Text | Sara Yawar
Visuals | Courtesy Sanat Initiative
A solo exhibition titled ‘You think you know me!’ by artist Irfan Gul Dahri was showcased at Sanat Initiative in Karachi on the 20th of December, 2019. Born in Shahdadpur, Sindh, Dahri is a Lahore-based artist who holds a Master’s Degree from the National College of Arts and was awarded the Charles Wallace Visiting Artist Fellowship for 2013/2014 to study at Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London. He has been widely exhibited across Pakistan, UAE, Singapore, UK, USA, and India and has had the privilege of being granted multiple art residencies. He also participated in the Karachi Biennale, 2019. Dahri’s recent body of work comprises of figurative paintings dedicated to the #MeToo movement, currently the most highlighted topic of fourth-wave feminism focusing on women empowerment.
Dahri painted visuals of women distorted into eatables and mundane items, possibly a comment upon their rampant objectification. Using an earthy palette, the subjects are featured amongst bizarre landscapes, creating interesting yet mysterious combinations, leaving the viewer slightly unsettled. The first and the most noticeable motif in Dahri’s work is the use of stuffed animals – in some visuals they are being clutched by the subjects while others have them simply as supporting elements. One of his visuals depicts a female figure clutching a stuffed bear while she is popping out of an oozing ice cream cone. The subject is dressed as a young girl but is visibly a matured adult; perhaps she is being portrayed as an object of lust or as a child who is a victim of abuse, as the artist’s reflection upon the #MeToo movement. In another visual, a woman dressed in black is shown to be holding a stuffed animal by its tail, while being blindfolded with a sleeping mask. Not only does this particular image suggest a situation in which the subject is a victim of abuse, but also that the blindfold hints towards the victim being continuously doubted, from whom people demand proof without considering the situation.
Another interesting observation that can be made about Dahri’s visuals is the use of small-scale motifs he applies to complement his imagery; taking the example of the woman with the blindfold, a tiny animal has been placed behind her back as if it is providing support to her. This tiny detail, which has been made most indistinct in the entire composition, could be reflection of the unconscious mind of either the subject or artist, allowing open interpretation. Similarly, in another visual, a woman is morphed into an eatable, possibly a Popsicle; upon closer inspection, one can see small figures of animals are shown to be falling out from the Popsicle’s body. These little objects could be representations of repressed memories or episodes experienced by the artist or the subjects, who have been victims, visible only if reflected on, as these are details that do not manifest to many. Dahri has also added ghost-like apparitions to his paintings; in one visual, a woman has been depicted smoking a fish instead of a cigarette while the apparition of a rabbit is shown beside her. The subject gives off an eerie stare, as if her gaze is staring back at the viewer, almost as though the audience is her reflection, perhaps even mirroring the artist himself. If one studies the overall work of the artist, one cannot help but notice the minute details the artist gives to support his concept. For instance, a visual depicts a woman in a backless dress while eyes are shown popping out from her back. This visual creates a sense of peculiarity as well as a potential reflection of the male gaze that follows the female body. Despite the fact that his visuals could be depicting completely different thoughts, his paintings have the quality of being open to individual meaning making.
From using a murky color palette to ghastly shadows to distorted figures, Dahri’s visuals have a unique quality that keeps the viewer engaged and forces the audience to contemplate the scope of his imagination. Not only does his work promote a universal cause but also creates the opportunity to engage with feminist artwork from a male’s viewpoint, which is an experience in itself. His work will conceivably encourage future artists, male or female, to support feminist movements and motivate creatives to develop a language that focuses on observing that which is not visible to the untrained eye.
About the author:
Sara Yawar is an artist, designer, and writer based in Karachi who graduated with a BFA from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2017. Since then, she has been writing for various magazines which include DAWN and ArtNow Pakistan.