For the wanderer in us, sometimes as we are getting closer to our destination, we realize how much the act of arriving unnerves us. It’s the disconnected and the unfamiliar that comes with the journey that emancipates us.
I had a similar experience as I found myself standing in-front of a huge canvas of one of Suleman Khilji’s work titled Figures in Transitional Space I. The two figures, standing close to one another yet representing distinct personalities, afore a desolated bus in a familiar/unfamiliar land, bought many of my own travel memories back. The figures in Khilji’s work are a reminder that transition can often be a source of perpetual freedom to many.
Out of all the paintings displayed in the show, Khilji spent most of his days with this one. He would come back to it time and again, spending hours with it, not being satisfied with how the canvas was conversing. Initially, the bus occupied the canvas alone— desolated and wrecked. The soft rendering of the bus and the surroundings blend into each other, constructing a visual of our own hazy memories. Yet deconstructing the means by which our memories become a part of our everyday reality. A remain of one of Khilji’s own travel recollections from back home, the bus stands in the middle of the parched landscape of Quetta, in a seemingly perpetual state of melancholy and of epochs gone by. As time progressed, Khilji added the female figure, one of his friends from Lahore, to accompany the bus. And with that he makes her travel along to far off lands along with his canvas. Khilji then adds another figure, that of a young man, at a safe distance from the first figure. The space between the two figures reinforces the detachment and transit Khilji explores in his works.
In Pakistan, conversations around family, ancestral village, and blood ties are an integral part of introductions and ‘light talk’ until one reaches a mutual connection to proclaim “Certainly, those are my people consequently you are too, therefore I welcome you.” In a similar manner, the figures in Khilji’s works speak to the viewer, inviting them to have a conversation with self, questioning their own sense of identity and belongingness.
As I move through the gallery space, I find myself face to face with another figure— a young man, in a casual attire, standing in front of his workspace, with the lower part of his face wrapped in layers of cloth which almost seems to make a fashion statement. The opened books on a table and a floating paint palette behind him are a reminder of how we attach a sense of belonging to objects when in temporary spaces. A sanitary worker stares at you next. You recognize him instantly by his uniform; his mouth covered by a blue disposable mask which we all have now become so familiar with. From his posture, demeanor and surroundings we know he has been at work. While submersing in these two paintings one is also reminded of a state of transit when at one’s workplaces? We tend to spend half of our day (sometimes more than half) at a place away from home every day. Hence unconsciously, we make efforts to look for comfort in the mundane and make it a temporary home away from home.
Contrary to the popular interpretation of these paintings as surrealist, his figures are rather a reproduction of his own reality in present times. Since Covid-19 engulfed the world, the mask – an evident symbol of the pandemic – taking multiple forms from ironic memes to thoughtful statements, has served as the inspiration for artists everywhere. Worldwide, the mask has been seen as a symbol of restrictions and separation, but also of care and fortification. Khilji’s characters can be seen wearing masks as a metaphor of detachment and yearning, leading to survival instincts. They symbolize the times we spent held in isolation – for many, away from their families – craving for intimacy, familiarity and the longing for home.
Most of Khilji’s works are titled Figure in Transitional Space. Thematically, there is a sense of displacement. Of being rooted in multiple places and how that can tug and question one’s identity within complexities. Sometimes the viewer can understand that this sense might come from Khilji’s own roots, of how someone who belongs to the land of Balochistan has lived most part of his life in a city far away from his birthplace; eventually making it home yet travelling the world at the same time. Khilji’s characters tell stories about transposition. The cultural tools he applies to make sense of displacement are the means by which his figures look out against that catastrophe or disintegration of self and attachment. Hence the title of the show; Be-Longing.
Reminding one of the great 20th century modernists, using bold strokes and contrasting hues in his works, Khilji creates forceful pieces which at the same time reflect a sensitive nature and harvests an emotional response— establishing an unspoken, intimate relationship between the artist and his audience. The sentiments of the artist’s protagonists are reflected throughout the surrounding landscape, which creates a symbolic plane for the expression of the internal. With his colors and strokes, Khilji forms painterly rhythms to convey elements of strength, resonance, and melancholy.
A recurrent element in Khilji’s visuals is the polythene shopping bag. It floats around in all the familiar and unfamiliar spaces; oblivious to the surroundings it continues to drift. Otherwise often used as a symbol for suffocation, Khilji explores the rather contrary meaning of this very humdrum object —
freedom, detachment, and oblivion. As we move in the gallery from one panel to the next, it feels as if the polythene bag is accompanying us, drifting from one scene to another. Somehow it is always traveling, never landing, as if in a constant state of transit.
Sometimes, Khilji paints on old books. He replaces the covers of these books with his own characters, leaving his viewers wondering of the endless possibilities of what could have originally been inside those books. Khilji isn’t afraid of exploring surfaces. From the Renaissance to today, artists have concerned themselves with how the surface affects both their mediums and perceptions. For an artist, at times the surface isn’t just a plane on which he paints, rather the surface itself becomes the painting, guiding the course the artist will take. Similarly, Khilji’s surfaces are a breath of fresh air, opening up conversations of the extent to which these surfaces could have been correlated.
Khilji’s visuals have a mesmerizing virtuosity. One could not have exited the gallery without having travelled back and forth within the space. Perhaps, it is the ‘longing’ in the deconstruction of Khilji’s Be-Longing which takes over the spectator and they find themselves being held back in a transit. With each layer of paint Suleman Khilji puts on his canvas, a part of our collective memory is un-layered, bringing us face to face with our own sense of identity and being, revealing a part of self that is displaced in a land familiar-unfamiliar.