Let’s Fly First Class


Objects are like people: they can tell you where they come from. I count objects that look desi. Look at the plane above. You have probably seen that art on trucks in places like Lahore or Ludhiana. It might be two in the afternoon. It is hot and dry around you, the man selling sugarcane juice is sleeping in the shade of a tree, and there’s no one else around. Your shadow is the smallest you’ve ever seen in your life. And then a truck comes to a stop beside you. The exhaust pours out as if from a chimney in a brick kiln. If you look past it, however, you see painted on the side of the truck, a landscape that includes snowy peaks, colorful huts, cool skies, fields brimming with flowers that will live longer even than plastic. Folk utopia!

Now, what happens when that painting is transposed on to the body of an airplane? The wish for flight becomes literal as a vehicle for the imagination. I imagine this make-believe airplane as a prop in one of those old-fashioned studios, the kind where couples stand in front of the backdrop of a waterfall. The painting touches me by its use of color, and its playfulness. It is the work of Sana Arjumand, a highly talented Pakistan-based artist whose paintings are on display at the Aicon Gallery in New York.

The other works on display convey the same visual wit–and verbal wit, too, if you think about the titles. For instance, “Let’s Give Each Other Space,” in which fighter aircraft draw heart-shaped patterns in the sky. I read it as a wry comment on the militarism in Pakistan, and the fatal love with its heavily-armed neighbor, India.

Arjumand’s representation of issues of identity, the ways in which they relate to gender or religion, are poignant and recognizable. Consider her works “Then Their Shadows Fell From the Sky” and “A Hundred Thousand Years of Growing Beards.” A part of the appeal of this work is that it addresses pressing contemporary realities: I delighted in them, but I was also disturbed by the easy familiarity. It reminded me of what I feel when I read a lot of South Asian fiction: on the one hand, there is the thrill of seeing real life represented on the printed page, and, on other other, there is the fear that the writer is turning an event into a symbol. Which is to say: even as I’m engaged by Arjumand’s obvious preoccupation with, say, Islam and the role of women in Pakistani society, I’m slightly turned off by her ready abstractions, the use of the crescent or the burqa or the iconic stars.

In a statement that I read online, Arjumand’s colorful airplane was described in the following manner: “Sana covers her airplane — so often associated in a post-9/11 society with the shadow fear of terrorism — with the same religious and patriotic imagery which decorate South Asian cargo trucks, subverting the shadow paradigm with playful images that invoke a spiritual path — the term Mairaj referring to the invitation from the divine to ascend the self and experience the pure essence of being…” I prefer my own reading, where I link the plane to the prop in the studio in the small-town in South Asia. In my reading, the airplane is closer to the ordinary experiences of the people around the artist. In contrast, the reading that I have quoted above, by situating the painting in the framework of 9/11 life, makes everything that is done by desi artists and writers only an extended conversation with the West. We begin to speak only in the idioms that the West itself grants us. To do so is wrong or reductive because it makes terror the only reality of desi lives. The West never was, or should be, our sole interlocutor, and the readings we do of our books and our art should attempt to multiply, rather than simplify, our complexities.

10 thoughts on “Let’s Fly First Class

  1. I hope I one day find myself in a terminal in JFK, Brussels, or Chennai waiting to board a similarly decked out Jet Airways plane!

  2. I think when people choose an airline, they respond to subtle cues that say, “This thing will not crash”. The plane shown above does not give me that cue. It does make me think the pilot would rather be somewhere else. Or that he’s got a case of the munchies and will try to land in a Taco Bell parking lot.

  3. Ood. maybe you could examine what that reaction is saying to you about your reaction

  4. Rather than implicitly ask others to share a well-worn view without a thought. Appeals to convention and thus in some ways power may be commodious but streching is nice sometimes.

  5. I like the paintings overall.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the crescent/stars stuff (I probably need to see more of her art to get a better feel), but the airplane is beautiful. It seems like a high-art conceptual take on the idea of folk art, where ordinary people and untrained artists decorate objects in the world around themselves. Of course, fighter planes aren’t everyday objects, so you’ll never actually see an airplane that looks like this…

    Agreed on the need to avoid making 9/11 as a context for everything (esp. with these planes). But you can also flip it around, and note that many young artists and writers also profit from the connection. Don’t books like “Children of Dust” or “Home Boy” generate extra attention in the U.S. media precisely because they’re written by young Muslims in the U.S. affected by the “war on terror”?

  6. I agree with you, Amitava, about the small-town simplicity, even innocence, of the image. I saw a short doc (I think it was on an in-flight video) about a small amusement park in Mumbai that had purchased a de-commissioned jetliner and set it up as an exhibit for kids. Schoolchildren would be marched up the ramp and seated like real passengers, be given the safety instructions by the flight crew, etc. The doc made it seem as if the kids loved it, as they had never been on board an airplane and, given their demographic, probably never would.

    So, yeah, planes are magical, conveying aloft in comfort and assurance our dreams of exotic destinations. We used to think this way about air travel in the US.

  7. So, yeah, planes are magical, conveying aloft in comfort and assurance our dreams of exotic destinations. We used to think this way about air travel in the US.

    Yes. That was before we were subjected to a minimum of an hour of pre-flight boredom, being packed in like sardines in ever shrinking cabins, and subjected to a ritual disrobing followed by pointless security theater. It really takes the magic and glamor out of the whole experience. As illustrated here.

  8. There are many reasons why you can’t have domestic air travel like our parents used to. 1) Flight attendants have a lot more demands these days. Just a pretty face alone can’t cope with it. While I have been a supporter of sexist hiring of pretty flight attendants and I personally wouldn’t mind a flight full of pretty female flight attendants who take you back to the era of Boeing Boeing( a silly Jerry Lewis – Tony Curtis comedy), you are going to have a hard time finding enough pretty pleasant folk at such outrageously low salaries. Litigation and mass fear of any tiny amount of danger risk amounts to flight attendants under a lot of stress because they have to be responsible for a lot of things on flights. If you do not wear your seatbelt, guess who gets into troube, if audited? Not you. It’s her job on the line. 2) When we want bargain basement fares, don’t expect airlines to give you a nice ride. 3) People are crybabies and overreact when an incident takes place. A lot of the TSA regulations are flat out idiotic. yet people who dont mind screaming at a flight attendant because of some trivial discomfort on the flight have no problem lining up like sheep in total silence when subjecting themselves to those dumb measures. All in the name of safety.

    It doesnt mean there isn’t room for improvement. THere is. And there is room for niche travel or international travel to be better.

  9. I think that a business which specializes in customized paint jobs like the ones seen on Indian trucks would be a very lucrative business. Those art works are simply gorgeous.