The success of the bizarre is often embedded in its subtlety; blatantly absurd visuals might have shock value, but they have the potential to become caricatures. It is usually the monster that you cannot see that scares you the most after all.
Anas Ghauri’s work does enough to give us that inkling of unease, that peripheral disquiet that tells us something is not quite as it should be, which serves to have a much greater impact than would the jarringly grotesque.
Anas Ghauri’s first solo show opened at Sanat Gallery on the 2nd of August, full of his signature grey-scale drawings of lifelike clothing along with newer works with faces turned upside down. The realistic execution subdues the absurdity of the impossibly twisted clothing and the flipped facial features, but at the same time highlights it as well; the unusual tends to become more conspicuous within the context of normalcy.
For his politically charged portraits, Ghauri makes use of the Thatcher Effect to critique the vile nature of political parties and their leaders, and our inability to see what is right in front of us. The Thatcher Effect is an interesting illusion where the eye is unable to detect certain irregularities when a portrait is upside-down. As the image flips, the smile turns to a scowl and the eyes take on an ominous glare, the overall effect is quite chilling.
In this case it is used on the faces of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sheikh Rashid, General Pervez Musharraf and even the crowd favorite PTI chairman Imran Khan. Ghauri believes that they are all the same, appearing to be what they are not, twisting the truth around to conceal it from the masses. Injustice, treachery, corruption, dishonesty is rampant in politics, and have become the norm, expected even. This translates into our inability to perceive the peculiar nature of their faces, the upside-down image appearing more normal than the ones right way up.
However, one cannot help but be underwhelmed by the result as you flip the image. Ghauri does work in subtlety but in the presence of countless photographs committed to the Thatcher Effect yielding more fierce results, we expect these politicians to look a lot uglier and more threatening when seen the right way up. Perhaps the philosophical implications of using this particular phenomenon are more important here than the actual physical manifestations.
While the injustices of these politicians take root in a hunger for power, elsewhere we also see symbols of abused authority and control. We see a police uniform in “Policeman” twisted impossibly with only the hint of a body inside to accentuate the incongruity. We see presidential attire in “Mr.”, with a suit and tie and a power-pose, but the missing trousers leave the underpants on display and serve a crass insult to the title. The word “strong” on the waistband has a tongue-in- cheek aptness.
We also see a torn vest with a pristine tie in “Phatti Bunyan”, a culmination of the verse, “Cheekh uthta hai badan mera phati bunyan se, Bara collar sajaaye phirta hoon main”. Beneath the facade of grandiosity and power lie the wounds of humanity, both physical and emotional. This piece represents the common man; we are all the same injured souls underneath.
These three pieces perfectly encapsulate the politics of power, control, oppression and submission. Yet it is striking that while the portraits show us very specific and recognisable faces, here we see no faces, nor a body that could act as a personal signifier. The power lies in the attire regardless of the wearer, and in the absence of one, Ghauri points out the universality of the issues. The power of the uniform is being exploited to inflict control rather than to serve and protect the world over, with news after news of police brutality making headlines with no serious repercussions for the perpetrators.
Using articles of clothing to subvert the norms of society is not a new phenomenon in Ghauri’s work. We feel the presence of the body giving shape to the clothes, amplifying the distortions. It began with a bomb blast that occurred in an area that he frequented and which held nostalgic significance for him. He felt disoriented, watching all these authority figures walking around the chaos, seeming out of place, too normal for the dire circumstances. He decided to dress a model in upside down clothes, so that he seemed at home lying in the rubble. The clothes then became a nonconformist symbol, put in an ordinary situation to show us that something is not right.
While it is not a novel idea bringing our attention to the treacherous world of Pakistani politics, Ghauri’s use of clothing and illusions puts an interesting twist on the subject, and reminds us of our own role in enabling the abusers. In our crazy upside down world, 'ulta' seems to make more sense.
The artist says it best himself in Ghalibs words: Bazeecha-e-itfal hai duniya meray aage, Hota hai shab-o-roz tamasha meray aage (The world is a children’s playground before me Night and Day, this theatre is enacted before me).