An educator in the arts can be something of an enigma to students. His own artistic practice is kept a mystery while he tries to instruct younger people in seeing and creating. Or that, at least, is how it ought to be, because it can get treacherous if his two personas are allowed to coexist in the classroom or studio. Young artists are sequacious (though they would deny it vehemently), and are likely to be influenced by the teacher’s own manner of working, which leads to many unnecessary analogies, alliances, grudges. It becomes difficult, however, with the internet carrying almost every artist’s work now, for perpetually googling students to not come across their tutor’s own masterpieces or monstrosities (oh, they judge you severely if your own work is found lacking) at some point. So it was rather gratifying to learn of an art educator whose oeuvre has never been shared with the public before.
Jamila Zaidi is an anomaly. In 1950, she was one of the first Pakistanis to study art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. She established departments of visual arts at universities in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, and taught generations of artists, the likes of which include Salima Hashmi, Saeed Akhtar and Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq. She did life studies and nudes at a time when such things would have caused apoplectic reactions back home (such things still can, and do, but she can be said to have initiated that resistance of which most modern Pakistani artists are now a part). And while in big, old London, she showed such promise to her teachers that they wrote to her father, requesting him to let her stay and work at the Slade longer. When she ultimately returned and married a doctor who frequently traveled, she promptly took to sketching on itineraries and purloined prescriptions. She never stopped drawing and now, almost half a century worth of sketches and paintings later, her first retrospective was held at the Saeed Akhtar Studio in Lahore, in collaboration with the Lahore Literary Festival 2014.
[quote]Her London drawings have all the warmth of a letter written to an audience waiting eagerly for news at home[/quote]
Opening on Saturday, the 22nd of February, 2014, the exhibition – curated by Salima Hashmi and Usman Saeed, Zaidi’s former students – featured a vast collection of paintings, drawings and prints by the artist who has never really worked for the art gallery’s fluorescence. Her work has been done more in the spirit of journal entries and has the same affable, confiding air as is conveyed by any intimate means of recording. Her delicate, impromptu drawings of spaces she inhabited in London, for example, have all the warmth of a letter written to an audience waiting eagerly for news at home. A kettle is set to boil and the artist sketches the kitchen in the meantime, taking particular care to show the character of the friendly, if somewhat shabby, space with its makeshift arrangements so evocative of dorm life (one of my favourite drawings from this series depicts a sheet tacked to the front of the stove, no doubt in an attempt to give a semblance of tidiness to a hostel kitchen, and Zaidi dutifully draws a corner of the sheet coming off).
Among her drawings done at the Slade are detailed studies of figures with sure but circumspect lines that thicken at the joints, looking like a pulse running through the pictures. There are drawings of the sights and streets of London, stone walls and lampposts and balustrades. There is a precious drawing of her bedroom, showing an open drawer and a coat lying on the bed, reminiscent in its anticipatory mood of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. A pair of khussaas on the carpet contrasts delightfully with all the English trappings of the interior, recalling Forster’s words from A Passage to India – ‘You can make India in England apparently, just as you can make England in India.’ There are foliate pictures, with stems and leaves drawn so finely you feel just a breath can make them tremble. They have the intricacy of botanical drawings but are never pedantic enough to be diagrammatic.
Her oil paintings have an academic vigour that reminded me of Amrita Shergil’s paintings from her days at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There is a similar ambition in them, a similar urge to understand and engage with the human anatomy. Pain is taken to achieve the skin’s protean palette. Fleshy faces with roseate shadows and creamy highlights occupy her many canvases. Prints from her days in London, in various techniques, were also part of the exhibition. In the two dozen etchings, woodcuts and lithographs on display, something from home makes an occasional appearance – a lotus, a peacock, a bit of an arch from a local park. The woodcuts, especially, are dark and tropic and replete with a sense of mystery. They bring to mind the dense Indian jungles of fiction from the days of the Empire, but are a simpler, less romanticized representation of them. Here, they are a native’s visions of home from far away, worked upon with nothing more than memory.
Through her large number of travel drawings, Zaidi also challenges the stereotype of the male artist traveling through foreign lands with a journal under his arm, sketching exotic beauties and majestic vistas, and departing just as the villagers start warming up to him. The drawings from her travels in the Middle East do include ancient ruins and straggly marketplaces and even exotic beauties (these are mostly burqa-clad and therefore so much more plausible than Gerome’s pasty and supine Turkish concubines) but to me, at least, they become infinitely dearer than any Orientalist artist’s portrayals simply by merit of being a woman’s personal record. These sketches have an immediacy that gets your attention, they are anecdotal even in their half-finished states. They convey wanderlust, an impulse to explore, a belief in every human being’s innate curiosity about his world.
Antithetical to this series and its buoyancy are the conceptual drawings by the artist. Executed in various media, they are responses to certain catastrophes that occurred in Pakistan following the artist’s return – wars, earthquakes, instances of civil unrest. They seem to have forced a very different expression out of the same hands that had traced plaited hills and valleys and sunny streets earlier. She renders these horrors in deceptively bright crayons and pastels, with a frenetic energy. A couple of drawings of bodies amidst rubble are reminiscent of Daumier’s Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834. The corpses splay out in the same way as Daumier’s subject, the same helplessness governs the scene. But in Zaidi’s works, the vivid pastel shades make everything more macabre and agitated. A few drawings are almost entirely abstract – a network of lines and daubs of ink that may look alternately like an interior and a bled-out version of The Raft of the Medusa. Others are musings on man and mortality.
[quote]She would collect pieces of coloured glass and spend nights looking at the moon through them[/quote]
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the artist herself, before the exhibition opened. Extremely kind and teeming with interesting things to share, Jamila Zaidi is an inspiration. From all the colourful details she divulged about her life and travels and work, what I loved most was an account of how, as a little girl, she would collect pieces of coloured glass and spend nights looking at the moon through them. The activity so poetically combined the two things she was most fond of – observation and colour. And, looking now at the array of works by her, you can see how that unusual little ritual paid off.