After 3 p.m. on a hot Ramazan day, one begins to cherish something as ordinary, common and readily available as water. Likewise, after the experience of Covid-19, there is recognition of the importance of basic human contact. During the pandemic, greetings by handshake, hug, or arm around another person’s shoulder were considered lethal, so strictly avoided. Humanity has missed the kosher contact between two skins – family, loved ones, fast friends or acquaintances, which awakens a feeling of warmth, love, trust and complicity.
There are contacts of other types. Professionals. Doctors treating patients; beauticians who do makeup for brides and other ladies, and do manicures and pedicures; tailors recording customer measurements; barbers cutting the hair, trimming the nails and shaving the beards of their clients. Some of these services were discontinued during the global sickness period, but a few continued.
For instance; people had their hair cut or shaved, especially when this trade took place in the street. We often stare and look away from men getting their armpits treated, waiting for their haircuts, or sitting down to shave—foam on their face while anticipating the razor—by the side of the road. Artists, like Anwar Saeed, have tapped into these points of intimacy – including wrestlers – to mean more than what’s happening on the surface. Sensation, satisfaction, pleasure, excitement. Most of these sentiments are so deeply rooted that those who participated in this public tableau are not even aware of the underlying currents; neither do the spectators. For everyone, participant or spectator, it’s a normal interaction, visible here.
Artists deal with the visible, but in most cases they also dig deep and unearth what lies deep within. Mariam Arshad, observing routine human interactions, searched for something beyond. She has thus created views that refer to reality but do not replicate it. His paintings (from the solo exhibition, Over & Above, to ‘O’ Art Space, Lahore) either substitute a parallel reality or offer an imaginary situation.
Executed with superb skill, Arshad’s canvases contain many desires. Multiplied, multilayered, these desires belong to different places. On the surface, it’s about physical touch – which, in Mariam Arshad’s words, gives “goosebumps”. For example, a man so close to another man, rubbing the client’s chin/cheeks, washing his face, adjusting his fingers to his head. Or a girl combing another’s mane, or busy removing the client’s unwanted hair. A public barber or an employee of a beauty salon may not have noticed these subtexts. For them, it’s work.
Mariam Arshad, during her NCA 2019 graduation exhibition, displayed a number of works in which women and transgender people attended patrons; some paintings depicted roadside barbers engaged with men with moss on their faces and balancing on precarious chairs. The extraordinary gift of reproducing what is seen on the outside, in oil on canvas, makes his work distinct – and desirable. Arshad has mastered the art of illusion to such a degree that one particular painting, of a man about to shave, became the highlight of the show. The barber and his client – through the brush of Mariam Arshad – were like a powerful magnet that drew all eyes. This led to another question. What was important, and essential in this small rectangle of a man about to be descaled. The psychology of interaction (with its sexual connotations); or transport from an unusual site to an artistic environment; or the artist’s ability to produce paintings that, like Vermeer, can amaze viewers with their attention to detail.
For art historians this might be the first reading, for an ordinary viewer the second option is relevant; but in fact, it is the third position that matters most. The artists occasionally draw on what the American writer Joshua Cohen calls the “usable past”: a mixture of events, clinical history, facsimile of psychiatrist’s register, family archives, personal chronicle horrible encounters; all, in some cases, are intended to attract the public/attention. However, in some cases, a work of art levitates from these demarcations. This was the case during Arshad’s diploma exhibition and during his first solo exhibition in Lahore (July 1-11).
With the touch of the body, the feeling of another skin, the proximity of foreign flesh, Mariam Arshad’s work is moving towards another area of desire. The desire to produce human beings (and not reproduce them). In the Jewish Talmudic tradition, we encounter Golem, the replica of man. It is not a robot, as it follows human traits. In Mariam Arshad’s art, acts and situations are important but not essential, as they are backdrops to show the artist’s mastery in cloning human beings on canvas.
Not only humans, but also the objects they have domesticated or produced: a dilapidated chair, crude and inexpensive tables, wooden benches, empty bottles, mirrors, electric wires, bricks, a can of discarded cooking oil, posters, advertisements, house painter brushes and swatches, face masks, badgers, razors and bowls – and fabric, be it dresses, uniforms or draperies . Like their users and owners, these objects are also rendered immaculately.
In the choice of subjects, characters and settings, Mariam Arshad deliberately preferred the popular world. If in some paintings, we recognize the features of the artist, it is however for the majority of images of day laborers, old men, a man on a tricycle (a beggar?); a tape player. In a few works, the artist, dressed in a bizarre outfit, joins them (as if sitting on a sidewalk next to painters waiting to be hired with their brushes, pots and swatches). There may be more than one interpretation for this range of visuals. Maybe she wants us to “look” at those we usually ignore. It probably compensates for the irregularity of their existence by the sophistication of their representation. Maybe she finds them a good subject that can evoke the sympathies of those who watch them from the comfort of an immaculate, climate-controlled gallery space.
Or something else. The artist in his statement speaks of “toilet and body care”, which gives “goosebumps, which are triggered as a result of physical and emotional stimuli”. His idea of human contact is littered with flecks of white paint; we are forced to believe that shaving foam. On the chin, hands, feet and even on house brushes and the leg of a wooden chair.
It could be that the painter, through this element, the mark of the white color, notices a human touch. But she got there by another way (unwittingly). His extraordinary way of transcribing external reality, like strips of black and white fabric, a man’s face next to the arms of a barber (Parts of the site), folds of a girlish print shalwar kamis and face mask textures (The garden changes), ceremonial uniform of a group-wallah as well as posters of religious conferences and devotional meetings transcribed in great detail (Discord), awaken another sense of touch. Not physically capturing a person sitting with someone, or a workman busy shaving a man, but the viewer’s eye is forced to almost jump out of its socket and take in these incredible segments of reality.
One cannot help but look deeper.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore