Art media

With ‘Suspended in Time’, Ali Kazim tackles the debate of decolonization in art

One of the many captivating highlights of Ali Kazim’s exhibition suspended in time at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is The Conference of Birds, a five-panel watercolor based on the 12th-century allegorical Sufi poem by Farid al-Din ‘Attar. In the poem, ‘Attar describes the journey of a flock of birds in search of their king. In Kazim’s visual rendition of this Persian classic, various bird species soar skyward, each bird delicately painted in contrasting tones of black and gray reminiscent of East Asian ink painting. .

At Kazim’s The conference of Birds was inspired by ancient terracotta birds from the Ashmolean Museum’s South Asian collection. In 2019, he was named the first South Asian Artist in Residence at the museum at the invitation of the Classical Art Research Center at the University of Oxford. While the purpose of the residency was to work specifically with the Gandharan collection, he also had access to the South Asian collection.

The collections of the Ashmolean of Gandhara are rich and include sculptures of the Buddha and narrative scenes from his life in addition to devotional objects used in Buddhist worship. While Kazim would have already encountered Gandharian art, the residency at the Ashmolean allowed him to further engage with it. It was this commitment that ultimately resulted in suspended in time.

La Conférence des Oiseaux, 2019. Watercolor pigments on paper, 5 parts, 198 x 114 cm each. © Ali Kazim, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Professor Mallica Kumbera Landrus, Curator and Head of Oriental Art Department at the Ashmolean Museum, said of suspended in time in an accompanying note, “[Kazim’s work] offers deep engagement with the Museum’s collections and the art and history of the subcontinent. Ali has a unique ability to create images that are both timeless and unlike anything you’ve seen before. »

Kazim was born in 1979 in a small town in the Punjab province of Pakistan and began his artistic career by painting cinema signs. The work sowed in him a passion and a curiosity for the fine arts. He enrolled at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, where, working with students from diverse backgrounds, he flourished. From there he pursued a master’s degree at the Slade School of Art in London, participated in prestigious exhibitions and is now an assistant professor at the National College of Arts.

Ruins, 2018. Watercolor pigments on paper, 184 x 342 cm. © Ali Kazim, courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

suspended in time addresses the debate on decolonization that shapes conversations and practices in Western institutions with the central question: how should historical objects be presented to contemporary audiences? Many objects in Ashmolean’s South Asian collection came from the former Indian Institute at Oxford, where they had originally been used to showcase the British Empire and train colonial officials.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Faisal Devji, a professor of Indian history at Oxford University, writes of the artist: “Kazim’s work there did not seek to address the history of colonial collections simply by contextualizing the artifacts and marking their links to the empire (as if in retribution). Rather, it has made the Museum’s collections a place and a source of new artistic productions. Kazim does not rename the past but uses the Ashmolean to inspire the creation of a true post-colonial culture in the present.

The artist was inspired by ancient Indian artifacts from the museum to create some of the works on display. The painting series Ruins was enhanced by photographs he took of Indus shards in the museum’s collections. After returning to Pakistan from the residency, he visited unexcavated mounds at the Harrapan sites, where he discovered many clay shards. Based on this, he created the Ruins monochrome series – the result of assembling hundreds of images of shards and landscapes.

His wash techniques are derived from studying the surface of a collection of Bengal School paintings in the Lahore Museum. At the Ashmolean, he continued his engagement with Mughal, Rajput as well as company school painting in his man of faith series. Almost floating and saturated with thin layers of watercolor washes, the subjects have monumental dignity, suspended in space and time.

In the June 2021 conversation, which was reproduced in the exhibition catalog, Landrus asks Kazim about his views on Western misconceptions about art in Pakistan and the subcontinent? He has answered:

“Currently, the West doesn’t think of art and culture when it thinks of Pakistan. People often associate the country with bearded men and the Taliban. The media are responsible for this representation; in movies, Pakistanis are often bad guys. I think that until the discipline of the study of art history includes equal reference to the Orient, Pakistan will remain on the artistic periphery. Additionally, European and North American museums focus primarily on Western art, and museum galleries devoted to the Orient are often found at the back or side of the building. More recently, some South Asian artists have been offered gallery space and exhibitions, but overall I don’t think there is proportional representation in museums, despite a large diaspora. If we, the artists of the subcontinent, focus more on the development and distribution of our work on a global level, it will help to change these problems of representation.

Ali Kazim: suspended in time is on view at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England until June 26, 2022.

Farida Ali is a London-based art historian.