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Provoking political consciousness: the art of Syed Faraz Ali

Provoking political consciousness: the art of Syed Faraz Ali

Faraz Ali’s very-political-art career began in 2005 while working on his thesis for a degree in Fine Arts at the Indus Valley School of Art. “I began painting using the national flag as a motif, and unconsciously my theme developed.” In one of these large oils, which measures six by four feet, identical figures are ranged from foreground to background. Shown from the head to the waist, they seem to drift in the dark, formless space. The face of each figure is wrapped in a flag from a different country. The figure in the foreground is the only one fully clothed, clad in a US military jacket stamped with the seal of the president, its face draped in the US flag. Coming from the son of a former employee at the American Embassy, this confirms the change in vision of an educated, liberal young artist who wishes to show the weaknesses in our perceptions and attitudes, while expressing an opinion very different from the current shift towards religion.

This was a significant beginning, and has continued to be the vehicle through which the artist poses questions of his viewers. “So much is happening around me, I feel that I cannot ignore it. I can see the way in which we are perceived, the way we are pushed into certain roles by governments, by the media, by the force of other people’s opinions. I want to ask questions, but I don’t provide answers.” In a society that has become increasingly conservative and intolerant, he has been asked why he portrays male nudes. His figures, however, cannot be called sensual, nor are they intended to be. They are slight, slim, young, stripped to the waist, and marked with stamps and seals delineating their nationality, often denoting the fact that they are a target. The effect is reminiscent of prisoners lined up for mug-shots, as shown on televised detective shows or on the news. Here, however, rather than hardened criminals, the subjects are victims; what the artist wishes to portray is the brutality of the political and social environment, and man’s vulnerability in the face of it. To this end, his figures are generic, often faceless representations of the human form. It is the symbols impressed on or around them which provide clues to his subjects, giving them character and identity. He is keenly conscious of the inequalities of globalisation, and the way nations such as our own and other developing countries are viewed in the global scenario, as well as the power of the media to sway opinion. His pixilated images, painted in gouache, appear formless when viewed up close, whereas from a distance they acquire form, showing how perspective distorts reality and also bringing home how the media has the power to give or withhold information and to recognise or ignore the actual persons they report on. They highlight the many gray areas left behind, into which viewers pour their own perceptions and prejudices.

In ‘Man in the Mirror’, the figure painted in ochre with its head wrapped in the national flag confronts its spectral gray and white twin whose body is stamped to show his Pakistani nationality. His head displays text and the seal of the US, although these are used to outline the star and crescent, confirming that he is the shadow or alter ego of the other. Both figures have their forefinger raised to their lips, a telling indictment of our refusal to speak or recognise truths about ourselves. Similarly, in ‘Silent Truth’, the figure on the right wearing a green helmet (symbolising the army) looks away from the spectral figure to his right, whose helmet proclaims the power of the multi-national. The symbolism is clear: neither figure acknowledges the other, or admits to ground realities or truths, although these are the factors that dominate their lives. They are subservient to them, bringing home that the artist recognises the power of the global social and political environment to make unquestioning robots. And while green and white are our national colours, they also denote environment; another concern on which he has been very vocal. He is overt in his criticism of the United States and its targeting of young males, as well as its dominance over people’s thoughts; his past work has featured environmental concerns and the manipulation of resources in the developing world by the West. In ‘Unclassified III’, the subject, blindfolded in a red cloth, his hands similarly bound, is posed against a background of newspaper cuttings topped by a border of stylised flowers that confirm his racial affiliation. And in a recent series titled ‘AFR I, II and III’, the enameled teapot used to serve kava in the frontier and Afghanistan denotes that the subjects are refugees, still denied nationality although many have been born in the refugee camps in Pakistan. The seal of the US president in a corner is once more a reference to the powerlessness of third-world nations to formulate independent policies.

Challenging his viewer’s existing perceptions, Faraz Ali stimulates them to ask questions of themselves and what they represent.

Although Faraz completed his degree in Fine Arts and his thesis work comprised work in oil on canvas, he soon developed a style which includes components from his earlier training at Sitara Fashion College, attended early in academic life when his family felt that if he was interested in art, he should qualify with something that would bring him financial return. Silkscreen printing used in the textile industry has found its way into his paintings, used as background or embellishment in the way of stamps, seals and objects which are clues to the identity of his characters. His figures are skillfully painted in water colour inks on Arches paper, and have a photographic quality enhanced by the use of printed symbols and pixilated images that take their inspiration from the media. The latter are painted in gouache. Graphite is used to enhance his work, to outline and shade his ‘shadow’ figures. His recent work, particularly the series on Afghan refugees, features tea washes and metal leaf.
Currently visiting faculty at two schools in Karachi, the Adam School of Interior Design and Architecture, and the Newport School of Fashion Design, Faraz also practices photography; developing photographs using darkroom techniques.

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