Saba Ahmed on the searing political comment in Julius John’s artwork

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Lending a much-needed hand to the growth of contemporary art in Pakistan, Seher Tareen recently showcased the work of artist Julius John at Rohtas Gallery in Lahore. Having broadcast the work of minority artists, in particular the Hazaras, for her Master’s thesis while at St. Martin’s in London, Tareen continues to hold a candle to the flame of Pakistani art. “It’s important to elucidate what artists have to say about the social and political situation in a country,” she says.

But what does Julius John, the artist whose work Tareen has curated, want to show? We find a deeply personal response to the physical and emotional encroachments of the State. John was born and raised in Kot Lakhpat. He has spoken about the “ganda naala” that divides the posh areas of the city from the relatively impoverished quarters of the Christian community. Three years ago, the government razed the settlements to make a road. The decision naturally altered the landscape, but it also left a deep imprint on John.

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John decided to create something directly on the walls of the gallery. His work consists of three parts: two-dimensional wall paintings, an installation, and the play of light and shadow. Upon entering, the gallery is shrouded in darkness. Linear shadows merge and flicker on the walls. A dim glow outside the window illuminates the shadows cast by the trees; it is the only trace of light inside. Ambiguous spaces, seemingly ruinous and barren, are rendered on the walls in strong strokes of black pastel. There is a single Christmas tree bathed in red. Next to it, a bathtub oozes black tar.

John has developed his own system of cartography: successive photography, counting his steps as well as counting landmarks, like trees and bridges

Painting directly on the walls is one of the most powerful things about John’s work. Once the show comes down, the walls will be painted over. In the moment of viewing, however, the observer can’t help but be immersed in the piece. People who came to the gallery in a cheery mood left melancholic and perhaps even a little depressed: John holds a stark mirror to the society we live in. It made me think that there is no such thing as “apolitical art” in Pakistan. In a country ravaged by violence, the political seeps into every aspect of the personal. John’s Christmas tree is not brimming with shiny baubles; it is blood-soaked.

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About the show, Tareen said, “I wanted to create an experience for viewers unlike most commercial art exhibitions where you have sculptures on pedestals and paintings on the walls. P.S. {ART} has been able to break free of the shackles of run-of-the-mill gallery shows where art work waits obediently to be purchased by trend-chasing enthusiasts.”

John told me he was inspired by the Situationist movement of the ‘70’s, in which a group of artists and architects believed that the city should be a constant source of wonderment for its inhabitants. Their process involved moving through the city, documenting it and making alternate maps that they referred to as psycho-geographical maps. Similarly, John has developed his own system of cartography: successive photography, counting his steps as well as counting landmarks, like trees and bridges. John shared an example to illustrate his process: “There is a piece I have done titled 3000 steps of solitude: I walked along an open sewer and photographed the houses situated on the other side of the sewer. I would take a photograph every 30 steps and in total, ended up taking about 3000 steps. Conclusively, I drew all the steps using a solder rod on thermal paper and joined the photographs together.”

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The Christmas tree is not brimming with shiny baubles; it is blood-soaked

Before the show went up, Tareen was away in London while John was at the gallery for a span of two weeks; the space was his and he could do as he pleased. Tareen returned to find everything covered in black pastel. “For him, it was a very creative, immersive process. There is tremendous immensity in his strokes.”

Creative it certainly is, but I left the gallery feeling both awe-struck and sad. John’s art is an unmistakable response to the violence of the State.

Good Times

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