Shades of Grey

By Sonya Rehman

Situated in suburban Lahore, ‘Grey Noise’ (a relatively new art gallery in the city) is displaying Shahlalae Jamil’s first solo exhibition (in Pakistan) and is running from the 13th to the 31st of January.

The sky is overcast, its expectant belly full. It’d been drizzling a while ago and the gravel beneath my wheels crunches deliciously as I turn into the small lane where ‘Grey Noise’ is situated, towards my right. Lahore hasn’t seen rain for a while, and the grey austerity of winter seems to be replaced by a mixture of azure and silver traces – across the sky – like the slivers of trail made by a snail.

Evergreen, and plush, the city seems to have slowly woken up from her deep stupor. Heavy-lidded and languorous, she stretches out, like a panther when it begins to drizzle again. She curls inward, purring. Walking up the stairs, I enter a small room. Towards my left, a black chair and a telephone set are situated. A few small video screens (with accompanying headphones) line the wall infront of me. Looking over the wall division on the right, I spot a single bed – with a bright orange quilt thrown over it.

And up ahead near a glass desk and chairs, 21 pages of text are pinned across the wall. This is Shahlalae’s work. Light, meaningful and slightly intense. Pick up the phone – near the black chair – and you will hear a recording of Shahlalae speaking. Put on the headphones, and watch a dialogue unfold. Lie down on the bed, and hear another gentle flow of conversation – that neither seems to have a beginning nor an end – taking place. Titled ‘Conversations at the edge’, Shahlalae’s audio-visual work traces the relationship between herself and Siraj, a friend who makes his living by driving a taxi in Chicago.

But the theme of the artist’s work isn’t as black and white as it appears to be. Infact, Shahlalae’s work comprises of many hues of grey…which question, touch upon, prod at and emphasize the challenges of maintaining such a friendship – while taking into account conformist class divides. Shahlalae describes ‘Conversations at the edge’ as “raw” and “honest” – something which is meant to “break boundaries” – when I speak to her over the phone, a few hours before she’s to fly back to the Big Apple, where she resides. “This piece of work”, she quips, “is a sociological experiment about why we think the way we do. This is the first project I’ve done about someone who isn’t so close to me. It made me step outside my own comfort zone.”

In an excerpt from one of the conversations, Siraj states: “I drive a taxi, it doesn’t mean I am unprofessional or that I’m a family driver”. “The things I want to make are the things I want to understand”, states Shahlalae in an excerpt from ‘Display 8’ (the wall-hanging pages of text), “One of these things is to know what would happen if I told someone in Karachi – you could have a Ph.D, that you are a taxi driver…meaning I want to know about class consciousness and class boundaries at home and here. How was this friendship made possible?” This is what ‘Conversations at the edge’ highlights – the stark class division between two friends, and the stinging awareness of it.

After walking through the gallery and reading snippets from Shahlalae’s ‘Display 8’, I sit down across from Umer Butt – the owner and curator of ‘Grey Noise’. He’s tall and light-eyed, has a shaved head, sports glasses and sits snugly in a black wind-breaker jacket. Umer’s the expressive kind, the type who moves and dices his hands in the air for greater emphasis as he speaks. He tells me that he seeks out artists – to represent under the ‘Grey Noise’ banner – who actually have the personality of an ‘artist’.

Umer Butt

And this was made apparent to me, much later as I browsed through his catalogue which introduces and highlights the work of the 11 artists that Umer currently represents. “I’m listening to the demands of my artists and how they foresee their work to be exhibited. I’m also trying my best to make their work seen across the globe through my website and my exhibitions.” The current group of artists that ‘Grey Noise’ represents, I noticed – via the catalogue – are incredibly diverse. For instance, Mehreen Murtaza’s digital print piece (in sepia tone) which depicts Dr. A Q Khan in a black eye-mask amidst a tank and hordes of people was fascinating and almost impish in its overall theme and message. Amna Hashmi’s ‘The Airship Plans’ was also very, very ‘cool’…I really can’t find a better word to describe Amna’s work which is a comic book whose characters look like something out of Japanese anime! And I found myself almost disappointed to only get to read/see two pages of Amna’s work in the catalogue.

Imran Ahmad on the other hand in his ‘sketch for the installation “Hum”’ illustrates 5 Urdu words which slant down flirtatiously across the page. They read: “Woh, Aap, Tum, Mein, Tuu”. Original and out of the box – in the choice of mediums and themes – are the artists of ‘Grey Noise’. The kind that produce work which makes you step back, tilt your head a little and soak it all in.

The kind which baffles, amuses and confuses you at the same time. The 11 artists are new-age without being pseudo – and almost 3D in their subject portrayal. Just like Shahlalae in her topical, ‘Conversations at the edge.’ Therefore it comes as no surprise when Umer tells me that he wouldn’t really be interested in taking on artists who produce purely commercial work.

And regarding the future of ‘Grey Noise’? “I want to slowly sink into the art scene”, says Umer. Perhaps that’s what art really ought to be all about – to make your thoughts sink in and be enveloped, gradually…with all its swirls and hues.

The Friday Times

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