Art, politics and mockery

Is political satire in art a mockery of art? We don’t seem to have much contemporary art that can boast of such ability, at least in our part of the world. The closest we come to it is cartoons.

I have already written about the painting at the Shanakht festival that got into trouble:

The controversial painting at the Shanakht festival

There have been questions raised as to whether it is art or even satire. Both are difficult to define and cannot be seen objectively.

There can be very dark commentary, as Iranian artist Ardeshir Mohassess portrays:

Ardeshir Mohassess' 'Against the wall'

Quite a bit of Salvador Dali’s works would qualify as parody.

It is even possible to go way back into the 16th century. Artist Jacob Jordaens’ The Satyr by the Farmer is perhaps a telling commentary where the satyr is the cowering figure, while the farmers are in what may be described as a 'peasantly' expressive orgy. I am completely fascinated by how almost everyone is using their hands:

Political parody need not be obvious, but if it is then it can be analysed by those standards.

This brings us to the Shanakht painting. Almost everyone has spoken about it being objectionable because of the image of Benazir.

This is part of what I wrote in the earlier post:

It does not look like a tasteful idea but then reams have been written about how Pakistani democracy invariably plays along with the army. This happens to be historical reality. Besides, is art merely supposed to be tasteful and not comment wryly, or even with a whiplash, at prevalent norms and mishaps?

…If, say, Benazir is shown as Mother Teresa, would the moral-keepers of Pakistani society object to her non-Muslimness, her Indian connection or her canonisation, which is against Islam?

With the image now available to me, I would like to use the perceptive comment posted by mstaab (in italics here) to deconstruct it:

I haven't seen the work depicting Ms. Bhutto perched on Gen Zia's lap either; but one can well imagine. As a part of our paternity here in the west, we have such expressions as, "in the lap of luxury," which is suggestive of especial privilege. Another such expression plays off a fairly common domestic image of a child nestled comfortably on the lap of a parent or caregiver while being regaled with a story. We say "X learned it at Y's knee," which conveys the transference of cultural wisdom from an elder to a youngster. The image of Santa Claus in countless shopping malls across the US, hordes of children lined up to take their turn on his lap to make their particular request(s) for consumer goods, is still thought to illustrate the winsome innocence of children and their pressing desires.

The lap of luxury concept is rather obvious here where Benazir is dressed in finery. She is a grown woman and therefore an element of wiliness can be conjectured upon. Even coquettishness. She is also head and shoulders above Zia, which means that she knows her place. Is it the wisdom from an elder?

Zia got her father killed. So, if the artist was timing it ‘pre’ that period then the above may work. If it is ‘post’, then perhaps she was playing along or became a happy victim to get some gains and then topple him. Which she did.

Interestingly, the Islamist Zia is quite comfortable with her un-Islamic dress and posture and both are holding each other.

This would connote the rich kid who still yearns for Santa Claus goodies because of its…

Fairytale value
To belong
To cater to greed
To follow parental indoctrination

It must also be noted that she is the only one whose skin colour is close to real and not the pantomime mask of the rest, except the figure on the far right top.

Maybe her history is still fresh and therefore not concretised.

Certainly it makes sense that the personalities involved (Ms. Bhutto and Gen Zia, in this instance) might cue the viewer as to how this arrangement is to be interpreted. After all, there are countless paintings of "Madonna and Child" that depict a naked baby Jesus holding forth from the lap of a fully clothed Virgin Mother; but I have yet to hear of any interpretation of these works that suggests the naked (perhaps even "vulnerable") Christ-child as being, say, a ventriloquist's dummy…

Besides the point about vulnerability, there is the innocence factor too. The transposed innocence of the Virgin Mother’s with the child’s. Also the comfort level with nudity seeks to confirm the purity. And immaculateness.

However, this particular image shows a stern mother and a certain distancing. The child looks mature and is apparently already his own person:

13th century Madonna and child in the Italo-Byzantine style

The ventriloquist’s dummy brings me back to the Shanakht painting. Ayub Khan is carrying a baby Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Military dictatorship was a new phenomenon, and there is benign distance in the armyman’s demeanour, whereas an impetuous child Bhutto is holding him, while in deep thought looking ahead. This is again a part of recorded history. The petulant child found a new Santa, who is interestingly in the foreground.

Yahya Khan is shown as almost a ridiculous dwarf physically, but his face is in repose. Probably in the classical ‘sitting for a portrait’ mould. From all accounts, the gentleman behind him is Mujib-ur-Rehman. I am sticking my neck out with this, but if it is so it is sought to be shown that there was a tacit understanding between them that later failed. He is wearing almost priest-like robes, a fact that harks to his later beatification as the creator of Bangladesh and martyr for its cause.

Certainly many western (and eastern) businessmen have some familiarity with the "lap dance." And, likewise, there yet remains in the consciousness of some the not-altogether-bygone imagery of a secretary (generally female) with notepad in hand athwart the manager's lap (generally male), "taking dictation" (it may be helpful for folks from Mumbai to exchange the secretary for starlet and the manager for film director, with the activity being "learning his/her lines," lol).

The imagery of the lap dancer also means deceit; the belief that what you are paying for is really catering to you. The dancers’ motives are clear; the obfuscation of the clients’ understanding makes it poignant.

“Taking dictation” and lines being scripted are a part of any political tamasha.

Tasteless art is probably trying to reflect that very tastelessness.


  1. You think the artist put so much thinking?It is nice to read but I did not think so much.Did PPP understand all this that they protested?
    In the Jesus painting they are black

  2. KB:

    I should hope the artist put some thought, not necesrrly how I have put it! Did the PPP fellows think of all these metaphors? Perhaps not. But they were merely objecting to their icon being debased, as per their pov.

    Certain old schools of art, did portray a dark Madonna and Jesus. In fact, there are several cultural interpretations.

  3. Hi kb, Ms. Versey,

    I too think this essay is nice to read. I for one -- and for what it's worth -- think the artist responsible for the controversial Shanakht festival portrait put quite a bit of thinking into its creation.

    Certainly s/he might have been oblivious to the stir a depiction of a grown Benazir Bhutto on General Zia's lap would likely create -- there are indeed those among our friends and neighbors and countrymen who act without giving sufficient thought to the potential (immediate, much less long-term) consequences of their actions -- but my sense is that this is not the case in this instance.

    Did the PPP protesters understand what they were protesting before they acted? Perhaps a handful. Likely most deferred their thinking to others they considered better qualified to judge. After all, isn't such deference to qualification at the very heart of democracy and the "election" process?

    Of course, I could be mistaken.

    I am cheered, kb, that you noted the artist responsible for the Madonna and Child piece Ms. Versey provided had elected to portray Jesus and the Virgin as somewhat darker in skin tone than many, perhaps, are accustomed to seeing. Perhaps it was a shock, then, for viewers to be presented with Jesus and the Virgin in such a light. Perhaps there were protests -- perhaps there were demonstrations by folks not so appreciative of being confronted by an image that undermined Jesus and the Virgin's customary appearance -- that undermined the viewer's own expectations and/or world-view.

    Perhaps; and yet, in this instance -- this particular work -- I rather suspect the pair are somewhat darker complected simply because most folks then and there (Asia Minor, possibly North Africa, I'm guessing -- interestingly, the halos of the two miniatures above the two principal figures contribute to form two crescent shapes) were, in fact, somewhat darker complected. Darker is, was, then, what folks were accustomed to. That their complexion stood out to you -- caught your attention -- suggests to me that your expectations have been informed, shaped, moulded by images that portray members of the "holy family" as somewhat lighter complected.

    Hence I now know how to get your attention.

    Do artists (and advertisers and merchandisers) think about such ways to get your attention? Such is indeed likely, near as I can tell.

    Here's a thought: What do you suppose Ms. Versey meant when she observed that perhaps Benazir Bhutto's "history is still fresh and therefore not concretised" -- or, effectively, not yet "set in stone"?

  4. @mstaab, I dont think so much and have nothing against dark skin but we only see fair Jesus.Are you an artist??
    FV can tell why she wrote that about benazirs history,I will learn!!

  5. Hi mstaab, KB:

    I doubt if the artist wasn’t aware of the controversial nature of the work, and provocation is a valid form of protest.

    The counter-protestors, on the other hand, objected to the mere presence of their deity in such a work; there has been no studied objection, no analysis of nuance or motives. This is what makes it undemocratic.

    mstaab, you ask: Here's a thought: What do you suppose Ms. Versey meant when she observed that perhaps Benazir Bhutto's "history is still fresh and therefore not concretised" -- or, effectively, not yet "set in stone"?There is still an element of flexibility in her canonisation, therefore both her deification as well as an understanding of her political persona have not yet been “set in stone”. That is the reason the PPP came to power – as her legatees.

    On another note, I used this particular piece of Madonna and Child for indeed surprise, if not shock, value…I thought I’d leave that unsaid, but sharper minds do catch on!

    We have already discussed the subject of cultural versions of these religious icons. I read somewhere that there was a period when most art of this genre, among others, showed people with a darker complexion; not only was it reflective of how the prevalent society looked but black represented fertility and white death.

    If one takes the painting I put up as such an example, then our earlier discussion takes on further meaning. It turns the concept of Immaculate Conception on the head. It would negate the statements about nudity/purity...is that why the Mother’s expression is stern and the child Jesus fully clothed?

