IN LOVING MEMORY: Rani
The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.—
(Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle - Thesis 37).
Cinema is one of the most glaring manifestations of a ‘spectacle’; to the extent that cinema is synonymous with spectacle. It conjures images of extravagant display and performance, much of whose appeal derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer. This spectacularity of the filmic medium, organized around the production and consumption of images, is highly dependent on the skills of its actors. Through this consumption, in the sense of belief or to give credence to, the actor elicits emotional responses from the audience, becoming exemplary heroes of the spectator’s life. Such an exemplary hero is the subject of the exhibition, titled ‘Icon’, organized jointly by the Lahore Arts Council and the Rohtas 2 Gallery, to pay tribute to the Pakistani actress Rani, on her 18th death anniversary. The driving force behind the exhibition is Rabia Anwar, her daughter, a painter, whose work has always been inspired by the woman, Rani.
Rani, whose acting career span over almost three decades, needs little introduction especially among her generation. My father remembers her as an electrifying performer, while my mother still bears in mind her dialogues with that trademark wit and rhyme. Admired for her picture-perfect beauty, her versatile acting and dance performances, and some of the songs picturized on her, are classics in the history of Pakistani cinema. Rani stood as an icon for a particular cultural era.
Twenty-one notable and emerging artists were asked to make work for this tribute show, including Asim Akhtar, Abdul Jabbar Gul, Adeel Ahmed, Adeel uz Zafar, Ahsan Jamal, Ali Azmat, Amber Hammad, Asad Hayee, Atif Khan, Hassan Mujtaba, Madhia Sikander, Mohammad Ahmed, Muhammad Ashraf, Risham Syed, Sadaf Naeem, Saeed Akhtar, Saira Dar, Sheraz Faisal, Zeeshan Memon and Rabia herself.
Since its Rani’s face, whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies, most of the works in the show presented a physical likeness, picking key images that define her iconic status within her acting career, yet sticking to the face. Such an approach on one hand links the development of celebrity culture within the technological development of modern day image making, while on the other, to be interested in a portrait as a record of what the subject looked like is not the same as being aesthetically interested in the portrait as representation. Some of the portraits ended up being mere surrogates for their subject, lacking an aesthetic interest; as Scruton writes that “an aesthetic interest in representation is not only for the sake of its subject, but in representation for its own sake”, (Arguing about art: contemporary philosophical debates, Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, pg 193, Routledge, NY, 2002). This makes one wonder about the works’ reason to be, of recreating a replica of her image, when it already exists as an image, and if changing the medium alone helps. However, there are a few works in which this confrontation with Rani’s image is accompanied by other visual codes/clues, that help to read the work beyond its face value. Adeel uz Zafar’s mixed media on photographic paper, titled ‘star’, uses humor, irony and exaggeration, combining romance and horror in an attempt to thrill and terrify, in order to present an idealized portrait of a difficult life. Amber Hammad’s perception of Rani was bi-fold: an object of desire and perhaps a role model. Her digital print on canvas is a reproduction of Rani’s image from a dance performance, manipulated to replace Rani’s face with Hammad’s. Such impersonations are a recurring feature in Hammad’s work. Zeeshan Memon’s 3 feet x 4 feet oil painting, speaks of the Pakistani Cinema in general and the cultural/gendered stereotypes it instills. The image presents two (male and female) headless bodies, possibly the hero and the heroine, holding hands, the hero wearing a kurta is holding a klashinakov in his hand. The heroine’s fat thighs, flabby arms and a pot-belly are revealed through fitted flowery tights and a short bright kurti. The visual clues provided here speak of romance, violence, pleasure, irony of the armed act of romancing, gender codes and a very different notion of beauty that Punjabi or Pushto cinema promotes. Memon’s painting also makes subtle references to the, now obsolete, tradition of cinema hoarding painting, but the scale defers that reference.
The act of looking at these works is no less voyeuristic than the cinema itself, at once hallucinatory and distanced, suggesting the space of an imaginary world, with which the viewer engages privately, but disconnectedly. It reproduces traditionist / symbolist reading of the female, as either muse or femme fatale. Just as the narrative of film’s effect locates the power of the gaze within male spectatorship, the works intentionally fetishizes the female into a sexual object and spectacle. Asad Hayee’s necktie, titled ‘theater of indifference’ is a good example. Rani’s two images, as a cabaret dancer and a tawaif (courtesan), repeated on a digitally printed canvas to make it speaks of pleasure and consumption, presenting the female as an ‘image’, while the male as the bearer of the look, referring to the automatic assumption of a male spectator. Similarly, Ahsan Jamal and Madiha Sikander’s ‘untitled’ collaborative piece, unfortunately enclosed in an acrylic box, appears to be an interactive book (perhaps). The cover of the book is an old Nikon film camera, with a peeping hole in place of the lens, through which a ‘dream girl’ kind of an image of Rani is visible. Hayee has also used the same cabaret dancer image on the necktie. Jamal and Sikander are also making references to the way the camera reflects, reveals, and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference, the camera’s phallic presence and the attributes associated, such as shooting, aiming.. The voyeuristic feature is so prominent that it would be hard to give an example of a work where it is absent.
Thematic shows are a very ambivalent thing. It is often a pretext to the show and a framework for the works, but not an aim in itself, yet it has the potential to turn into an aim and that is when it becomes mere illustration. It is important for the theme to sit nicely in the space, not be imposing and remain a pretext. Despite the fact that this bridging of high art and popular culture is a unique idea for us and more so, the show intends to raise funds for a noble cause of facilitating a free ambulance service for the patients of Rani Rafiqun Memorial Hospital and not to mention that despite all setbacks it liberated an art exhibition from the boredom and confines of the burqa, guns, the flag, the missiles, and the minarets, acknowledging fantasy, play and spontaneity, the works demand a little less space and a lot more light than the Alhamra can offer.