Ever let the fancy roam

Noor Jehan Mecklai goes to an exhibition at Karachi’s Chawkandi Gallery, celebrating the relationship between visual art and storytelling

Ever let the fancy roam
Albert Einstein once remarked, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Meanwhile, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz interprets fairy tales, based on Jung’s view of them, as a spontaneous and naive product of the soul – “the purest and simplest expression of man’s collective unconscious psychic processes.” These tales involve magical creatures, such as fairies, dwarfs, elves, dragons, witches, giants, ogres and unicorns. These, as suggested by von Franz, are products of human imagination.

All ancient civilisations had their folk tales, such as the Japanese art of kamishibai, with a history dating from the 12th century, and still practised today. In this, the storyteller would engage his audience with narratives accompanied by a series of illustrations on paper (the basic idea of kamishibai has been adopted nowadays as a teaching aid in several countries).

'Father' - by Sara Khan - Watercolour and gouache on paper - 11 x 15 inches - 2018

But it was mostly in India that storytelling developed into an art. It was here that the Persians learned it, and passed it on to the Arabs. From the Middle East, folk tales found their way to Constantinople and Venice. Eventually they appeared in England and France, spreading further from there. While both fairy tales and folk tales have roots in the oral tradition, the latter derive their stories from real-life phenomena, and people who actually lived. A case in point is the English tale of Dick Whittington, a story found in other cultures also, concerning a poor boy who was helped to power and riches by his cat.

Scholars have explored the origins of folk tales, and traced the relationship between variants and stories like the above, recounted by cultures around the world. One example is ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, whilst ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is found as far back in history as the Bronze Age. It is difficult to identify absolutely the difference between fairy tales and folk tales, as many of the latter are found in books of fairy tales produced by such eminent scholars as the 19th century Brothers Grimm. What’s more, a number of fairy tales contain no fairies.In fact the oldest known folk tale, The Smith and the Devil is to be seen in their collection of 209 fairy tales. Incidentally these eminent scholars have gone so far as to say that many of the tales that they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language group.

'Mistress of the Copper Mines' - by Haya Zaidi - Acrylics, collage, glitter and spray paint on polyester film - 18 x 24 inches - 2018

Five artists were each given a tale to interpret, and thus have given their own interpretations in mixed media, employing their own visions and understandings

The recent exhibition titled ‘Ever let the fancy roam’, held at Chawkandi Gallery, Karachi, and curated by Dua Abbas Rizvi, is centred on fairy tales and folk tales from different regions of the world. As suggested above, the accumulated wisdom of the past has been employed in them, and they, like the tales from other regions, originated not among the elite, but amongst the unlettered. Five artists were each given a tale to interpret, and thus have given their own interpretations in mixed media, employing their own visions and understandings. So we see this new work by Mohsin Shafi, Maria Khan, Suleman Khilji, Sara Khan and Haya Zaidi, illustrating the connection between art and fiction.

Royalty appears in tales from diverse cultures, and Maria Khan’s 2 pieces titled ‘Misfortune’ are based on the story of a daughter of the Queen of Spain. The king has disappeared, defeated and robbed of his territories in war, so the queen and her 7 daughters go to live in a tiny hovel. A stranger persuades her to send the princess called Misfortune away, so that her luck would change and she would regain the lost kingdom. Like obedient daughters in such stories, Misfortune willingly leaves, and suffers many hardships until the happy ending. She is rewarded by marriage to a prince, the queen then recovering all that was lost. Maria has given 2 clear and touching images in charcoal and pastels on canvas, showing the aged Misfortune, still trying to look beautiful, though time and misfortune have taken a heavy toll of her face. Images of youth and ageing are a part of Maria’s work.

'Miss Fortune' - by Maria Khan - Charcoal and pastels on canvas - 30 x 42 inches - 2018

‘The man who bought a dream’ is the basis of Suleman Khilji’s contribution, in pastels and oil on linen. It is a folk tale from Japan, based on the common desire for riches, and the use of trickery in order to beat the hero to his goal. The hero, having bought the dream, sets off to find a jar of gold pieces beneath the garden of the richest man in Osaka, far away. This mention of the richest man brings to mind the huge property near Osaka Castle, originally owned then bequeathed to the city by Fujita Denzaburo, the first man in Japan to have been made a baron. The hero finds the house, but the greedy owner quickly finds the jar - empty -  and on returning home empty handed, the seeker finds that all the gold has flown to his house, since it was intended for him in the first place.

