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Zahid Mayo: The Painter of the Subaltern.


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I see Zahid Mayo as an artist of the subaltern. He is not their spokesperson but he senses them and is able to register that sense on canvas. This is his, almost unique, success among contemporary artists. 

I recall in my first visit to Zahid’s studio about four years ago that there were two types of works on his canvases. Nudes of women he had made while on a residency in Europe and images of working people of Pakistan at melas of shrines. The first were voyeuristic. The second registered the atmosphere of the crowd gathering at a mela with sympathy and compassion. This exhibition brings together works developed in the second category and it is here that Zahid is on surer ground. Like an animal whisper, like a shaman, like a good psychologist and healer, he gets the subaltern…he registers with them and is able to represent moments in their history of pain and violence with something approaching honesty. The function of dividing the energy of a group and representing it without speaking for it is historically seen as the domain of poets and shaman and it is for this reason that I see him as a poet/shaman of the subaltern.

The exhibition presents eight large canvases. The smallest is three feet by five and the largest five feet by five. The compositions of most of the works are appropriated from master painters: Whistler, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Michelangelo and the lesser known William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In doing this Zahid follows a well rehearsed motif of recent Pakistani art to allude to western or Mughal art and refashion it with something distinctly Pakistani. In itself, this would be disappointing. However, something far more interesting is happening in these transpositions. They are telling stories of our times in the grand history painting style and we we need to listen to these stories.

In this review I want to examine three canvases in more detail. I want to examine them for the central protagonists set in the middle of the canvases and then to look in greater detail at the crowd in the background and to both sides of the central protagonists. Finally, I end with a note on Zahid’s style, which I suggest we should view as a palimpsest. 

The Centre-Stage

The work that uses Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is reused by Zahid with Qandeel Baloch at the centre and he has titled it Azadi Ki Devi. Qandeel’s story in outline is well know but worth retelling. Qandeel was married against her wishes at the age of 17 and was abused by her husband. Leaving him she worked as a bus hostess and then began to work as a model. She took ownership of her image by using social media and soon established herself in the imagination of the ‘public’. Her selfies and videos by-passed the traditional media and editors and gave a power to her to set her own discourse. She gained a form of self ownership. Discourses around sexuality, sensuality and desire became for the first time the characteristic of a woman in the public space. A working class women could denounce politicians, cricketers, mullahs and men. In this sense, indeed, she was liberty leading the people. In one of her final interviews she noted:”Nothing is good in this society. This patriarchal society is bad’. Patriarchy, then, killed her. The conduit was her brother.

Zahid puts her in the centre of the stage, with a selfie stick in one hand and a flag in another. However, whereas, Delacroix lived at a time of revolution, Qandeel and Zahidlive in dark times. Zahid knows this. In Delacroix’s painting Liberty is urging a crowd forward and is closely followed by a young boy with a gun in hand and frenzy in his eye to her right as we look at the painting. While to the left of her two male figures are shown – A bourgeois figure with a top hat is charging with a bayonet and behind him a working class person with his shirt open has a sword swinging. Delacroix shows a moment of unity among disparate groups in society for the common cause of revolution. Zahid’s Qandeel, however, marches alone. The crowd is a sizeble distance behind her. They are painted under a grey crowd. They look frightened and timid. In contrast, in Delacroix’s work the crowd follow liberty to freedom – they have lost fear and they appear ready to take down what Fanon called, ‘the granite block’, what we call, the ‘establishment’.

In another work, Fatima Jinnah is cast as Whistler’s mother. Alone in the room, ghostly, she partially gazes at us. Like Qandeel, Fatima Jinnah, too had stepped forward to take on the ‘granite block’. In 1965 she dared to run for president against the dictator Ayub Khan. She was supported by all the sane people of the time – from poets like Habib Jalib to young sub-nationalists and anti-imperialists of the National Awami Party. A rigged election saw her lose. She died in 1967 in her home in Karachi. There is a mystery to her death. Some claim she was murdered. Either way, her attempt to join together with the sub-nationalists to chart a course for a decentralized Pakistan challenged the ‘granite block’ centralizing tendencies. Her accusing gaze, loneliness and ghostly figure remind us again of our timidity in the face of the established – for isn’t it us who have left here there?

Women carry the coffin of Farkhunda from the ambulance to the grave-yard in a Kabul. In the outer circle men and women form a chain to guard the coffin and those carrying it. In this canvas Zahid is re-working a photograph of Mossoud Hossaini, a photogrpaher with the Associated Press. The original event took place in the heat of the day – with the sun bearing and bouncing off the concrete cement of three storey buildings. Zahid has cooled the temperature (lighting the hues) and therefore made it tranquil – as a funeral of a martyr should be. Farkhunda was killed the day before the events presented on the canvas. She was accused of burning our Holy book – by who, it is unknown. She was then mercilessly beaten, stoned, set alight, left to burn, and then thrown in the river Kabul. The ordeal was caught on many phone cameras. I saw a few clip for a few seconds of one of these videos at the time and have not been able to forget it: hundreds of men are shout abuse at her, she stumbles around looking for a safe place, no-one steps forward. Her head is oozing blood, her face is covered in it. She is hit with stones and later her body is burned to a char. I am reminded again of Qandeel’s words: “Nothing is good in this society. This patriarchal society is bad’.

