Shifting Ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am


Shifting Ground
Amelia Johnson Contemporary
Ends Oct 29

This exhibition sets out to challenge stereotypes of Pakistan: are the women conservative and submissive? Is Islamic art mostly about ornate miniature, Arabic calligraphy and geometric design?

The show features paintings, prints and sculptures by award-winning artists Faiza Butt and Naiza Khan from London gallery Rossi & Rossi. Having been educated in Britain, both women share a westernised contemporary approach in their works that draw on Pakistani culture, however resulting in contrary visual styles.

A series of provocative prints and paintings by Butt puts together conflicting ideas such as masculinity and homosexuality, eroticism and glamour, masochism and heritage. For example, a light-box triptych depicts two male boxers facing each other at first, then going nose to nose until finally becoming lovers kissing passionately. Although its background collage of waste paper, plastic bags and milk boxes appears random, this sequence of 'found images' pokes fun at masculine aggression and male fantasies.

Butt's pink and black decorative works appear initially like abstract patterns on Islamic carpets. But the usual motifs of plants and animals have become torture devices and sex toys such as handcuffs, chains and collars. The shiny acrylics are eye-catching, but the contrast between beauty and violence would work better if the 'patterns' were painted more meticulously to resemble the elaborate weaving technique used in making carpets in Central Asia.

While Butt's style is loud, explicit and sarcastic, Khan's works are quiet, wistful and dreamy.

These pieces are the result of her extensive research on Karachi, a major seaport of Pakistan that has become an upscale resort. Khan paid a number of visits to the city before the high-rise buildings and modern infrastructure were completed and accumulated a huge collection of journals, photos and objects for her artistic endeavours.

Instead of mixing ideas in collages to create a perceptual experience like Butt does, Khan calls on her experiences and memories in the exhibits. There are seven brass sculptures cast from real objects she collected. Shells, spoons, combs, screwdrivers and toys are put together according to her own associations. Two large oil paintings are especially intriguing; their greyness matches the rough surface of the gallery's annex.

Karachi is drawn and redrawn in many layers of paint, poetically suggesting the passage of time, erasure of history, and Khan's own memories of its changing landscape. All the exhibits form an imaginary world that reconstructs Karachi's fleeting recent past. Considering how rarely contemporary Pakistani art is shown in town, Amelia Johnson's attempt to bring in these two artists of diverse styles makes 'Shifting Ground' a welcome show.

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