The Thing is…
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The Thing is…

The curator, Irfan Gul Dahri, asks a rhetorical question in the two-artist show titled Self-Extended. The question is: “What is a person without the things they project their selves into?” Implicit in this rhetorical question is the assumption that there is a self and there is a thing outside the self, and that the linkage between the two leads to a broadening or extension of the self. That somehow the “internality” of the self is enhanced by the “externality” of the thing or object that exists outside; and that there is a centripetal movement at play which gathers meaning from objects (things) and brings them to bear upon the subjective notion of the self.

The dialectics of internal experience and external phenomena allow for a myriad of narrative possibilities. It is interesting to see how the two artists featured in the show, namely Abid Aslam and Affan Baghpati, develop narratives through their art. One may then draw inferences regarding the extent they project, or conversely, subsume the notion of self in the artwork.

Abid Aslam was trained in the miniature tradition. He has replaced brushwork by punching a fine grid on paper and embellishing it with metallic detail. It is a sculpturesque form of image making that resembles cross-stitch. The works present themselves as wall hangings, to be viewed from a frontal perspective, with a color palette in grey, metallic gold, and black. Aslam builds patterns with perforations and metallic additions in order to yield imagery, which ranges from abstracted forms as in the hexaptych titled Emergence, to figurative silhouettes as in On Hunt II and Love Birds.

Emergence, Abid Aslam, hexaptych, punching, gel pen and gold leaf on wasli, 60 x 120 inches (30 x 40 inches each), 2021

The figuration depicted in Aslam’s work is drawn from Mughal miniatures. Commenting on this series of work, Aslam states he is “recalling old tales in more contemporary ways by giving the viewer another aspect of possibilities and visual charm of an artwork.” Arguably, the contemporariness lies in his choice of materials by which he presents traditional imagery through decorative elements that are not part of typical miniature painting.

The narrative in his work is highly reduced and replaced by visual stimulation that is evoked by borrowings from Mughal art. One may argue that historical representation becomes the “thing” or object of this artist’s attention but the dialogue with notions of selfhood is absent.

Love birds, Abid Aslam, diptych, punching, gel pen and gold leaf on wasli, 40 x 60 inches (30 x 40 inches each) 2021

Affan Baghpati’s artistic evolution has taken him from jewelry-making to sculpture. He works with readymade objects, more often old and used, for which he scours flea markets and antique bazaars. Baghpati designs quirky and hybrid forms of sculpture from found material. A dog’s body with a human head is a combination he often repeats; at times, combining three discrete objects as in Once Upon a Time. His fantastical combinations defy traditional aesthetic templates. Each piece is a surprise, an enigma, a puzzling artefact. Baghpati speaks of exploring the “biography of objects” and their artistically severed role from their original form and function. He speaks of extending the value of discarded objects by bestowing hybridity and non-functionality — an extension which he labels as an “afterlife”.

Once upon a land, Affan Baghpati, assemblage, casting, brass, polymer resin, glass, 6.7 x 4.3 x 4 inches, 2020

The varied sources from which the objects find their way into Pakistani markets is another point of contemplation on the geographical and sociological patterns of commerce.

Baghpati has a broad conceptual framework for his sculpture that encompasses the past, present and future. It is art rooted in the consciousness of space and time. The aesthetics of design have been set aside to enable a dialogue with the ambiguous features of the artwork which mediate between familiarity and the unfamiliar.

Slip and fly, Affan Baghpati, assemblage, found objects, brass alloy, copper, polymer, 13.3 x 8.8 x 2.7 inches, 2020.

Different as Baghpati’s work is in style from Aslam’s, it does share the centrifugalism of outward focus. Both artists turn their gaze beyond the personal to the world outside. Aslam relies on historical legacy whereas Baghpati relies on serendipity. The artists have a very different relationship to contemporaneity. Aslam uses decorative motifs to give his work a contemporary edge while retaining traditional imagery. Baghpati reinvents form by breaking with original function.

To return to the curatorial question of self and thing, the artwork backed by the artists’ statements, clearly favors a dominance of thing above self. The two artists are engaged in a dialogue with received forms, whether through art history or bazaar finds, and their preoccupation with the self is not evident. The internal self may have extended into things, but its visibility is hardly perceptible. The “extensions” are viable as a part of collective human experience rather than individual subjectivity. Ultimately, the choice to reveal or blanket the self becomes part of the artist’s creative free will.

When queried on these notions, the curator explained his perspective in pairing together these two artists. He matched their propensity to ‘find’ things to create their art; viz. historical references in the case of Aslam, and arbitrary objects in the case of Baghpati. He viewed the idea of ‘self’ as a composite which was formed by accretions of time and space, and these accumulations were in turn congealed into objects. As such, things become repositories for collective experience and memory – a harmonization of random and deliberate behaviors that define the individual within a matrix of collective realities.

Self-Extended showed at Koel Gallery from 28th October 2021 to 10th November 2021.

Title image: On hunt II, Abid Aslam, quadriptych, punching on silver reflective paper and gold leaf, 56 x 76 inches (28 x 38 inches each), 2021


Nusrat Khawaja is an independent researcher and landscaper. She writes on art and literature. She is a member of the Karachi Biennale Discursive Committee.

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