Text | Shanzay Subzwari
Visuals | Courtesy Sanat Gallery
As I stepped into Mohsen Keiany’s recent solo show at Sanat Gallery, Karachi, I couldn’t help but marvel at the size of the huge grey canvases that swept the walls. When viewed at first, overpowering and brazen, these oil on canvas works seem like extracts and blown-up versions of wall carvings from thousands of years ago, only exceptionally intricate. The visible hints of colour in the otherwise monochromic palette appear to be echoes of original full-colour illustrations that have faded with time. Iranian artist Kianey is well-known for his large scale pieces, laced with Sufistic figures, common people, fantastical imagery and Islamic architecture in bright, yet earthy palettes. Stemming from his background as an artist of Persian descent- a land known for its history of imperialistic power, with Alexander the Great as emperor and subsequent years of Muslim rule- and rich culture spanning thousands of years, Kianey’s works tell tales of Iran’s past, present, and possible future. However, for this particular show, his work takes a sinister turn, as the usual positive, happy imagery is taken over by something else altogether. A closer look at the artist’s mostly monochromatic canvases reveals imagery reminiscent of machinery, replete with nuts and bolts, bearings, screws and knives. An even closer look uncovers how these machines come together to form human and animal figures. Expressions are dense and menacing, as these humanoid machines only seem to think of war and bloodshed, and this Zombielike post-apocalyptic imagery, though perhaps exaggerated, stirs in the viewer feelings of horror and regret at what the world has come to today. One cannot help but reflect on the Islamic Golden Age, the era in Islamic history traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century when the Muslim world was ruled by various caliphates, and science, economic development and cultural works flourished. The Islamic Empire expanded throughout the Middle Ages to become one of the largest empires in the history of the world. It controlled the Middle East, northern Africa, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), and parts of Asia into India.
As Sasha Brookner writes for the Huffington Post, ‘There was a Golden Age to Islam once — a Muslim Renaissance so magnificent, famous, cosmopolitan and cerebral that it’s borders didn’t always bleed… this era unequivocally produced some of the most enlightened thinkers throughout the Islamic Diaspora….Thanks to China passing along the art of papermaking and the translating skills of travelers, these newborn Islamic scholars went on to become polymaths. They studied spherical trigonometry, agriculture, physics, medicine and science, using astrolabes to measure the altitude of stars while setting up sophisticated astronomical observatories. While Europe was dwindling away from the Dark Ages and the Church was busying itself replacing science with superstition, these Islamic scholars were setting up psychiatric hospitals, correcting Ptolemy, determining the circumference of the Earth’. This is unfortunately an era only heard of today in recollections and stories; a progressive time reflected upon to redeem the sorry state of the Islamic world today and the stark contrast it presents. While violence (and sometimes barbarism) have always speckled Islamic history to a certain extent (nay, most non- Islamic civilisations as well), everyone is well-aware of the altered course of history post 9/11, which brought Islam into the limelight for the entire world. While over time, enlightenment had paved its way for mediocrity in the Islamic nations, this particular event was the boiling point that brought with it disenfranchisement, ostracization, and persecution of Muslims. Post that, Islamic terrorism emerged as a (largely unsolicited) banner for the Muslim world that spiralled its people into a back and forth cycle of terror and persecution. Mohsen Kianey, as any other person of Muslim descent, and an artist with feeling, could not ignore this all-encompassing black hole and decided to bring it into his art. In his 2016 residency and solo exhibition at Sanat Gallery, the artist had worked with a similar theme in sculptural arrangement, with a fascinating amalgamation of machinery crafting life size humanoid forms that seemed to be straight out of Persian history. Messengers of Death is a triptych that is imbued with war imagery, more specific to Islamic extremists, replete with ticking bombs, ominous wires and terrifying blades. Like others, this piece presents a challenge to the viewer to scan the many mechanical forms and uncover various forms and images. Distorted and contorted faces come together to form an overwhelming scene reminiscent of the confusion and chaos right before (and post) the attacks of suicide bombers in public places. The piece reeks of death. Unknown Sisters is more female oriented, as ‘shuttlecock burqa’-clad women (sadly another image synonymous today with the Islamic world) come together with arms and knives. This sinister piece reveals how women, too, have become a part of this conundrum, either literally, or in their perception when seen by the rest of the world. This is a war not only between Islamic extremists and the world, but also between the true Islam and its universal perception. The bombs seem to be waiting to detonate. Domestic Pegasus gives the mythical Greek horse a new definition as this symbol of freedom is instead seen in a scene filled with carnage. Its pure white is taken over by the greys of its surroundings, as the components that create it seem to echo those of the half-bird, half-man creatures in the same frame- they are all made of mechanical components and again, bombs and shells. This scene seems to be set in the sky as men appear amidst clouds, and either seem to be at war with Pegasus, or in pursuit of it. Nevertheless, this fantastical piece seems to be the only one from the series depicting a ray of hope as Pegasus endeavours to struggle and escape from its fate- perhaps an allusion to the notion of the domestic, daily lives of many Muslims that entail a constant struggle, but also a constant resolve to break free. What Kianey hopes to achieve by depicting these terrifying scenes is a question to ponder over. Why reiterate all that we already know about the state of the Muslim world, and are trying to break free from? Is it because we have become immune to all that is, or is this artist’s personal struggle against desensitisation? We can only formulate our own conclusions.