Ripped-Up Places: Resituating Cultural Forms

Essay by Rabea Murtaza

The artists in Urban Myths & Modern Fables, trained in various traditions, including miniature painting and calligraphy, mercilessly fracture the forms available to them, ripping visual references out of their situated,local, global, consumerist and political meanings, splintering them and putting them back together into new, provisional and contingent visual languages. The artists manufacture fantastical imaginary landscapes spliced together out of far-flung skies and land, rearrange diasporic bodies into new mythic arrangements of play and subversion, and fragment and juxtapose familiar words and political aesthetics to jarring effect, commenting pointedly on the contemporary world.

The works emerge from specific choices along precisely calculated, multiple registers of difference in relation to tradition, but also in relation to contemporary mini-ecosystems of aesthetic practice, geographically situated slang, cultural idiom, visual motifs and media images; the artists know many places. The works in this exhibition do not fetishize or romanticize cultural hybridity and fractured diasporic subjectivity. Some reconstruct traditional forms, such as miniature painting, into specimen boxes holding paintings of bugs, or holographic animations; some literally break words apart and write them into the optical patterns favoured by Pakistani truck drivers and poster-makers — and as such, the pieces carry out a kind of cultural splicing that comes from somewhere, has a history, and therefore a momentum that can be carried into the here and now of today’s world, in the many places these diasporic artists arrive from and find themselves in: Canada, Pakistan, India, the U.S., Australia, Germany. As a result, unpacking the pieces requires a kind of tangible, practical cross-cultural education in multiple worldviews, slangs, motifs and cultural idioms.

Hamra Abbas’s joyous, childlike and yet conceptually sophisticated pop miniature Battle Scenes (2006) digitally arranges contemporary bodies of different ages, backgrounds and genders into the famous composition of two battle scenes from the Mughal miniature The Akbarnama. Recruited to pose in relation to invisible ancient horses and arrows while hanging out in London’s Hyde Park, these irreducibly idiosyncratic citizens at rest represent a pluralistic politics of the body profoundly counter to that connoted by the original sea of interchangeable young male bodies centrally organized through violence in service of a Muslim imperial master. The realism of photography (capturing many real bodies) replaces the realism of miniature painting (depicting one type of body) in homage to the original. This homage simultaneously unravels a whole array of ancient and modern fables of Muslim bodies that collide at ironic political intersections. Whose inner eyes rearrange contemporary brown, black and white bodies at rest and play in parks into characters from a mythic battle scene?

Pakistani artist Naeem Rana’s eye-popping digital geometrical abstractions burst from the page like flashing, vibrating two-ton Pakistani trucks, blaring their content with noise and jangle, and featuring the same garish palette of oranges, reds and greens, as well as cut-outs of weaponry juxtaposed against sexy silhouettes of women’s bodies. Rana’s Urdu calligraphy, however, slyly blended and shaded into and within the visual elements familiar from trucks, political propaganda and Lollywood posters, plays tricks both in Urdu and in English translation.

In Jwani (2006), the text, cut off against a woman’s arched body silhouetted in geometric florals, possibly reads Be-Iman Jawani, literally translating to Faith-less Youth, with the “Be-,” or “-less,” barely visible, teasingly ambiguous. “Be-Iman” has two potential meanings in Urdu: dishonest, untrustworthy and unscrupulous, or alternatively faithless, without religion, infidel, without conscience, unprincipled.[1]The scraps of text are faithless and deceptive, both visually and in translation. In satisfaction guaranteed (2006), the Urdu text differs radically from the translation provided by Rana: from “barai mushkil/do adad jet fighter/aek adad neak-surat dosheeza” (“for every difficulty/two counts jet fighters/one count pure-faced virgin”), we arrive at Rana’s translation: “for any solution/two jet fighters/one good-looking Sheila”; dosheeza, the Pakistani slang for “virgin,” might sound like “Sheila,” the Aussie slang equivalent of “chick,” but they are different words, creating a single image with bifurcated meaning depending not only on the linguistic background of the viewer, but also on the viewer’s familiarity with both Pakistani and Aussie slang. The Urdu characters hook and sling themselves over the breast, face and pubic area of Sheila/the virgin’s silhouette; the irony is that the Urdu text in these works, when viewed in Western metropolises by non-Urdu speakers, is often assumed, out of a casual Orientalism, to be sacred text. In other works, Rana incorporates collages of colonial as well as contemporary images of war — smiling Tony Blairs, gas masks and white men on carts being pulled by natives. The viewer inserts herself into the multiple juxtapositions of colour, pattern, text, shadow, colonizer, colonized, Urdu and English; in so doing, she inhabits multiple subjectivities that become a multimodal standpoint from which to engage with the political messages in the many forms of contemporary media around the globe.

Henna Nadeem’s work Snow Melt (2000) is saturated with many places, enchanting space in a way that evokes village fables of particular trees, rocks or bodies of water where the veil thins between the human world and the alternative contemporaneous universe of djinns. Nadeem evokes these village fables using modern touristy, consumerist images of African, American and Australian landscapes culled from magazines, merging wildly varied places and their stories into imaginary diasporic landscapes. These landscapes are sites of radically other, yet co-existing, worlds of difference and identity that move and swirl into one another, in the same place, a hopeful and yet fragile vision of shared space.

Fantastical visions of hope, multi-nodal practices of reading media, acid-bath analyses, tongue-in-cheek critical invocations of tradition, sly mistranslations and juxtapositions — the works by these diasporic artists activate historically and locally intersecting forms of ethical, cultural and political engagement. Polyvalent and activated along multiple axes of culturally mediated historical time, the pieces are not hermetic; they are meant to be understood. The hooks embedded throughout these works may catch differently onto their many and diverse viewers, from Sydney to Toronto; these scattered moments of meaning engender dynamic and differentiated practices of interpretation, critical to historically situated ethical praxes, necessary in a complex world of many singular realities.