Emperor’s Jaded Clothes
Muhammad Ali’s paintings in his recent oeuvre title Emperor’s New Clothes reflect his customary satirical, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek humor that serves to address overriding issues of gender and other identities, idiosyncrasies of societal norms and the rules of convention that govern us with such rigor. In the past, Ali has used representations of celebrities in his works that augment the narrative with their own personae. The issue with using recognizable personalities is that they overwhelm the narrative and don’t leave room for the discourse to expand. Yet Muhammad Ali has a penchant for skillfully deconstructing the personality and ensuring that his personal voice is raised at perfect pitch for the sake of argument without devolving into babble.
Last year, in 2015 for a show in Philadelphia, Ali experimented with using ordinary people as heroes of their own particular dramas. It worked with viability because the non-partisan, objective vision was exalted and the stillness of the moment that he was trying to freeze was heightened, leaving time and space for the viewer to inject his/her own subjectivities and narratives. The work resonated with a darker, more somber and introspective view than before and this served to negotiate a more profound discourse. A comfortable sense of identification entered the relationship between the viewer and the subject, and a conversation ensued that we had hoped would continue to dominate his practice.
Over the years, Ali has been subjected to endless admonishment over his use of sexual nuances, with critics berating his explicitness and suggesting sensationalism as his only goal. This may perhaps have been the case but since Pakistani viewers are unused to casual, unguarded images of sexuality in art, the shock – and the denigration – were not unexpected. Knowing the artist here helps to see his point of view. His sexually overt approach to art is an inherent part of his candidness as an artist who has a viewpoint to express, not an ostentatious statement to pronounce. As an artist, Anwar Saeed speaks of many of the issues that Muhammad Ali does except that there is a considered quietude in Saeed’s work because of his many years of pursuing a lucid scrutiny of the world in relation to his world. Muhammad Ali is young yet, and his flamboyance stems from the insouciance of youthfulness. For more objective viewers, Ali’s colorful, larger than life figures are just plain fun.
In the past Ali has used the sharp contrast of dissimilar images in contradictory settings to create a studied ambience of sharp satire and humor
In the past Ali has used the sharp contrast of dissimilar images in contradictory settings to create a studied ambience of sharp satire and humor. He has used food to reference sexuality, gluttony, the need for satiation, human frailty and mortality. But none of it works in the present body of work. His Mona Lisa eating a pizza and the Virgin Mary buying diapers for her baby or stealing a few minutes of much treasured self gratification with an ice cream choc bar would make viewers smile but it is the amusement we receive from seeing a meme on our phones, rather than a painting of grand proportions that aims to induce humor by combining the gravitas of classicism in myths, histories and art with day-to-day moments of flippancy.
Artists would do well to steer clear of recreating images they see in virtual chat rooms or even ones that may have similarities to such trivia. We mustn’t ignore the deluge of images that inundate us daily for it is the culture of our day and it has a place in our lives. But it does not make for art. This is where the quality of humor must also be addressed. It is a characteristic so arbitrary that what makes one person break out in laughter would make another’s skin crawl with indignation.