It feels like you should be alone inside Abdul–Halik Azeez’s second solo exhibition, Day Dreamer You Are. But it is opening night, and 27,000 Instagram followers guarantees a crowd.
Azeez’s unrelenting observation is supersized inside every room of the Saskia Fernando Gallery, on frames that measure four by six feet and are hung three or four per wall, so that you have to stand solidly in the middle of the room to witness them all at once. Mannequins are vandalised, navy uniforms dry out against a barbed wire fence, and a floral arrangement on a wedding car promises a future filled with ‘LOVE’. Armless, double-trousered and out of service, this city can’t help but slip up sometimes.
In Day Dreamer You Are, Colombo the city confronts Colombo the idea head-on, gloves off. High-rises dot the view from a hotel reduced to debris and shards of glass one past July, and four policemen object to being photographed, relatively at ease in a coastal town south of the capital in 2014. An essay masquerades as an Extraordinary Gazette but gives up the guise by displaying uncharacteristic foresight in the form of a supplementary disclaimer: “Please note that this is a work of art and not intended to impersonate a genuine government document. This should be immediately obvious since government documents are always clearly rooted in truth, fact and logic and do not display traits such as ambiguity, vulgarity, subjectivity or vagueness.”
The art gives and takes, offering just enough proof for your perception. In four handmade zines laid out as part of the exhibition, you are left to piece together Azeez’s discernment of both the city and himself, with evidence laid out to corroborate only the former. Scrutiny isn’t the right word for Azeez’s gaze, which doesn’t particularly seek to pass judgement, nor sway its audience any which way. ‘Inspection’ sounds like too much of a chore, and ‘attention’ is too fleeting to describe a process of documentation that seems like second nature to the artist. When turned outwards, it is confident and unsparing. When turned towards himself — shoulders in a mirror, hand holding a smaller, plastic one, a diary entry from a month ago in his Notes app — it is economical, measured out in smaller, more sensitive doses.
If you follow him on Instagram, you know Azeez has grown to centralise micro landscapes, eking out the little details often ignored in pursuit of a bigger picture. A number of the images that are part of the exhibit have already been published online — a temple in the background as Bob Marley on a bandana wails on, bakery advertising made sexy, your choice of off-brand boxers. But inside the gallery, at this great size, if you stand right up close, they look like clues. Colombo is caught mid–morph, keeping in time with a made–up schedule of ruthless transformation. On its way into a future, heedless ambition and faceless aspirations packed tight side-by-side like sardines, its best apparently yet to come, the whole city stuck in a perpetual dress rehearsal.
In one frame, a man descends into depravity in a didactic mural, swapping jeans for a sarong and a shirt that leaves to the imagination what lies beneath it for a defined six–pack, painstakingly shaded in browns and pinks on his yellowy skin. Swapping an office job for a cigarette, clear blue skies for black prison bars, modesty for audacity. Elsewhere, projected onto a wall in a dark room, an uncle paces laps around a rooftop in Wellawatte, interrupted occasionally by screen grabs of TikToks and doomscrolls, but peaceful for some stretches of time in between. Everything is tit-for-tat, overshadowed by a looming progress that is simultaneously a promise and a threat.
Day Dreamer You Are is an antithesis to official records, to state–sanctioned, elite–approved, gloss-filtered methods of memorialisation. It archives a place and a time that has already, as we speak, reinvented itself. In one zine, Azeez writes, quoting Lebanese photographer and archival artist Akram Zaatari: “We change while we stay the same in our past photos. And what’s astonishing is that we will die and they will outlive us.” Intriguing as it is to wonder at how we will perceive his testimony in retrospect, it is even more so to meditate on from where we will be looking back. While the city narrows its gaze onto what could be, Azeez dreams up a myriad of possibilities that couldn’t.
Day Dreamer You Are is showing at the Saskia Fernando Gallery until 22 April 2021.