Ali Kazim's archeological treatment of historical narratives and place are visible across his highly textured watercolour portraits of pensive subjects mid-meditation. It can also be seen in the artist's large-scale clay sculptures, often installed with the intention of impermanence.Read More
Born in Pattoki, Pakistan, Kazim worked as an apprentice for a painter of circus hoardings prior to attending the National College of Arts in Lahore. Kazim completed his BFA in 2002, the same year he begun to pursue figuration in his art, following an encounter with a small statue made from soapstone at the Lahore Museum.
The steatite figure, a 'Priest King' that originated from the Indus Valley Civilisation, prompted Kazim to embark on portraiture. Kazim then resumed his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he completed an MFA in 2011.
Ali Kazim's figurative paintings explore the human body as a physical entity that goes through spiritual and emotional stresses throughout the day, setting pensive South Asian figures with downcast eyes against backgrounds of bold expressive colours.
Kazim's early sketches inspired by the Priest King narrate lives from the Indus Valley Civilisation, showing figures adorned with symbolic objects such as prayer caps and parrots.
A series of watercolour portraits that borrowed techniques from the Bengal watercolourists emerged as a result, including works such as Mian Mithu (Man with parrot) (2006), a grainy portrait on wasli paper depicting an unclothed man against a dark grey backdrop, a green parrot resting on his finger.
Amongst Kazim's influences are Kiki Smith and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose works are known for their emotional charge and their careful execution. The same focus and attention to detail is evident in Kazim's early portraits like the series, 'Untitled (Self Portrait)' (2011—2012), which shows fragmented body parts hovering in white space.
Set against empty backdrops devoid of signifiers, Kazim's portraits often appear suspended in time. Subjects are sharpened just as they are placed in a timeless setting that evokes spiritual transcendence.
In Untitled (man of faith series) (2019), the figure not only looks away from viewers, as do the majority of Kazim's portraits, but turns its back to spectacle altogether, showing a shaved head, a tattooed neck between enlarged lobes, and no desire to acknowledge the viewer.
During his studies in London, Kazim spent time looking at terracotta works from the Indus region and Mesopotamia. While the artist took many photos, it was only after he visited the excavated Harappan sites in Lahore in 2013 that he realised the things he sought were in the past, beginning an enduring engagement with historical narratives.
The resulting 'Ruins' series (2015) shows Pakistan's landscapes dusted with ceramic fragments, hinting at ancient craftsmanship. Rendered in watercolour and pigment on large-scale paper, Ruins I (2016) depicts shards of earthen pottery scattered across the white page.
With 'Ruins', Kazim seeks to evoke a collective portraiture of populations that once resided in the region. Responding to the existence of ancient pottery shards as physical imprints of their owners, Kazim was influenced to pick up the narrative across time and carry it forward.
Religion and spirituality appear throughout Kazim's work and are closely tied to identity. Kazim's Untitled (Woman of Faith series) (2019), for instance, is based on an acquaintance who carries a copy of the Bible with her daily, which prompted an inquiry into the visual language of belief and the difficulties that accompany its preservation when you belong to a religious minority.
For the 2018 inaugural edition of the Lahore Biennale, Kazim produced Untitled (Ruins of the lover's temple), a large-scale installation in a public garden consisting of 5000 life-size terracotta hearts. The hearts were picked up and gifted towards the end of the biennale, extending the artwork's life beyond the exhibition site.
A similar fragility and engagement with impermanence is evident in The Conference of the Birds (2020), which showed 3000 unbaked clay birds inside an abandoned brick factory—all of which turned to earth upon rainfall.
Kazim is the recipient of the Young Painter Award, Lahore Arts Council (2006); the Melvill Nettleship Prize for Figure Composition, London (2011); and a finalist for the Catlin Prize, U.K. (2011).
Ali Kazim has exhibited widely across Asia, the U.K., and Europe.
Select solo exhibitions include Rohtas II, Lahore (2016, 2015); Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (2013); Hong Kong Art Fair (2012); Green Cardamom, London (2009, 2006); Cartwright Hall Gallery, Bradford (2007); Ethan Cohen Fine Arts Gallery, New York (2006); and Paradise Road Gallery, Colombo (2004).
Select group exhibitions include Seoul Arts Center (2016); Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (2015); Barbican, London (2012); Asia Pacific Museum, Pasadena (2010); Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh (2008, 2006); National Art Gallery, Islamabad (2007).
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2021