The issue of identity has never been discussed with as much vigour — at least amongst artists — as in the 21st century. It is our sense of identity or nonexistence of it that creates the idea of the ‘other’, of dissimilarities, of distinctness.

Renowned artist Khadim Ali touches upon this topic by using Firdausi’s epic poem Shahnama as his source of inspiration in an exhibition titled The Otherness which is under way at the Chawkandi Art Gallery.

Now Shahnama, those of us who are familiar with literature would know, primarily traces the history of Persia. Firdausi does not give a date-wise account of things, but, while tracing the trajectory of the land he belongs to, muses philosophically on subjects like the tussle between good and evil, and the beginnings and ends of all things tangible. Khadim Ali takes that idea and sets it against the contemporary world. How so? Curatorial notes tell the viewer that it is when the artist visited Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban in 2001 that made him think of the concept of imparting a new meaning to the main character in Shahnama.

The viewer, mind you, has to be very attentive while seeing his seven gouache-and-gold-leaf-on-wasli artworks, all of which are serialised as ‘The Otherness’, because getting immersed in the meaning of the paintings might not do justice to Khadim Ali’s craft — and it will be overlooked. He is not an artist who would overly cram the frame with disparate images. He surrounds his protagonist with shapes, white doodling lines and colours that are a world unto themselves.

So there are two layers to his work: one — that has the Shahnama link to it; two — the world of art which can be interpreted differently from the given notes. In both cases, though, it is impossible to lose sight of history. Even in the latter case, his detailing of the images speaks volumes for a refined miniaturist approach to art. This is the kind of work where content and form become mutually reinforcing.

The show will conclude on July 18.

Originally published in Dawn, July 14th, 2017