At first glance one sees a crudely done pen drawing of human figures on a tracing paper; but a closer look lets the viewer discover that the playful figures on the semi-transparent paper are scribbled on a close-up photo of a fashion model’s seductive and luscious lips. One realizes soon that this drawing with the image of lips underneath the tracing paper, has been made into a photographic image. In such a work, part of the Full-blown Entities series, Mustafa Zaman raises issues of female identity, feminine stereotypes, the female body and fetishism.
Zaman takes photos from magazines, places tracing papers on them, and dribbles sketches on the sheet. The photomontage is then photographed and enlarged. The magazine images underneath the tracing paper are not always recognizable; indeed, they are blurry. These are parody advertisements, designed to critique relations between commercial design and the way popular culture moulds people’s lives.
In Full-blown Entities-16 we see scribbles of a nude male figure, rushing towards something and then see the visage of a young woman appearing through the tracing paper. Zaman shows how images of women are constructed by the male-dominated media, which shape the way women see themselves. The work is intended to expose stereotypes that reflect the prevailing power relationships affecting women and men. The image also points to the Freudianinspired notions of women as somehow lacking the phallus and connotes the essential unimportance of the female sexual response.
The Full-blown Entities series has been presented as a personal photo album. It disrupts narrative, calls into question the divide between high and low art and makes one wonder if art is at all a vehicle of elevation and improvement.
A black and white image of a burka-clad woman becomes subject of the tracing sketch Full-blown Entities-6. The line drawing of a nude in an inviting pose imposed on the burka image implies that the malegaze dominates our collective psyche and that no burka can actually prevent us from fantasizing the female body even when fully covered.
Zaman mines fashion and pornographic magazines, his own discarded or unfinished watercolour paintings, photography, digital prints, video clips, found objects, and extruded polystyrene foam. It is out of this rich interbreeding of method and materials that his absorbing works for the current exhibition ‘Automated Subjectivities’ arises.
He scribbles directly on a female nude image of a sprinter preparing to start off in The Mourning After-1. The sprinter’s head has been replaced with what can be discerned as a fragment of a face and her apparent fitness is supported by fragile anamorphic line drawings. He makes fun of the conventional sporting image and subverts the aura associated with sporting icons and conveys to us that in contemporary life the pervasive influence of images from film, TV, advertising has led to a loss of the distinction between real and the imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth. At the loss of the real we are only left with the virtual. The result is a society of ‘simulacra’ as described by the French theorist Jean Baudrillard where all distinctions between the real and the virtual are eroded.
For Zaman’s next series Caught in the Shadows between the Eyes he photographs his own shadows on the wall and then scribbled sketches on the shadowy and playful images. In the fifth work of the series a weightless dismembered torso hangs from a head. The disproportioned head is seen gobbling a cylindrical body parts slashed away from the female figure. The scene is grotesque and disturbing. In most of Zaman’s drawings the figures are headless, dismembered and devoid of any personality. There seems to be no way of apprehending their psyche. Here he is critiquing the repressive image of reason. With the loss of the real there has been a loss of the standard individual, person or self that could be the object of study. Following the French theorists Deleuze and Guattari he gives primacy to parts over the composite psyche. He sifts his focus from fixed norms that order life to life as an open and creative whole of proliferating connections. For him, self is not governed by any fixed norm or image, a self in flux and becoming, rather than one subservient to Law.
The End-game and Ecstasy series interrogates the way the repetition is inherent in cultural imagery and has the particular ideological function of presenting and positioning ‘feminine’ subjectivity as stable and fixed. The pictures of the series are blurry and hazy photographs of magazine or newspaper images of women in different postures. Zaman puts blobs of play dough on the images and then makes them subject of his photography by quick backward and forward movement of the camera to achieve a hazy effect. He focuses on the ‘maleness’ of the representing camera eye. The male heterosexual viewer prefers women receptive to touch and as easy to shape as is play-dough.
Zaman never leaves the viewer in a comfortable viewing position as his works interrogate, question and upset received notions of the relations between text/image, non-art/art, theory/practice by installing the conventions of both and then by undermining the borders along which each can be opened and altered by the other in new ways.
Tacky, risqué and gyrating dance clips from popular Bengali cinema projected on three unplugged irons placed on a table constitute the content of the video installation Caught between the Untouchables. The ultimate aim of sexually explicit dance moves of Bengali cinema is to provide pleasure to the male audience. The audience identifies with the hero of the movie. Today’s commodity culture is dedicated to enjoyment. The enjoyment dictated by our pleasure principle, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, induces in consumers the desire to look good, healthy, young, and to be slim. The imperative is that you should be consuming, shopping, eating, and indulging in your basic instincts. The pressure to do more, see more, enjoy more actually makes people deeply unhappy.
If Mustafa Zaman focuses on the politics of representation, calling our attention to the politics of how we represent ourselves to ourselves, his co-artist in this duet exhibition Rafiqul Shuvo contests the essentialist notion of meaning. For Shuvo meaning is not inherent in signs, nor in what they refer to, but results purely from the relationships between them. Any meaning or identity is provisional and relative and constantly shifting with the medium of expression.
In the video installation Liquid, a gravity-defying headless human figure is seen floating upside down with green slimy substance gushing out from the headless torso. The found image (from the net) of the three-dimensional figure wrapped in tape was edited and made into video. The video pits a three dimensional picture against a two dimensional video projection. Shuvo’s video installations and sculptures are self reflective in the sense they look at the process of language itself. For him medium is the ultimate message.
The sculpture Candlelight Vigil by Mustafa Zaman done in wax and extruded polystyrene foam is a white human figure with two hands raised towards the sky. The two hands are actually candle stands. The flame of the candle is to flicker throughout the 12-day exhibition.
The French theorist Jean-François Lyotard once wrote that the job of the artist is to question the role of the grand narratives that subsume individual lives. The human candle of Mustafa Zaman with its flickering flames seems doing his job of keeping a vigil at apparent apolitical innocence of our visual images and verbal stories, asserting that these construct rather than reflect our experience of the world.
[A fellow of the Contemporary British Writer Programme, Cambridge University, UK, Ziaul Karim is a prolific writer and internationally published art critic.]