The identifiable protagonists, are those who have stepped up from the crowd – Fatima Jinnah, Qadeel Baloch, and Farkhunda- they have a history (that of martyrs). But what of the crowd.

The Crowd

They remain on the fringe of the canvas and, therefore, the fringe of history. I am reminded of Marx’s writings on the French Revolution. He notes that the crowd (working class) had formed itself at times for the its own goal and at times for the goal of the bourgeois. In either case they had made history by taking down the monarchy. However, no such revolutionary moment occurs in Zahid’s painting. There is no optimism. The crowd – us – merely pick up the bodies of the occasional martyrs; unable to stop the bombs, or the violence of the system or our own violence. We muddle along, offering scarifies to ideologies – there goes Abel, and there goes Qadeel, and there goes Farkhunda. The status quo – the ruling alliance – the granite block – holds sway…

The subaltern/crowd here are violent, muddled, victims and perpetrators. There aren’t any simple narratives. It is just want it is. Some will survive by grit and by staying in the background. I suspect that Zahid has not drawn them out in detail and kept the crowd uniform in black outline’s because that is how they survive – that is, by staying out of the picture they avoid the violence of the ‘granite block’. Anyway, they are too busy burying the dead. Where the Haitian revolutionaries and the French revolutionaries rose to end their oppression, for now, we gather only to bury the dead.

The success of Zahid’s work then lies in taking on a the subject matter of the subaltern and presenting its [resent history with instinctive clarity – the way a young Marx might, were he in South-Asia.

Palimpsest: A brief note on Zahid Mayo’s Style.

Palimpsest is a text written on top of another one, but which lets traces and marks of the previous one appear and disrupt its meaning.

All artist rework their canvas/images/sculpture. Starting with one painting in mind, painting it clean, he starts painting something quite different. Few leave the traces to be read.

The Dadaist and Surrealist thought it honest to leave marks of the unconscious in their work. Such canvases or works are ridiculed by most artist/art world figures that I know in Pakistan. Collectors and galleries in Mayfair prefer the fine laser points and Mughal figures. v The artists must show his technical brilliance and add a ‘gimmick’ – Zahid too has his gimmicks but I will leave that for another time. The line has to be neat, the canvas well worked…that is…the artist is only an artist if he is a crafts person first.

Zahid works his canvas like a child does the slate. Marking, drawing, thinking, painting, erasing, and then thinking more and erasing more…after a day the subject can change. From structuring a canvas around the last super he can go to structuring it around the story of Cain and Abel (see, hisAdam – O- Mulk -e-Sham). If he did not have to display his works his canvases would continuously change. The point of saying a work is finished, is artificial for Zahid. He told me, he knows it is finished when ‘it feels right’. But I have heard him say that on many visits to his studio only to see the canvas painted over and reworked by the next visit.

Yet, Zahid’s canvas is like a palimpsest in that the traces remain. He leaves them there for all to see. The canvas captures the process. The erasures, the failures, the drafting and composing are left for the viewer to enjoy. And what a joy for those of us who prefer a perfunctory drawing of Rembrandt to this finished works…for those who like a sketch book of an artist rather then the ‘curated solo show’. There is something naive about it all. Look at the sketch book of any artist and you feel you will see something of their soul…something of their inner thoughts…and their process.

It is this process at work in the two versions presented here of Adam – O- Mulk -e-Sham. holding. Both paintings are set in the bombed out urban areas of Syria – probably Aleppo. They are left at difference stages in the process and yet they are distinctly finished, in so far as Zahid’s canvas is his sketch book.

You can see the brush strokes, the colours at work…you can learn about the process by noticing his outline in black/brown of figures on part of a canvas and at another point a near fully painted figure…each figure, each part of the canvas is at a different stage of the process and it is left that way because that is ‘honest’.

It is a form of truth and a form of naivety. A naivety that evokes the mystical mode of poetic and artistic creation…a mode associated with children, fakirs, baba’s, the mentally ill (so defined), drug addicts, the pained, the shaman, and counter enlightenment figures like Freud ( in that he sees the unconscious and the ‘slip’ as valuable) and Marx (in so far as ideology always finds it’s way into our everyday relationships), and of course…of course…the subaltern…it is a mode from which we seek comfort, inspiration, wisdom and truth.

In this exhibition Zahid Mayo offers us precisely this. Like a true shaman, I am sure, Zahidisn’t conscious of it all as a sociologist might be; but he gets it, he senses it and he shows it. These canvases tells us of an uncomfortable truth: that of our collective timidity in the face of the ‘granite block’, they tell us of our dark times, and they tell us about the violence visited on the subaltern from the bombs of NATO, the bullets of the granite block and the crowds own violence. It is a hell of a truth to take on. But isn’t it what it is.

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