Solo Show | Adeel uz Zafar
Curated by Aasim Akhtar
We come to life surrounded by animals. They’re among the first things we reach for as they hover over our cots in the shape of colourful toys; as stuffed teddies they spend the night with us, making us feel safe and warm; thereafter, as we grow older, they are ever-present through illustrated books, photographs, wildlife documentaries, films, as pets and pest, at the zoo, in the city, in the countryside, as entertainers or sports partners. Partly, it may be because animals are such an integral part of our daily lives, from the very beginning, that we somehow end up taking them for granted, and that we come to see them as accessories to the human condition.
Through the challenges raised by post-colonial studies, the concept of otherness has become central to the contemporary debate. The binary oppositions of ideals that kept Western civilisation stable in illusory definiteness are splintering, raising the possibility for a radical and critical revision of our certainties. The woman, the slave, the queer, the black and the savage have all been re-learnt through a continuous and infinite process of unlearning and reconfiguring. It therefore follows that the animal, the ultimate otherness of the animal, another subject of power relations, would also become part of the discourse. The challenge posed by the animal, however, is a radical one. Unlearning the animal means effectively to suspend one’s knowledge of nature in order to reconfigure it, or perhaps to let it reconfigure itself; it means to deconstruct the certainties offered by nature, in order to acquire a critical awareness of the relational modes we establish with animals, and simultaneously to find the courage to envision new ones.
On encountering Adeel uz Zafar’s animals for the first time, one feels a rare moment of instant intrigue. The quirkiness yet vulnerability of his work immediately connects with the viewer as we attempt to decipher the language used, the relationship between the drawn animals, the contradictions within their apparent ‘personalities’. Some appear to be in groups or clusters whilst others are more isolated, uncomfortable inside their skins, perhaps, struggling to escape. Certain characters appear to be juvenile; awkward and needy, both shy and attention seeking. Others command a more authoritative presence, older and perhaps wiser. Being/Becoming brings together a body of work developed over the last couple of years, a gathering of images that speak of contradictions familiar to all.
Using a variety of techniques like wrapping, binding and modelling, Zafar constructs and alters the form of stuffed toys. Based on these sculptural toys, Zafar’s engravings/etchings evolve organically and intuitively over a period of several days undergoing some dramatic changes in terms of size and orientation. They finally emerge from his studio as bizarre, otherworldly life forms with distinct personalities.
The development of Zafar’s work over the past three years has been remarkable. His early works focused more on the structure of the objects he started with, transforming them in ways that still retained their basic form, a skeleton that was visible beneath the skin of the materials he was using. When drawings gave way to sculptures, as in his last show to date Stranger than Fiction, they pushed the boundaries of complexity as several objects were combined together. Protruding limbs and genitalia, lumpy, hairy, knotted skin was created using fine needlepoint.
Zafar is interested in human beings and human nature; how we as conscious beings interact with one another and our different levels of identification and understanding, or lack of it. This duality of feeling is evident throughout the exhibition, ugly yet cute, scary yet vulnerable, alien with an element of humanity. Each being provokes a sense of sadness, a melancholy, a pity, evoking a need or a want to rescue these forsaken souls from their fate, to nurture and protect them.
Adeel uz Zafar’s images are more than strange; they are strangers. The difference lies in that moment in which they stop being simply the accumulations of the humble materials they are composed of, and become figures that we cannot help but give a sense of life to. They are strangers because whilst we give them a sense of life, whatever that life may be, it is nothing close to the normality of living things that we recognise in each other, nor in the conventional orders of the natural world. And they are strangers because they are at odds with current norms of how images are supposed to function in the gallery space. In every way they are interlopers, trespassers, squatters, eruptions, incursions into the bright white rectangles of the contemporary art gallery, into the normal orders of the organic, and into the relation between the active viewing subject and the sightless, inanimate object.
Zafar’s work presents the process of making things strange in a way that cuts across and combines these different dimensions of experience, a combination that happens with particular force under the banner of ‘drawing’. But if Zafar’s work can be seen as ‘drawings of sculptures’, this has meant an increasingly pointed investigation of the limits of how we understand what defines a drawing within art today. Zafar’s drawings of sculptures are, in effect, located in the blind spot of what we currently recognise as drawing, because it trespasses on a division which has become so conventional that it is often difficult to detect it, and difficult to remind ourselves that this division has not always been there.
