The cat that dreamed in black and white
Judith Palmer

Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can't tell them to you?” Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Cats can’t cope with colour. Their eyes are tuned for night, where all is black, white and grey. Nearsighted, they focus their attention on the close-at-hand, rarely interested in the faraway. You could say Nazir Tanbouli’s is a cat’s-eye view of the world.

The drama in Tanbouli’s Metamorphoses plays out against a backdrop of psychedelic-patterned wallpaper, floral bedspreads and polka-dotted stockings. Everything in this riot of noisy domestic upholstery screams COLOUR. But Tanbouli has seemingly flicked the remote and screamed back at the set, begging for respite. You can almost hear the Stones playing in the background.

I see a red door and I want it painted black. No colours any more. I want them to turn black.

The monochromatic palette of the Metamorphoses paintings is unsettling. In their black-and-whiteness it’s as if the paintings are pre-emptively transforming into an illustration of themselves, and we’re watching them pupate, caught in the twilight zone of transitional states. Despite its absence, we feel a powerful colour presence straining beneath the surface. It dislocates us, suspending us in a time Before and Between.

In a colour-saturated age the use of black and white feels unnatural. It destabilises, and establishes a dynamic of estrangement. As we’ve learnt from films such as Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Soderbergh’s Kafka and Ross’s Pleasantville, a black and white viewpoint is the immediate signal of a life-less-lived. There was no turning back, after Judy Garland set us on the right road in The Wizard of Oz, when she stepped through the sepia-tinted doorway of her drab Kansas shack into the Technicolor excess of Munchkinland. Yet to peer into Tanbouli’s paintings is to find yourself in a world that defies that Kansas/Oz distinction. Here is a space where a freakshow of fantastical imaginings and down-home ordinariness co-exist in an uneasy truce. A snoring woman nods off on the sofa, oblivious to the snarling reptile padding across the lino. A man sprouts the head of a braying donkey, and his kitchen companion merely raises a polite eyebrow. Hemmed in by too-close walls and too-big personalities, the characters push against the edges of the paintings that struggle to contain them. All boundaries seem permeable and subject to collapse, as animate and inanimate objects exchange identities. The sitting room reptile adjusts to its surroundings by camouflaging its skin to match the chintzy cushion-covers. The armchair looks livelier than the catatonic woman slumped in it. This is domestic evolution in action: adapt and survive.

Tanbouli’s Metamorphoses are an exploration of the tensions between the conflicting impulses of freedom and stability, domesticity and the wild. The painted couples display an easy familiarity with each other’s naked middle-aged bodies, but the male figure invariably keeps his boots on, as if he’d want to be ready should he ever need to make a quick getaway. Amidst the warring patterns of household impedimenta, the vast expanses of blank flesh seem to offer a welcome haven of calm; yet these bodies are not as comfortable or safe as they first appear. Somehow too solid, the carapace of flesh seems ready to crack apart at any moment, on the verge of revealing unwelcome secrets within.

In the series of drawings that follows (Beast), the itchy, conflictual process of suspended transmogrification has begun to resolve into a state of emergence. Liberated now from the confines of their domestic settings, the figures freely explore their capacity to shape-shift, as they flit between different aspects of themselves. This is a journey of discovery into what constitutes one’s true nature. A few vestiges of the civilized self remain – a cap perhaps, or a pair of socks – as the protagonists embark on their migratory ventures into the territory of otherness. Using a fluctuating personal symbology, Tanbouli creates a new bestiary of morphing animal forms. Following in the ancient tradition of mythic transgressive couplings, Tanbouli’s figures examine the possibilities of hybridity, rattling on the inter-special fence, in a series of comic, playful exchanges, and occasionally ill-judged sexual experiments. Subverting traditional expectations, surprising reversals take place: and, in the arms of a woman, we watch the fearsome-looking crocodile wrestled into a puppy-dog bundle of squealing vulnerability. Tanbouli invites us to witness the pangs of becoming animal: a voyage into the underworld of self that mirrors the creative process. This is the artistic quest described by Deleuze and Guattari as the search ‘to find a world of pure intensities, where all forms come undone.’

And observing each transformation: alert, curious, sniffing the air: is the cat.

London 2008

Judith Palmer is a writer and broadcaster. She has been a regular arts feature writer and interviewer for The Independent and The Scotsman, and presents and reviews frequently on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She is Director of the Poetry Society, London. She is the author of Private Views: Artists Working Today (2004)