REVIEW: Prism-Sense / Syed Ali Sarwat Jafri / The Art of Guns and Roses / Sushma Sabnis
Artist Syed Ali Sarwat Jafri in his debut solo, ‘Prism-Sense’ shoots a few roses at the viewers and urges them to look within themselves at the schisms they un/knowingly are contributing towards making an unbalanced and intolerant society… writes Sushma Sabnis
Art has often played multiple roles in presenting the socio-political climate of the world. From the aesthetics of beauty to the aesthetics of war, from small rebellions to usurping revolutions, society has mutated and evolved into a state of stability. Art has been a catalyst and a documenter of these upheavals. Be it prehistoric or contemporary, art has registered the inner and outer responses of every human experiential stimuli. What one needs to see is how these ambient triggers have changed over time and how they have evoked a response or reaction within the individual artist to anchor the foundation stone of their own art practice.
Artist Syed Ali Sarwat Jafri hails from the terrain of history, socio-political and religious conflicts, Faizabad, Ayodhya and presents his debut solo show, ’Prism Sense’ at the Art & Soul Gallery, Mumbai. Born in a family where hope reigns stronger than hopelessness, the artist brings a multifaceted view of the turbulent zone that he comes from using the lexicon of that very conflict – guns, bullets and roses. Imprinting the landscape of his birth place firmly in mind, he creates the form of the pyramid, a tapering conical shape which concentrates the energy within. Most places of worship are designed with this very logic and it is not surprising that Syed Ali chooses to believe that the energy generated and contained in this form is positive, peaceful and stable. Hence in most of his canvases and paper works, the backgrounds are patterned with paper pyramids which are painted over later. Possibly the intention is to generate a calm, energising atmosphere as we see in a place of worship or sanctum.
Poetic and humble in disposition, Syed Ali narrates stories of his childhood when he witnessed a town with all its vibrant, cultural diversity slowly turning into the barren land of conflict that it is today. Fear rules high in his town now and he is unable to articulate it. His works do the speaking for him. With the silent dignity of a person from a minority community, and the looming uncertainty of survival, this young artist represents the image of today’s youth from similar situations, who battle unsurity internally, fearing a million reasons their lives could fall apart spectacularly and unpredictably. Speech becomes frugal and opinions dry up like the dew drops in summer. And one detects the restrained hesitation in the works, the stifled cries, cautious utterances, the muffled protests and one cannot help but question, what kind of world did we all contribute to create for posterity?
In the works the pyramid structures are an attempt to channel these fears, doubts and uncertainties, to create that beauty which he sees in his mind and which he hopes to find some day reflected in his environs. Here beauty is not of the conventional kind, but an aesthetic which exudes from peace and freedom, of being ‘sure’ that you matter no matter how minuscule your role in the bigger scheme of things.
Syed Ali’s canvases are dominated by three leitmotifs – guns, bullets and roses. Each of these familiar forms are associated with unrest, rebellion, peace and love. One is instantly reminded of the Banksy mural of a masked protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers at an invisible system. However, Syed Ali’s work chooses to depict the scenario just after the riots and the chill of absolute terror, as one is silenced into, after witnessing familiar people, walking about the streets, armed with guns ready to take aim at anything. In this work, ‘The Parade’ the poet in Syed Ali takes over, and one could sense the fear it emanates at first glance. Upon closer observation the viewer realises that the hordes of people wielding rifles/guns are shooting roses into the air, not bullets. Here the artist subdues facts and presents a what-could-have-been scenario.
Bordering on wishful thinking and almost dismissed as a naive attempt to normalise a traumatic experience, Syed Ali, disarmingly questions the viewer, Why not give a chance to love and peace instead of resorting to brutality to resolve age old issues? The gaping schism created in the viewer’s mind of an anticipated scene where an armed crowd terrorises by firing bullets into the air, and the actual imagery of shooting roses, sharply contrasts and disorients the viewer making them realise that for a country which gained its independence with philosophies of non-violence, the work portrays an unsettling truth of our times of how far we, as a nation have digressed from tolerance and magnanimity of who we call the ‘other’.
In two other works on display, ‘The Waiter’ and ‘The Butcher Shop’, Syed Ali depicts the way some words in a language like ‘love’ ‘harmony’ ‘peace’ etc have become abused and misused. Using the rose metaphor, he paints a butcher’s shop, with hooks holding prime cut pieces of roses, not meats. This work complements another one on display, ‘ The Waiter’ where a well dressed waiter with a rose shaped face, presents a platter of delectable pieces of roses to the viewer. The narrative of these two works complement each other in a way that a butcher’s shop is connected to a restaurant business. Also, in both the works, the pieces of prime cuts of roses could be seen as custom-made, pre-conditioned, peace talks and diplomacy ridden jargon that politicians dole out to the minorities and under privileged merely in the name of ‘allowing and including’ their voices, merely to strengthen their vote banks. In both these works one would encounter the pyramid structures sprinkled in the background, some of which are shown sprouting new life as a metaphor for new revolutionary ways of thinking, akin to the endurance of nature.
In some of his other works, Syed Ali uses the bullet motif to create a topographical drawing of the gardens of Faizabad which lie in shambles today. Conflicts, be they political or personal almost always have an adverse effect on the culture of a place. The landscape changes from diverse to destructive. Some of the untitled works on display depict this very unfathomable loss caused by overpowering influences. The loss of cultural objects point to the loss of historical registry of an event, hence a brutal wiping out of a landscape could be an attempt to recalibrate a historical memory differently in the minds of the people. Such slivers of culture being lost creates a tear in the historical fabric of a place. When the artist portrays such a poignant thought using bullets and pyramids reddened by blood in some portions, the interpretations are quite unsettling.
At first glance it would be quite easy to align Syed Ali’s work as leaning towards the decorative genre of artistic styles. But only when one reassesses the process of art creation does one unravel a glaring reality which goes beyond superficial addressal of traumatic experiences and tight lipped, altruistic political correctness. Often the essence of Protest art is deemed to be vociferous and polemical, employing a variety of mediums for impact, with the aggression made visible, however, Syed Ali’s works are a subliminal kind of Protest Art, like the rhythmic chanting of cotton field workers against apartheid or silent prayers in the face of desolation. The trauma of feeling like a refugee in one’s own native land, questions of domicile and belonging are raised on a daily basis not just in a socio-political sense but at a personal level. Survival within such confusing realities inspires some of the most intensely relevant yet, veiled art works. What the viewer deciphers through Syed Ali Sarwat Jafri’s works is his understanding of the skewed world around him, and the hope he prismatically distributes into the world through his focussed art.
(Images courtesy Art & Soul and Syed Ali Sarwat Jafri)