    An unrelated thought: In the Shanakht work, the child Bhutto as Jesus could also be signalling his later crucifixion?

  6. "There is still an element of flexibility in her canonisation . . ."

    Indeed. Several years back an acquaintance of mine (actually, more than an acquaintance as, for several months, he'd drop by where I worked and we'd step out back for a smoke, watch the trains go by and chit-chat) informed me that his father, who I was aware had been diagnosed with cancer, hadn't much longer to live -- a matter of days, as I recall. I made the appropriate noises and gestures of condolence; but it wasn't really necessary as my friend had been to Vietnam and had experienced more than his fair share of horror and death. He was remarkably accepting of his father's impending demise. What was really weirding him out, however, was the day before his mom and sister had attempted to engage my friend in a discussion as to how the family was going to remember dear old dad. Evidently he had been a right bastard in his day to mom, sister and son; but, where my friend had come to terms with both the ugly and comparatively few fond memories that was his legacy from his father, it seems mama and sis were seeking to sort of air-brush out those years of ugliness.

    Certainly we may say that everyone has their own way of coping with loss (or impending loss); but perhaps there is something in this little vignette that speaks to a period when, as you note, Ms. Versey, "black represented fertility and white death." Perhaps it also speaks to the child Bhutto in the Shanakht work?

    I can't say I'm an artist, kb. I think that is left for others to decide, lol. But, if I might impose a bit further on Ms. Versey's kind hospitality, here is something I put up not long after Ms. Bhutto's assasination:


    It was based, in part, on a press photo that captured a Scotland Yard official and Pakistani police official engaged in the business of investigating Ms. Bhutto's death. Ostensibly released to inform the public as to the progress of their joint investigation, both were pointing at something outside the photo's frame, beyond anything the viewer could see. While I took some liberty with the setting and pose presented by the two officials, I sought to show what the viewer might have seen if the original photo hadn't been so narrowly framed around the two officials.

    Point being: How something is framed (photo, painting, sculpture -- even writing) contributes to one's awareness (or lack of awareness) of what's occurring on the periphery. Tonga drivers, as I recall (much as hackney drivers did in the west), put blinders on their horses to restrict their vision so they wouldn't be spooked by the traffic on either side . . .

  7. mstaab:

    Thanks for sharing the vignette that, to my perception at least, does convey, as you note, the coping with loss and the airbrushing that not only individuals but societies are given to. What drives individuals is, of course, more personal. Society tends to whitewash or airbrush icons because historical perspective is at stake. Isn’t that the reason there is rarely any attempt at questioning political and social mores unless they caused some sort of drastic devastation?

    We need the comfort zone of our heroes.

    I was delighted to see your work and adding to this discussion, my hospitality being less kind and more persuasive in such instances!

    Your point: “How something is framed (photo, painting, sculpture -- even writing) contributes to one's awareness (or lack of awareness) of what's occurring on the periphery” is truly what is selectivity of vision. Your tonga horses example is right; even more so race horses, who too wear blinkers because they might get afraid if they saw their opponents although they can hear them.

    The work you have linked does express along the lines you have put forth. I notice beyond the beyond that the trees are bare and the hedges at first glance might look like coffins or tombs…there is also a Benazir Memorial Park plaque on the foreground with another hedge pierced with a spade/shovel close to which is a dug-up space. Perhaps suggestive of more dirt to be taken out? Or the burial being not quite complete?

    I might be reading too much into it, but one should hope it is a tad better than reading too little :-)

  8. Or perhaps merely suggestive of a work in progress?

    My favourite part is where the gardener on the left has dropped his hand-spade and is reaching for his broom . . .

    I think "society tends to whitewash or airbrush icons because historical perspective is at stake" is at least one of the salient reasons offered to explain why "there is rarely any attempt at questioning political and social mores unless they caused some sort of drastic devastation." Others suggest a failure to read history at fault; yet others -- certainly quite rare -- insist all that reading be at least accompanied by some understanding. :)

  9. "Or perhaps merely suggestive of a work in progress?"

    That is a wholly optimistic view; mine would have been work at a standstill...

    Something rather weird happened. I could not see the sketch in its entirety - I could only see upto the plaque; not the gardener or the dogs, although I could see the leashes. After reading your comment, I used the phone to surf and it was visible...

    Therefore, my remarks sort of become inadequate. Now I can see your gardener observation better...the broom - more airbrushing? Or cleaning up before rebuilding?

    If we all understood history, then we'd at least make newer mistakes!

    This has been a most fulfilling discussion and, as I said, you may post any links that might help some of us understand history/society from one more perspective.


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