You Are What You Eat
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You Are What You Eat

As a South Asian, one is more than likely to be familiar with chicken pattices or ‘patties’, and have seen them being served at least at one social gathering. These crispy, golden-brown pastries filled with soft, warm meat filling have become so inundated into our event culture that they are often overlooked; and one fails to realize how that simple pastry, with its flakes sprinkling onto one’s clothes when a bite is taken, is yet another indication of the post-colonial situation of Pakistan today.

Walking through Minaa Mohsin’s exhibition at t2f, one is brought head-on with the pattices and other such baked goods and confectionaries. Now with the focus directly on these edibles items, questions begin to arise:

Why do we eat them? Where do they come from? Why am I suddenly so hungry?

Like the pattice that is essentially a manipulated ‘desi’ version of a Cornish pasty, a dish brought to the colonies at the time of British rule, the food Mohsin serves her audience through her canvases, come together to relay the tales of Pakistan’s history and present societal values. Like any spread at an event, Mohsin paints a  multitude of dishes and one notices how they become a representation of the present-day Pakistani culture. Just as the kebabs, samosas and chutney are placed together with the ketchup, cake and lemon tarts, so too are we an amalgamation of our pre and post colonial past.

Chai Party, acrylic and house paint on canvas, 36 X 48 inches
Tiers of Joy (reprise), acrylic and house paint on canvas, 36 X 48 inches

The artist begins painting each artwork through memory, reliving her family affairs once held in her parents’ home. Food is essentially the essence of any social gathering. Serving hors d’oeuvres mark the beginning of an event and dinner is what it ultimately culminates to. Food is what is most talked about and what is most anticipated. And just like one would witness at a real event, Mohsin’s paintings serve its guests delectable and extravagant treats.

While most of the food is created with a low-relief sculptural effect through layers of textured paint, the background is flattened through the artist’s paint application. Patterns play off Mohsin’s backgrounds adding to the festivities of the feasts they surround, such as in Miscellaneous Celebrations where the background is a strong reminder of shamiyanas frequently used in hosting outdoor events. When compared to her previous work, the paintings in this exhibition come together with a greater finality which can be observed through her composition, choice of colour and the enticing juxtaposition of all elements on the canvas.

Monsoon Essentials, acrylic and house paint on Canvas, 36 X 48 inches
Miscellaneous Celebrations, acrylic and house paint on canvas, 36 X 48 inches

The variety and decadence that each canvas provides becomes an intriguing commentary on the materialistic values of the bourgeois class. Hosted events become ideal spaces to display one’s wealth and this often becomes evident through the assortments of hors d’oeuvres, appetizers and main courses that are presented before the guests. The paintings also highlight the excess of these occasions, in terms of over-consumption and even wastage of the food. The role of the ‘need’ exceeds the ‘want’ and guests can usually be seen piling towers of food, regardless of the limitations of their consumption capacity.

At first glance, each canvas appears as a food advert, shimmering, brightly coloured and capturing immediate attention. Food advertising is specifically focused on activating the consumers’ senses and therefore, creates visuals of eatables that exaggerate their allure. In a similar way, Mohsin’s paintings glamorize the food she sets before her viewer. However, unlike the realism of actual ads, her paintings reside in the realm of an altered reality. The viewers receive multiple perspectives that allow them to recognize each food item, even though in a realistic setting this may not be what those dishes would like. In a way, her work draws parallels to the imaginative perspective synonymous with traditional Mughal Miniature paintings.

Feast with Benefits acrylic and house paint on canvas, 46 X 60 inches

This evolution in Mohsin’s practice can be actively witnessed within this exhibition as well. In You might also like… which began during her thesis, does not seem to hold the same resolve that can be found in Winner Winner Chicken Dinner and the rest of the exhibition. Though similar themes and colours flow through both paintings, the prior lacks perhaps, the sophistication that Mohsin achieved through her years of experience in America and Pakistan, something that is evident in her other works.

At the same time, the inclusion of these two paintings in the show, which are both of people as opposed to the other food central artworks, provide the audience with a sense of a new trajectory evolving in Mohsin’s practice. Her oeuvre which has included people in the past can be understood as looking at humans as they are, in seemingly mundane settings; just like it appears in You might also like…. But in the latter work, the human body has evolved into something more; an added assortment to the spread of food the paintings offer.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, oil and house paint on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Mohsin noted that the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner has set the basis for her future work. Within the painting, a woman lays back, relaxed, before a bucket of fried chicken. As both subject matters contrast heavily with the monochromatic bedspread, they become easily subjected to the gaze and objectification of the audience. This invites an added conversation in Mohsin’s work; the female body—like a piece of meat, existing to be used and then discarded.

This is an exciting trajectory for the artist to follow and one can only look forward to the avenues this focus will open Mohsin’s practice towards.

‘Dine in or Take Away’, a solo presentation by Minaa Mohsin, was held by Vasl Artists’ Association at T2F the Gallery from 2-16 September, 2021.

Title image: Monsoon Essentials (detail), acrylic and house paint on Canvas, 36 X 48 inches

­References:

  1. Dine in or Take Away, Catalogue, Minaa Mohsin, Vasl. 2021
  2. Interview with Minaa Mohsin, 2021
  3. Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Translated by Fredy Perlman, Ken Knabb, Critical Editions 2021


Jovita Alvares is an artist and art writer from Karachi. She graduated with the title of Valedictorian (Class of 2016) from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture with a BFA. She frequently writes for local publications. Recipient of the Imran Mir Art Prize2017 and Resident Artist of the 4th Sanat Residency 2017 she regularly participates in group shows and artist talks.

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