When a Grown Man Plays with Dolls

Noor Jehan Mecklai on the work of an artist full of surprises, displayed at Karachi’s Full Circle Gallery

When a Grown Man Plays with Dolls
Some years ago, a few notable books were written by doctors - e.g. Jurassic Park by Michael Crighton, who was actually preparing for MBBS. Then recently we enjoyed psychologist Qinza Najm’s enigmatic art exhibition ‘Becoming a Woman,’ here in Karachi. More recently Paul Mehdi Rizvi’s show at Full Circle Gallery, Karachi, received various comments from viewers, with some saying that it was a powerful show. Some even said it was one of his best. In principle, as he explains, it was a pictorial explanation of late cinematics. As an intending psychiatrist , disgusted by his fellow students’ politics and occasional violent behaviour, he opted instead for MBBS. But nevertheless he gives a detailed explanation of theories concerning childhood – in somewhat academic language, rather than that of childhood. One of his statements is that when Sigmund Freud first propounded his theories, he not only changed the way childhood is perceived, but potentially bequeathed to us a mode of existence based on a frank apperception of human instincts. Needless to say, much has been said of Freud’s theories, but it is only from a direct reading of his collected works and teaching that one arrives at the core of his stated intentions.

However, it was left to Jean Piaget to help us further understand infantile and juvenile schematics of human consciousness as it sallies forth into the world. Furthermore, it is not only with the aid of Freud, Piaget, Bakhtin and Benjamin that we see here a frank engagement with the pre-verbal state of infant consciousness. In fact, we see it move from naive playfulness to the cognizant, from the vicissitudes of infantile instincts to the intentional use of scholarly cinematic language. And underlying all of this is an important trend in (recent) psychoanalytical theory – that is, the effort to find the deep-rooted joy of living as part of consciousness.

Paul shares with us as follows concerning the genesis of his show, in which some exhibits are clearly photographic, while others are hand painted in various media:

“Conceived and initiated by creating a miniature set in my studio in 2014, and then once more specifically for this exhibition, the series is a reclamation of my professional training in photography and film-making, combined with my in-depth studies in Freudian psychoanalysis. Subsequently the project has evolved within the ‘real world’ in tandem with social media (used as a gallery without walls), in which dolls have functioned as surrogates in a way, often enough to ‘comment’ on topical issues.”

'Selfies, Demon Cats & Lion Headed Demoness' (set of three) - 41 x 36 cm - Acrylic and Mixed Media - Silver Foil on Canvas

He was once asked in an interview, “Is it your choice to make your works look gruesome and frightening? Why does the work in this show border on mythology, and mysterious beings like enigma, demons and jinns? Are you intentionally trying to make the dolls look evil?”

His most informative answer was: “Sometimes artists, young minds, too, delight in playing with the limits of terrifying things. The enigma in question is actually the puzzle that is the depth of our repressed and suppressed memories: ways of thinking and the strange workings of psychodynamics. The supposed ‘unconscious’ (mind) is not called ‘the Dark Continent’ for nothing.”

And one is tempted to ask, “What can you expect when a grown man plays with dolls - or anything else for that matter?”

So much depends on his background: his studies, his life experience and so forth. Let’s give the artist the freedom to express himself as he will; and with Paul’s background, one can expect something pretty unusual.

'Woman of Spiders'

Spiders appear in his works. The same interviewer asked why. However, much of his work is devoted to analyzing the mind of the child, and one can say that having been children ourselves, we know how children (especially boys) are fascinated by nasties and creepy-crawlies. But also, we can forgive him for using spiders as a playful take on the use of dolls in rain-making and other ceremonies in North and South American indigenous communities. They are not evil entities, and in fact the one shown here is rather cute - more like a doll wearing a spider costume, rendered in inkjet pigments on archival paper, and placed in a dignified frame. In analyzing his work, we must bear in mind two things - his sense of humour and the enormous range of his studies.

Cats? They are in fact very spiritual animals, and have appeared in a number of Paul’s works, often in the form of portraits of a set of cat figurines in his collection. Here and there he has given them more active roles rather than that of the self-contained creatures, lounging about, which we often give them. If we see his “Demon Celebrations,” where a few cats are dancing in their own style - there’s nothing demonic about them. They are playful rather than demonic, each one with its own individuality. To tell the truth, cats have long been thought of as natural healers, even down to the effect of their purring, with its vibes ranging from 20 to 140 Hz. Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians held them in the highest esteem, and they were included in social and religious practices in Egypt for over 3,000 years. They were often mummified after death. Furthermore, Paul’s hand-painted picture titled “The Prime Mover,” shows a well-muscled cat, somewhat human in appearance, holding a large snake, and this is evidence of how cats were often regarded as the protectors of the pharaoh, due to their ability to kill venomous snakes and so on.

'Selfies, Demon Cats & Dolls' (set of three)

Now to “The Umbalala lala Dancers’ Story” in which dancing hardly appears. The title is a playful combination of linguistic and dance rhythms,while a prominent feature in four of these slides is a large ‘H’ figure, somewhat like a totem pole or an oversized rugby football goalpost. One notices, however, two smiling faces, one etched into each side of the upper portion – and are there two sets of feet? In fact this H structure as Paul explains, is actually composed of two small figures, joined at the hands and feet and representing Plato’s unitary beings. Plato believed that originally humans were fused in pairs, and later split apart, thus sending each individual on a permanent quest to bond with another, and regain the state of “homeostasis.” (But) psychologically speaking, they represent the infantile psyche that is a happy unit unto itself until worked on by external reality, which destroys this jouissance. Then the enemies - i.e. society, parents and such turn up to disturb that unity.

“Very young children,” he continues, “often take dolls and toys apart to see what happens, and switch things around.” But as to the two dancers presented here, one dressed like a spaceman, one with a metal rod exiting from its head, the artist had “No intention to make them look like anything. Just a ‘Because’ and a ‘Why Not’ at work, as the inner trickster suggested.” So such ideas and Plato apparently make up much of the dancers’ story.

Paul’s work is full of surprises, as for example in “Levitation and Collapse,” a slide selected from his frightfully detached and academic photo-essay, describing how experiments were carried out on various substances. So it is from this study that his picture arises, showing yet another of his pink plastic dolls, this one having collapsed near a coil of plastic material. But what is levitation? As normally understood, it is the result of the supernatural action of psychic power or spiritual energy. So a person in a state of spiritual ecstasy may thus be lifted off the ground - usually about 6 inches - while the face and figure are bathed in a mysterious radiance. Various eastern mystics, and saints such as St. John Bosco and St. Joseph of Copertino, have been observed in levitation. But no doubt, if the state of ecstasy were for some reason to disappear, then the levitator would fall, just as, if one were walking on fire as a spiritual exercise and lost concentration, one’s feet would be burnt to a greater or lesser degree. So what happened to Paul’s doll, and under what circumstances?

This is a most remarkable exhibition of works by a man of tremendous intellect, knowledge and imagination. As aforesaid, viewing his works one must bear in mind his sense of humour and his encyclopaedic knowledge.