This division arises because of contemporary art’s exclusion of two related approaches that had once been common in modernist art; the handmade and the trace of the organic. Both have waned since the rise of an attitude amongst sculptors that rejected the human figure, and the modelling of materials, as significant ways to continue the making of art. It is easy to forget that up until the post-war period, modernist sculpture could still entertain the possibility of its medium as ‘sculpted’ – hand-formed, hand-worked sculpture in which the final product was the outcome of a process of handling formless matter, clay for example, sometimes setting it permanently in some other equally malleable material, such as bronze. Long associated with such methods was an artistic tradition that maintained the artistic status of statuary as a legitimate concern for art. The description of physical form, whether human or animal, articulated the difference between inanimate matter and animate, organic life. The manipulation of matter, and the mimetic representation of living form underpinned modern sculpture up until only recently.
Zafar’s work is therefore a recuperation of that lost form of thinking about sculptural manufacture, and its potential relation to subject matter. His approach re-examines craft technique, humble materials and a more fantastical range of visual references, much at odds with the austere or critical tendencies of artists rooted in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, to find precedents to Zafar’s work means reaching past that period to artists such as the German-born Eva Hesse’s use of soft materials and suggestive forms. In other words, a broader legacy that draws on the resources of surrealism as much as the attention to organic, rather than hard matter that an artist such as Hesse opened up.
To point to such disparate connections inevitably opens on the core of Zafar’s work, of how its use of disparaged or marginal sculptural strategies are in close affinity with its affective and emotional content which itself revives past artistic concerns, and how this informs its development from the modification of already made objects to the development of ‘unknown’ forms, to the appearance of strangers. Zafar’s sensibility is a surrealist one, albeit updated by the new conditions of our cultural period, and it is normal that the emotional charge of his work should draw on the energy of that legacy. But to suggest that connection it is also necessary to examine how it differs, and how Zafar’s work presents us with novel formulations of the strange, formulations which reveal a distinct purpose for that strangeness, that eventually turn out to be more about empathy and proximity than shock or disgust.
If the effect of many of his works is initially to shock or repel, this serves to emphasise the empathic outcome of the encounter with his work, and how it departs from any nonchalant consideration of the entity as merely a set of signifying elements to be looked at dispassionately. Zafar’s art is one full of biomorphs and anthropomorphs, organic shapes and human shapes, and our response to those forms cannot work purely objectively; despite ourselves, experiencing Zafar’s forms always involves an element of projection, the imaginary conviction that what is there has some sort of independent consciousness, and which therefore provokes a moment of fellow-feeling, even if this is torn between recognition and disgust.
What stands out in Zafar’s play between the biomorphic and anthropomorphic, that which produces the uneasy combination of empathy and repugnance, is the sense of wholeness and coherence of his figures. Unlike many contemporary artists, Zafar’s figures are not about the fragmentation of the body, but the wholeness that is part human, part-biomorph, a wholeness that permits intentionality and purpose.
In works, such as Bunny, recognisable toy animals are made indistinct by a process of layered gauze bandage wrapping, out of which often emerges a protuberance or in which elements interpenetrate – pregnant or procreative. Zafar’s forms are self-sufficient entities, caught in various physical situations that become acute registers of emotional states. Hybridising human gesture provides the foundations for an irrevocably empathic response to these almost-animate beings. That their imaginary dynamism and soft forms are countered by the hard reality of their production lends them an inevitable pathos.
Whilst the figures of his drawings draw on a range of stylistic attitudes rooted in a common culture – science fiction, horror, comic strip, and animated cartoons – these are never treated from a position of pastiche or irony. However strange these beings, one is startled to find one’s own sense of self projected into them. It is impossible to look at Monster III or Two Roos without acknowledging those moments in life when even the act of standing up seems too hard; this could be hilarious or tragic. But these figures do not explain themselves in such specific terms; the act of standing up is living matter’s elementary defiance of gravity.
Zafar’s work has developed as a sort of lexicon of gesture and feeling in which human self-awareness is fused with its analogues in the world of non-human living beings, the primitive and unconscious forms that have preceded our evolution and culture. Throughout Zafar’s works, we find images of solitude and proximity, intimacy, coupling, striving, anxiety, failure, mutual support, giving and exchange, birth, torment, exhaustion and calm. In their cartoonish simplicity, his forms contain no irrelevant information; if the human body can gesture all these expressions at different times, Zafar allows us to focus on and contemplate each in its single intensity.
Precisely because these forms appear to be hybrids, they maintain a tense sense of their spontaneous emergence; Zafar’s figures are always in the state of coming together and breaking apart, the consequence of their symbolic transience. If the terms creature and creation correspond closely, then art works, even if they can never be alive in any biological sense, are nevertheless the outcome of a human consciousness. The human act of producing meaning through shape and form, first personal and then public, distantly similar but no longer analogous to natural self-production, is the ongoing narrative that Adeel uz Zafar’s work seeks to explore.
By Aasim Akhtar