Suleman has given us three pictures, and at first it seems that this is clearly a case where celebration of the relationship between art and storytelling comes first. But as he explained, he is from Quetta, and he has shown us all three characters in the story in the guise of men from Balochistan.  One piece is untitled. Another is titled ‘A vibrant man from Coastal Balochistan,’ and this shows, bearded and bespectacled, nattily dressed, the man who  buys the dream, while the piece titled ‘Johnny Death from Frontier,’( nickname of a college friend) depicts the wealthiest man in Osaka.  The untitled piece shows the man who sells the dream, a dignified, bearded old man, typical of Quetta elders who have many tales to tell, many dreams to recall. One imagines he has heard many Baloch people telling of their dreams of going to a far-off city where the streets are ‘paved with gold,’ to find more money than they can hope for where they are. Suleman has presented this thoughtful man sitting in the wilderness on an eye-catching red carpet against the background of low hills.  In the blue-grey sky are many Urdu alphabets, showing fragments of a Persian poem about dreams. So the painter is a dreamer, too.

'The Dreamseller' - by Suleman Khilji - Pigment pastels and oils on linen - 57 x 48 inches - 2018

From India we have ‘The King of Cheats,’  portrayed by Mohsin Shafi in a lively, hand-cut mixed media collage.  The story is that two men set out on a massive cheating programme, at one stage blaming a crow for their own stealing.  But they are finally outwitted by one whom they call The King of Cheats, and are left feeling that though a cheat is meant to outwit others, he should know when to quit, as it is more painful than any disease if he himself is deceived.  In Mohsin’s collage, the crow - himself internationally renowned as a cunning cheat - sits on the head of the king, who sits in the centre with his double-barrelled gun and his cartridge belt, while others, both cheated persons and defeated cheats with eyes masked, stand around amongst the paraphernalia shown by the artist.  The piece, pleasing to the eye, is done in mellow shades of brown, yellow, even a little pink.

Born of her father instead of her mother, abandoned at birth according to her mother’s orders, in this somewhat bloodthirsty folk tale from the Bedouin culture of Egypt, the unwanted girl child is rescued and brought up by a falcon.  The tale, titled ‘The Falcon’s Daughter,’ weaves its way through desire and desperation, murder and mutilation, and sexual aberration, and is illustrated by Sara Khan. Eventually a regeneration takes place,  and in the tradition of fairy tales, a kind of happy ending is seen.  The question arises as to whether or not this tale was presented unexpurgated, as opposed to ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales,’ which were originally far more cruel than what was finally published for children.

Casting aside all these sordid details, Sara has shown us the father, quite uncomfortable judging by his facial expression and his awkward stance, even down to the position of his fingers. He is obviously in late pregnancy, and carrying in his belly not a child but a huge pomegranate, eaten by mistake and thus the cause of his pregnancy.  Inside this well-detailed fruit is a sign of new life in the form of a tree against a bright blue sky, while a leafless tree, possibly signifying the death of the mother, is shown on his lower garment.
Suleman has presented this thoughtful man sitting in the wilderness on an eye-catching red carpet against the background of low hills. In the blue-grey sky are many Urdu alphabets, showing fragments of a Persian poem about dreams. So the painter is a dreamer, too

Mountains containing huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels appear in a number of fairy tales, guarded by characters well acquainted with evil, and ‘The Mistress of the Copper Mountain,’ a Russian tale illustrated by Haya Zaidi, is one such story.  The artist has used  the tale to explore the feminist concerns that underlie her work.  Regarding the mistress of the mountain, one observes the correlation between empowered female sexuality and evil found in many fairy tales. Interestingly, copper is associated with the planet Venus, Venus being the goddess of love in Greek mythology.  The mistress gives the hero a task, in common with many fairytale characters in authority, then changes into a lizard, saying she will marry him if he completes it.

Haya has presented the lizard form of the copper mountain’s mistress, a rhythmic composition due to the strings of jewels surrounding her.  Her face has certain human features, such as full lips somehow suggesting cruelty, and her large eyes, suggestive of sensuality decorated with emeralds. Her lizard body has stylised red scales at intervals, and the artist has cleverly given her one human arm and one lizard’s forelimb. The moral of the story is that neither the good man nor the bad man will find happiness in loving her.

The curator informs us that this show was principally intended as an exercise in celebrating the relationship between visual art and storytelling.  Copies of the stories were given to the artists, the viewers and interested critics. Reading these one marvels at the use of familiar plots and traditional devices employed in various cultures, and appreciates the ingenuity of the artists’ interpretations.