Dreams Of Stones
by VEERA RUSTOMJI
It is rather unusual to find people within our Pakistani community truly appreciating the architectural heritage for the treasure trove of inspiration it provides us with. However, one could easily refute this statement by acknowledging the lack of respect and resources that are allocated by officials for preserving historical monuments. This in return makes the few traces of the Mughal and Indus civilisation we are left with somewhat unworthy of our attention. Many historians and anthropologists will spend hours over emphasising the importance of art places in history, as all we have unearthed and learnt about our past has been proven by the pieces of work created by artisans and craftsmen which have stood the test of time.
Henri Souffay's exhibition at the Art Chowk Gallery is an archeological excavation itself. His dedication towards the minutest details replicates each and every sediment in the bricks of the buildings within his collection on display. His work is heavy on pointillism, yet it endorses a charming and sensitive spirit. While in conversation with the artist, the viewer can sense his intimate understanding of architecture and the extent of potential the subject has for many artists. 'Dreams of Stones' does not only pay tribute to Mughal work with immaculate skill, the collection is open to a multitude of perspectives and interpretations. Henri Souffay himself has explored aspects of construction, such as the ever present 'jali' (net) in Pakistani buildings to outline social issues. Many of his pieces depict a building seen through a frame, or an ornate jali, and while the artist is thematically concentrating on the forefront of these paintings, the serene views through the jalis bring out a particularly sensitive aspect of the collection.
The pieces highlight the suffocation of society and the closed walls and boundaries people are prone to support. However, the jali also plays a dual function in his collection aesthetically and conceptually. On paper, the design and the burnt sienna and sepia colours are soothing and captivating, yet it is most definitely in the way, it constricts the viewer to the center piece. It provides protection yet congestion; perhaps a parallel could be drawn here with the way many Pakistani women dress.
Filigree designs juxtaposed with mudra movements encompass another artistic symbolism in the collection, similar to the conflicting personality of the jali. Henri Souffay explained that by combining the static designs with the elegant flow of hands the pieces narrate different moods and movements. These pieces are exceptionally interesting because even though it has been executed so precisely with pen and ink, there is still a large extent of continuity with the pose of the fingers and reflections of light and dark. The trend of personal interpretation lies within all of his paintings, sometimes the pieces are inclined towards politics which gives the collection a taste of politically flavoured art, and at other times his art work is more mythical and immersed in eastern beauty.
The artist has been residing in Pakistan since 1974 as he was primarily a French literary teacher at the Alliance' Francaise. The current collection features his work from the 90s till 2010, developing from black and white to the soft pastels and intricate patterns. Having experienced the array of political instability and the parties which have come to power since the 70s, his earlier work (which is placed chronologically on one wall at the Art Chowk Gallery) exudes danger, coldness and suffocation, these emotions are undoubtedly related to the artist's expressiveness over the political conditions sweeping up the country since the 70s. 'Aria', 'Deep Inside', 'The River' and a handful of other black and white paintings have many dark gestures which the viewer can gather many interpretations from. The broken glass, the remedial fragmented walls, iron bars, small spaces and ofcourse cages, enhances the critical conditions the paintings speak of through the glass frames. Even the titles themselves give away the inner turmoil of the pen and ink paintings. 'The House Within' is another painting venturing on the haunting and ghostly mood of some of his art work. The incomplete theme combined with the wild bushes and spiralling bare trees is a contrast of the inner self meeting the outer self. 'The House' could represent many ideas, but quite literally the painting unravels to speak of the exterior self which humans present to society, and the inner self which is incomplete and insecure which we hide from society. There are clearly many themes and ideologies which run through the entire collection, bearing in mind the paintings have been done over many years. Yet the stone bricks prevail over the collection. It should be noted that Henri Souffay's style and the degree of attention he pays to the stone walls is the reason why many of his paintings can be termed narrative. The flow contrasted with the precise details is a prominent ingredient apparent in the success of the collection.
I was intrigued to ask Henri Souffay, whom being an avid drawer since the age of 5, about his fascination with architecture. The artist explained that all the buildings, Humayun's tomb, the Multan fort, Mohatta Palace and the Taj Mahal resemble an era where craftsmanship and heritage is so different to the different civilisations in the past. By being magnetically drawn to stone buildings, the artist finds a way to make these large, magnificent and even imposing structures appear delicate. The soft colours and the insertion of sitars, peacocks and flowers bring out an almost fairytale aspect. They seem to be quite possibly out of a dream rather than mirror real life.
'Dreams of Stones' is an exhibition which gives viewers a little journey across the artist's mind. The storm throttled painting of 'The Five Continents' can be contrasted to the peaceful and serene depictions of the Taj Mahal. There are so many commentaries made by the artist aided by the skill through his paintings that it is almost his own life's story since 1995. However, his fervor and fascination for eastern heritage is something that will make any Pakistani smile and feel proud of what our land has to offer artistically.