It’s Always Tea Time

Jovita Alvares on Shanzay Subzwari's show at Lahore's Taseer Art Gallery

It’s Always Tea Time
Alice hadn’t gone very far before stopping at the house of the March Hare and found a large table set up. The Mad Hatter and March Hare sat, enjoying tea as a little dormouse slept in between. Seeing Alice, they insisted there was no room for the uninvited guest but she made it a point to join them anyway.

In her latest solo at Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore, Shanzay Subzwari depicts this scene from the famous tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll that was later adapted to animation by Disney. Similar to the animation, the Hatter and Hare sit around Alice while surrounded by several teapots, but unlike the cartoon, Alice is faceless as the eerie Eye of Providence also sits on the table staring back at the audience.

'Down, down, down' - Gouache on printed note - 6 x 2.5 inches - 2018

Much like the Disney movie and original story, hidden truths of reality emerge through the vibrant paintings of the artist. Subzwari’s work has been concerned with ideas of currency, pop culture and the deception it plays on people – which is something that happens constantly to Alice after she runs through the rabbit hole. By using the protagonist’s adventures as visual metaphors, the artist draws parallels to the harsh truths of our past and present. Subzwari also recalls her formal training as a miniature painter and amalgamates characters from the style into this oeuvre.

In her piece ‘If something made sense for a change’, Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait on the Indian Rupee Note was given a painted makeover with funky glasses and a new hairdo that is uncanny in its resemblance to Queen Elizabeth’s signature hairstyle. The glasses are opaque with the image of a red rose on one side, perhaps a connection to the term ‘rose coloured glasses’. In the left corner of the note the unmistakable portrait of Osama bin Laden hides while men adapted from Mughal miniature paintings try to gun him down from the other side.

With several scenes of history overlapping each other, the work becomes not only a reminder of the past but also a forewarning of what is to come as history tends to repeat itself. Much like the oblivious state of the Subcontinent as the colonisers sunk their roots into the land, as depicted by the blinded Gandhi, so too does our country sit idly by while allowing Superpowers to dictate behind the scenes.

'I wonder if I've been changed in the night' - 22 x 30 inches - Gouache on archival paper - 2018

In Wonderland, the Queen sneakily gets white roses painted red, easily an allegory of deception

Currency notes of Pakistan, Canada, America and Britain were also painted over and displayed for the exhibition. The resulting images were satirical and included an Abraham Lincoln with a black eye and a Queen Elizabeth wearing the crown of the impulsive and overpowering Queen of Hearts from Wonderland. It is interesting to note that the illustrated Queen was thought to be a caricature of Queen Victoria, which creates an exciting connection with fiction and present. The Quaid on the Pakistani Rupee is depicted alongside the considerably fair-minded and meek King of Hearts and the Emperor Shah Jahan who was considered the most competent of Jahangir’s four sons.

Throughout the body of work, the symbol of the rose is one of the most recurrent. The flower that was important to the Queen of Hearts is loaded with metaphors of beauty, love and positivity. However, in Wonderland, the Queen sneakily gets white roses painted red, easily an allegory of deception. Subzwari also used blue roses in her work; these flowers did not occur naturally in the real world and instead were artificially transformed – therefore, becoming symbols of mystery.

Another recurring motif in the work is the Eye of Providence. The Eye is a symbol of an all-seeing God watching over humanity and is well-known for being on the American dollar, on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States. With its association to the United States, the most powerful government in the world, one can’t help but be a little on edge and think of the government as Big Brother. By the Eye appearing nonchalantly in the pieces, Subzwari provides subtle reminders that not only does the government have ultimate control but seemingly holy symbols often take on darker meanings when in the hand of humans.

'Would you like a little more tea' - 40 x 26 inches - Gouache and mixed media on archival paper - 2018

On the eventful day that Alice followed the frantic rabbit to Wonderland, she was absolutely bored and tired of her reality. Using the tale as a representation for the real world, one realises that perhaps, these elements of pop culture and monetary value are also modes of escapism for us from our realities. Flashy markers of material wealth are sure to provide the owner with happiness that is unique and create a protective veil excluding the sufferings and tiresome truths of life. However, materiality can only go so far – and this temporary façade, like Alice’s Wonderland, will fade and eventually one must scurry out the rabbit hole and face their futures.

Jovita Alvares graduated as valedictorian of her class at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 2016. She is a visual artist and writer for several publications. She lives and works in Karachi, Pakistan