It is common in writing on Lahore-based Ali Kazim to begin with his technique. "Starting with a pencil under-drawing," writes London-based critic and curator Hammad Nasar in a pamphlet from 2006, "he follows on with a step miniaturists refer to as siyah qalam (or literally black pen); going over the pencil marks with a fine brush dipped in black ink." Then he applies multiple layers of watercolor in gum arabic. After each layer, Kazim washes the painting to fix the pigments while pulling away larger granules, giving the image a gauzy quality. Following these serial bathings, "he picks up the qalam again for a final rendering of his figures"—typically lone males—in pardakht (the application of paint in small dots)."
Yet there is much more to Kazim's art than its facture.Entering Jhaveri Contemporary, one first encountered a video showing a painting being washed in a shower stall by the artist, who remains off-screen. A trickle of brown escapes when water first hits the paper, falls and disappears into the drain. The sequence initially suggested clichés of ritual purification. But other thoughts soon came to mind as one moved through the gallery, viewing Kazim's delicately sensual self-portraits (a number of which show him nude with his back to the viewer or turning his head demurely to the side) along with a suite of fine pencil drawings, close-ups of strands of the artist's own hair. The romantic emphasis on the traditionalism of his technique notwithstanding, Kazim is working with a very contemporary subject: the male nude presented not as a heroic ideal but as a figure of privacy, tenderness and vulnerability.
Most interesting was a double-sided self-portrait hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the exhibition space. This is the work Kazim bathes in the video, but it's much more powerful on its own. One side depicts the artist's body from ankles to shoulders—bare but for white-striped blue briefs—inverted as if one were gazing down upon someone from the upper end of a bed. On the verso, Kazim's head sits upright at the bottom, his eyes characteristically looking down, while his feet rest soles downward at the top.
What to make of this curious visual treatment of the body? Though he holds a BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and an MFA from the Slade School of Art, London, Kazim began his career as a painter of circus billboards. Does the dual-sided portrait echo a contortionist's body—stupendously limber, with his feet almost placed on his head? Do the portraits showing Kazim's slightly hunched back recall a performer after the show, withdrawn in fatigue from being no more than a spectacular body? Perhaps the old trope of the melancholic pierrot helped Kazim rethink the male nude.
PHOTO: Front and back of Ali Kazim's Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2011, watercolor on paper, 48 by 24 inches; at Jhaveri Contemporary.