Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Common Man

I look down my office window and on the street and notice the sweat stained back of a man, bent over his cart, rearranging the fruits and fanning the flies away.

I see a fellow, naked to the waist, balancing a container of cement on the top of his head while making his way up the building that is under construction.

On my way back home, I look outside the window of my car and notice a rickshaw driver across the street smoking a cigarette while waiting for customers.

And then there is one tying the drawstring on his shalwar after peeing along the side of the main road.

Another knocks on the window of my car, insisting that I buy the rosaries that he is selling.

These men from our everyday environment that surround us all the time, are the primary source of inspiration for Basir Mahmood and the subject of his works in his debut solo exhibition, In the Time of Telling, recently shown at Grey Noise. His photographs and videos realistically depict these subjects, stressing the banality of life. Mahmood, who is a fresh graduate of BNU, emphasizes the importance of class identity as a significant social identity in people’s daily lives and its influence on the formation of our society and culture.
Mahmood, Basir, 'Untitled 5,7 &10', collage with/on archival photo paper, 12 x 16", 2010.
Mahmood, Basir, still from video Manmade, 2010.

While trying to explore the system of class divisions and the formation of social identities, Mahmood’s intentions range from emphatic documentation to specific criticism of social inequality. A series of 12 untitled photographs, sized 12” by 16”, is a type of documentary p1.hotography that voyeuristically features his subjects in candid situations within public places without their knowledge, in fact the images give an impression of being extracted from a surveillance camera installed on the street. Where as, in his video, Manmade, he assumes the role of a director. Manmade is an approximately 10 mins long silent video, for which a common worker wearing a loongi and kurta is paid to undress in front of the camera and get into a three-piece suit provided by the artist. The artist is not physically present in this work but you nevertheless feel his presence while the model is in continuous dialogue with the man behind the camera (Mahmood), seeking his approval before putting on any item of clothing. Manmade is perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece in the show, and the most confusing for me. On one hand it is clearly a critique of the experiences of the working class in urban settings, while on the other hand it victimizes the subject and replicates the very social hierarchies that it wishes to criticize, with a great potential to dissolve into mere parody. Despite the difference in his changing role when handling the camera between the various works, a compassionate observation remains constant in Mahmood’s work. Perhaps with his video Manmade, the artsist is also, sarcastically referring to the plight of the colonial subject, who has learnt the ways of a ‘civilized’ ‘democratic’ society, only by wearing a suit, tie and boots.

Art that is concerned with the life of the common man refers back to the works of artists like Courbet, Millet, Walker Evans, e.t.c and in particular to the implications of the socio-realist movement of the 19th Century which later became a very important movement in America during the ‘Great Depression’. Also, Mahmood’s focus on the realities of contemporary lives of the working class, particularly the poor is comparable to the social consciousness of the Realists in depicting the subjects as they appear in everyday life. His interest in the lives of the majority and not the elite, focuses on the representation of objective reality instead of excessive emotional jargon.
Mahmood, Basir, 'Portrait Series', 40 x 26", archival photo paper on 350 gm paper, 2010

We do not build up our impressions of one another trait by trait. Instead, we bring to the interpretation a number of pre-existing prototypes and our observations of people leads us to categorize them as being like one or another of these prototypes, existing inside or outside our own familiar world. Portraiture, for Mahmood is attuned to trace histories, memories and the layers of influences that make up a person’s identity/prototypes. His portrait series, 40” by 26” each, is a careful assimilation of various faces with socio-economic and cultural similarities, to create one portrait, critiquing the ‘construction’ of social identities and assigned social roles (prescribed by the society) versus the reality of their individual identities. “Although the lips, eyes, nostrils, and ears all belong to different men, when juxtaposed they accumulate into a generic whole, questioning the relationship between identity and social generalizations within a disintegrating society”1. Camera, being the most accessible and immediate for such explorations, adds a layer to the way real is perceived, questioning the nature of truth/reality in constructed representations while “photography guises the directorial into documentary”2.
Mahmood, Basir, ‘My Father’ (video still), 2mins 9 sec looped, shown on 3.5 inch screen, 2010.

We have learnt to look at art as the artist’s subjective experience and personal opinions translated in the form of objects/images, which calls for the knowledge of the identity of the artist, their life events and their statements (which often acquire more value than the work itself). Hence, the biographical materials available for a definitive or even a tentative interpretation of creativity grant extreme value to the artist. Unfortunately, I know nothing about Mahmood, for my validation of the content/context of these images. But, one video in the show, titled My Father (approx 2mins long), without revealing the face of the subject, shows the hands and a few gray hair of the beard of an old man (presumably the artist’s father) continuously failing at his attempts to put the end of a thread into the hole of a sewing needle. Those worker hands indeed caught my attention, which makes me wonder if Basir Mahmood is a man living amidst the world he has portrayed.

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