By Sonya Rehman
On the surface, Mahnoor Hussain’s contemporary miniature art depicts a world that is ridiculously amusing and tragically hilarious…veering off into a unique brand of nuttiness. However upon closer inspection, Hussain’s paintings point towards grim themes that explore human psychosis: self-delusion, mania, isolation and more.
In an interview with Paperazzi, the immensely talented NCA graduate (currently based in Chicago) speaks about the grim theme behind her last solo show and the subjects encapsulated within her unique brand of art.
The subjects of your miniature paintings are unique and rather quirky – please tell me a little about the themes of some of your paintings.
Born and raised in Lahore, one will understand the nature of life here and how intricately yet firmly food is linked to our lives. The quirkiness might have been a conscious effort initially, but I’ve come to realize it’s possibly just how I view things. I say it was a conscious effort because when I started creating my own work – it was heading in a rather depressive and somber direction. That made me uncomfortable. I did not want to create more darkness and depression. So yes, it was a conscious decision to inject humor into what I was creating. Maybe it’s my ostrich outlook of life. But the subconscious cannot be denied. I created vibrant images with overweight merry people, who seemed disconnected from their environment and were wrapped up warmly in their own cocoon. On the face of it, it’s a happy image. But if you actually look at it for a while – the darkness will hit you. They’re lonely and sad images. In ‘Circling the Drain,’ a group of women are dancing with abandonment; however the other viewpoint is, there are two women who are unaware of each other’s existence and have no contact whatsoever, except through these imaginary friends they’ve created. ‘Seduction’ is of a laughing man, happy with the abundance of food surrounding him. The cats in the image seem to be pets of his. But again it could actually just be an overweight man, trying to hoard more food than he can eat. The cats, take on a sinister role, ignoring the food lying in the corner, wanting the big shiny pile that belongs to someone else. Predators. Again, the man has been placed in a lonely and slightly delusional role.
You exhibited your work at the Taseer Art Gallery last year in Lahore. What was the theme behind your solo show, ‘Together We Stand Alone?’
The theme at its core is about questioning the isolation of self we all deal with at different levels. The disappointments we experience from the world and how, in reaction, we create our own bubble of happiness. Self defense against the basic truth: we are born and we live, we love and we hate, we earn and acquire, discover and forget, mend and break – but the one thing that remains constant through the changing tides of our existence is the fact that we came into this world alone…and alone we shall depart from it. I wouldn’t say my paintings are very complicated. I wouldn’t say they consist of heavy symbolism. What I would say is my work is honest, upfront and at times downright basic.
‘Rukhsana and her dhol’ is a portrayal of a woman unaware of her appearance, not caring of her surroundings and just being merry. It’s her moment. She’s just happy to have her dhol by her. It could be a view into our own lives and how we’re so focused on materialistic objects. Our only relationships seem to be based on our attachment to ‘things’ rather than people. The surrounding crows in the painting depict a forever reminder of the truth that cannot be denied and the existence of an outside world other than our bubble. ‘Akbar’ focuses on the same theme. A self-proclaimed King, happy with his paper crown. To most he might seem delusional. Yet in Akbar’s world only he exists, there is no one else to refute his claim. A fool’s paradise if you wish to call it.
What kind of subjects do you like to paint and bring to light?
My themes are just my thoughts – it’s not a planned, systematically processed structure. It’s more free falling and at times, completely spontaneous and a bit of an outrageous process. I feel like we’re surrounded by such political, social and worldly disasters that I tend to focus on what’s within (which unfortunately cannot be isolated from the external influences). It just makes sense to inject humor into it everything without taking away the gravity of the matter; after all, the ability to laugh in the face of dire circumstances is the essence of survival. If I had to sum it all up, I would have to say my core theme is a reflection on a world gone mad. The subjects I tend to focus on are all based on human behaviour; obsession, isolation, and hysteria. I’m fascinated by our capacity to react and cope with what life throws our way.
As a young Pakistani artist, what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced or are currently facing?
One challenge would be that miniature painting has undergone a recent revival, as opposed to other art forms; contemporary miniature is quite the newborn. Therefore, the exposure is limited. Obviously like everything else, if an art form becomes stagnant, in time it will fade and be forgotten, especially in today’s fast-paced world. It is only natural for art to thrive and to absorb its influencing surroundings. Trying to break free from the set characteristics of the traditional form was enough of a challenge, but the bigger challenge is having people accept the change. Luckily for our generation, we have artists like Imran Qureshi, Shazia Sikander and Nusra Lateef who have paved the way internationally for contemporary miniatures.
What’s your take on the current art scene in Pakistan? Is it encouraging towards new talent?
Pakistan’s art scene is evolving at a faster rate than expected, honestly speaking. We have new galleries that focus solely on promoting new art. We have forums and exhibits encouraging new talent. Lately the concept of art residencies has also caught on – with R.M Naeem leading the culture. There was one recently held in Murree which was conceptualized by the late Prof. Dr. Farakh A. Khan. So yes, I would say new talent does receive the boost it needs. We’re also lucky that our senior artists are promoting new talent, both locally and internationally.
Paperazzi, Pakistan Today