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Art Watch : Khalil Chishtee

Khalil Chishtee is our Art Watch Artist for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across nay discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by. Or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch.

Looking at the plastic sculptures from afar there is a meditative quality. Looking closely one finds his moulded figures that he has fashioned from trash bags, unused grocery bags and plastic sheets. We are looking at the work of Pakistani artist Khalil Chishtee. Who creates life-sized figures that are a commentary of how we treat Mother Earth and how we treat one-another. The pain, the emotion and the energy the works exude are disturbing when one is confronted by them in-situ. Chishtee explains his material and his intent. “For the first time I have used trash or recycled bags as my medium because no matter how many times I recycle plastic, it will remain plastic only, it will not change, so why do we change after being replaced?” He says, “We change names, religion, language and even emotions.”

Why Khalil Chishtee?

For this artist it was not about the revenue that he could generate. Or about publicity for himself. It was the pure process of looking, understanding, absorbing and representing and offering to the world. In his own words – “Art was more of a quest than a source of making money, acquiring fame or living a celebrity lifestyle. For anyone else moving to a larger audience would have been a wish come true but for me art was not meant to amuse or impress an audience or to find inroads to a larger market. I still believe that art should be for personal nourishment than for selling or buying. That is why instead of jumping into the art mafia I decided to understand this change, and embrace each aspect of it with all of my being.”

Khalil Chishtee’s has a definitive philosophy. His life-size figures offer an upbeat and humanitarian take on plastic pollution and our threatened ecosystem. He said once that we as a generation were living in the age of the plastic. Just as the bronze age and the brass age were eras where new materials were discovered and intensely worked with. The artist works with the plastic bag, to explore the material’s possibilities and connotations for the well-being of the human race. His characteristic style involves leaving one figure in its entirety, and leaving the others incomplete. In doing so – Chishtee accentuates the importance of progress and change as we encounter the challenges. Further it heightens the pollution it has wrought on our land and oceans. The audience sees the figures in gestures of holding hands in a circle facing towards us in an expression of mutual support and empathy. Composed entirely of white plastic garbage bags, their material denotes man’s responsibility to the environment. And the need to act together towards a cleaner ecosystem.

Artistic Journey

“For me, the purpose of art is much more than what schools, museums or other art institutions tell you. If your art does not lead to self-discovery and a deeper introspective understanding then it is as bad as offering social services for personal satisfaction rather than the greater good.”

The artist is extremely serious about the intent behind creating anything. To what purpose and from where is it being born? For him the end must justify the means. Without a solid intent the end result is effectively null and void. Chishtee brings forward another idea to be considered. That that which is taboo, or considered ‘lesser than’ today could very well become the most followed and most coveted tomorrow. So perceptions are everchanging and there are no boundaries or limitations on the world of art. He illustrates with a befitting example – “Take the example of eastern classical music. In authentic classical singing, the “Thumri” or related genres like Dadra, Tappa, Chalti, or Jhoola used to be considered light or pleasant forms of singing. Singers from established ‘gharanas’ of music rarely performed Thumri or Dadra in important concerts. Now, these are considered by many as serious classical forms.”

The artists ideas on how society perceives the norm and the moral fabric that is considered to be most revered and upheld are radically eye opening. He does believe that culturally there are concepts and perceptions that are fed to us that are most far removed from truth and unfortunately have some to live on as a truth. Chishtee aims at striping away of pretence and classist ideologies that feed the notions of greater than less than. He understands the essential nature of man – and without judgement presents a commentary. While this is extremely difficult to do – he is successful to an extent as comes from a space of being judged for his race and colour, hence with deeper tolerance for the other.

Process & Inspiration

“We believe in keeping everything for ourselves. See, we even marry our own cousins. So I think recycling is in our blood not because we are careful or environmentally aware but because we are greedy and like to hoard.  Because I belong to this culture, I share all these qualities and the work I do with plastic bags is not about recycling. I work with plastic trash bags that I buy brand new. People throw their garbage or filth in these bags but I record/store my finest emotions in these bags; your dirt is my gold.”

The artist is virulently against any work that is formula based and is a production of mental stencils – works that are without imaginations of investment. Art departments in Pakistan producing miniature painters and working like factories. More on his radar are artists who make issue-based works like those who talk about the influence of truck art or the tradition of billboard painting in their work, are actually clueless about the origins nor are they interested in preserving these soon-to-be-forgotten genres. So he ends are not marked and the means are thus with feet of clay, and a sham.

Chishtee was born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1964 and he now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, USA and Pakistan.


For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – explore the ART WATCH archive.

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