.e. graphite on sandpaper. By using the crude surface of sandpaper as opposed to the burnished Vasli of miniature, and by building layers by rubbing graphite as opposed to gentle strokes of the soft brush, Zeeshan deconstructs the traditional to understand and construct the contemporary. He does the same with AlamDar, depicting traditional Shia symbolism. The understanding and construction of it lies in its deconstruction of the original method, by employing a new, opposing one, as I have mentioned (i.e. crude graphite versus. soft, opaque watercolour)


Going back to laser-scoring and gouache on vasli, Zeeshan depicts the tale of Ganymede- a young beautiful man from Greek mythology, who was snatched by Zeus, the King of the Gods, who had disguised himself as an eagle. According to myth, Ganymede served as the cup-bearer for many years and was later seen among the stars as Aquarius, the water-bearer. Here, as with Pyar Ka Khuda, the idea of deception is explored, as is the idea of homosexual love.

Then there’s Laal, a digital print, with gouache and laser-scoring on vasli. The image shows many identical winged-men in a bright blue sky, perhaps representing Jhulelaal — a deity who encompasses two interwoven legends in Sindh, bringing together the folkloric Hindu and the Islamic traditions of the region. The ode to religious diversity can hardly be missed.

Zeeshan’s works show images from pop culture, yet his own originality is laced across it. And he compels the viewer to consider where tradition ends and innovation begins. Hence, another debate is initiated in his work: In a world where almost everything is appropriated and inspired from the other, is there any image that can be called completely original?

One for the Birds is relevant because it calls into question the current state of polarity in the world. Zeeshan implies that humanity is entangled in ideological and physical battles that, at their base, are petty. Zeeshan’s work reaffirms the essential role that religion plays in our lives, yet different religions need not come in conflict with each other. Zeeshan seems to believe that people are inherently more similar than different. The greatest testament to this is how the symbols from various cultures, such as Ganymede and Jhulelal, fit seamlessly in a coherent body of work, becoming a sum larger than its parts.

Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and art writer based in Karachi. She tweets @ShanzaySubzwari

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 11th, 2015.


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