The artist, Zahid Mayo, can be best described as unconventional. He moves as an outlier through every juncture of his life - as a defiant proponent of art in the farming village of Madrassa Chatta, as a socio-economic misfit in the urban sprawl of Lahore; staring blankly at the enthusiastic city girl offering him a high-five, and now as an artist; refusing to espouse any particular philosophy, and allowing his crowded canvases to bubble and burst forth with their own straightforward tales.
It is, indeed, this ‘visual storytelling’ that so often features as the primary hallmark of his work. This is particularly true for the exhibition, ‘Socio-Domestic,’ where his take on Pakistan’s burgeoning middle-class, makes use of his signature depiction of crowds. This particular iteration conveys what he refers to as “nichlay tabqay ki hub-ul-watni (the patriotism of the underprivileged)” - a sentiment which he believes Pakistan’s ‘pseudo-Marxist’ elite have no understanding of.
His large canvases feature instantaneous glimpses into the lives of dozens, even hundreds of blue and grey featureless crowds, with focal individuals marked out in distinctive hues. The crowds, however, are neither sidelined nor overlooked, and shown as being propelled forward by the collective, boisterous chronology of their flag-wielding fervor. Meanwhile, Mayo’s selective emphasis unravels the tale of an aberrant young woman, otherwise seldom allowed to occupy public spaces in the country. In another work, the wide, apprehensive eyes of a child, unused to the sensory onslaught of a crowd, take precedence.
Away from the cacophonous multitudes in Mayo’s work, encased within small canvases, are the famously cluttered and dark canvases of Zahra Asim. Zahra’s own ebullience and amicable verve are in stark, ostensible contrast to her brooding and melancholic work, which has been displayed across Pakistan, Italy, Indonesia, and New York.
Drawing upon vivid memories of congested spaces, from a youth spent in middle-class residences of Old Lahore, Zahra has a ‘hate-love’ relationship with her past. For the exhibition, she takes it beyond the folds of her individual experience and into the public sphere. Not only does she reproduce an emotion uniquely embedded within the viscera of the underprivileged, she positions the compositions as something universal. She insists that even in the most affluent household ‘that one room’ concealed from the eye of the onlooker is equally cluttered and morbid.
Her paintings feature objects strewn about in near-deliberate disarray, either forbiddingly still, or threatening clamorous collapse. The lack of any human presence, smothers her rooms in a disconcerting, ringing silence, while cool, dim layers of green and blue, muffle every white space on the canvas - leaving no room for visual respite from an onslaught of nostalgia. This feeling of entrapment and discomfort is what Zahra wanted to embed within her pieces; a process that, strangely enough, allows these self-same objects, all of which once inspired unspeakable bile, terror, and hatred within her imagination, to become vessels of fond and wistful recollection. A ‘hate-love’ relationship, as she puts it.
Mayo and Zahra’s individual streams of expression - one confined to a section of a small room, and the other an outpouring of streets with no demarcations or physical limits - weave a social narrative tied to the heart and marrow of the domestic life of middle-class Pakistanis. With both expressions placed alongside each other, in alternating succession, a single walk around the exhibition offers a sensory oscillation. Moving between the indoor and the outdoor, the visceral and the loudly expressed, the entrapped and the communal, one comes to understand what composes the undetected, impalpable reality of our middle-class environs.
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