The recent exhibition named “Echoes of a Distant Tide,” by four accomplished artists at Karachi’s Clifton Art Gallery, remained true to its title as it carried delighted viewers away on a tide of creativity, with works in contrasting styles by Khusro Subzwari, Mashkoor Raza, A.S. Rhind and A.Q. Arif on display. Though many artists nowadays are experimenting with new media, this was an exhibition in the classic tradition of oil on canvas, with the texture of the canvas adding its own charm to the tout ensemble. Interestingly, the work of all four of these artists is popular in the UAE.
Outstanding in their spirituality were the ten works of self-taught engineer-turned-painter Khusro Subzwari, featuring the whirling dervishes of Sufism, and executed in highly spiritual colours. Subzwari’s lasting romance with these devotees, followers of the Sufi poet Rumi, began in 2011, when – having been invited to participate in a group exhibition in Turkey – he saw them in action for the first time. Totally absorbed in the spirituality of their dance, inspired also by the poetry of Rumi, he has been painting and exhibiting them ever since – even though previously he was known for his work on global warming, peacocks, trees, cherry blossoms and other such subjects. His work has been displayed to great acclaim in the UAE, Turkey, Europe and Bangladesh, as well as in Pakistan.
Being sensitive to colour and awake to the universe, Khusro often gazes at the sky at dawn and at sunset. And regarding the Aurora Borealis – also called the Northern Lights – visible near the Arctic Circle, he says, “This phenomenon is a manifestation of the magnanimity of God, and it shows beauty of a magnitude not always visible to the naked eye. If you go to Norway, for example, or if you enter the spiritual plane, you will see the colours of the spiritual world.” These words give a clue as to the clairvoyance which he experiences when meditating with closed eyes before sleeping, and which influences his work.
One of his larger paintings shows two dancers in a great meadow, filled with fresh and lovely flowers representing the beauty of this world. The dancers reflect spiritual light as they approach their longed-for unity with the divine, which is visible in the form of a mosque radiating light in the background. Gradually the rose-pink floral display merges with turquoise – a colour often used by this artist – indicating that their goal is in sight. The perception of this shade, according to certain writers on spirituality, is the first step towards seeing the colour of Heaven on Earth.
In Khusro’s work, the dancer is lost in a whirl of motion and colour, reaching towards the celestial world
As our perception increases, Heaven on Earth assumes a shade of pale blue. This we see in another of Subzwari’s pictures, in which dancers, meadow and mosque are all bathed in this colour. On first seeing this composition, one may be inclined to think that the vision is fading, that despite the distance covered on the path, union with the divine is becoming more remote. But in fact it indicates a closer approach to the loss of self – the loss of all – in the desired union.
In a new departure, Khusro has begun to produce circular, abstract works, in which the dancer is lost in a whirl of motion and colour, reaching towards the celestial world. “This suits the movement of the dervish,” he explained, “because this is the way that the whole universe moves, and I believe that this is connected to spirituality, and the higher powers which are unknown to us.” There were three of these abstracts on display, showing nothing of the dancer but his topi – indicating that he has entered the divine union. The most wonderful of these radiates out from pink (one of the heart chakra colours, signifying yielding to love) through pale blue to purple (colour of the spiritual seeker and of the third eye chakra, the seat of intuition), and thence to indigo (colour of the throat chakra, the centre of all creative activity). The outer part shows a most interesting knife-work texture, like the branches of the tree of knowledge. This texture is something that the artist has experimented with for six months, the engineer in him intent upon manipulating the behavior of paint.
A.Q. Arif graduated from the renowned Karachi School of Art in 1996 and began exhibiting in Karachi and also in Lahore – where he was captivated by the beauty of the rural landscapes and the sense of space. Later he began to work on a larger scale, endeavouring to fuse history with nature. In this exhibition he offered a variety of romantic architectural views redolent of history, half imagined and half real, with their shimmering reflections in water reminding us that the first known mirrors were either dark pools of standing water or water kept in primitive vessels, while water in its reflective capacity is associated with the moon. Meanwhile, some of his compositions had a delightfully rustic appearance, with water in its mysterious nature representing all that of which we are unaware or that which we have not experienced.
His first piece packs a powerful impact, with its clear, well defined lines. One is struck by the solidity of the image and its rich colouring. The picture is mostly done in shades of brown, but with clever contrast in the black and white tortoise shell pattern on the lower walls, and a definite tribute to history in the form and decorative masonry of the building. A subtle air of mystery pervades the atmosphere in the delicate tea wash tones of the sky, and in the misty background with the domes which are at first prominent, appearing faintly here and there as the view recedes.
In fact, a prominent feature of this body of work is in the repetitive pattern of domes – powerful symbols of the vault of heaven. They have also been described as the perfect architectural shape and a symbol of the universe, embodying as they do the circle executed in three dimensions. Furthermore, in ancient Rome, the oculus or eye of the dome was regarded as the gateway of the sun, while from this axis arose the world axis, the link between Heaven and Earth.
Truly mysterious is his other brown composition, with several ethereal effects such as the delicate clouds in the sky, the sun trying valiantly to shine through, and the wisps of cloud that first draw the eye, centred as they are between different levels of historic architecture. To those viewers who wondered how clouds could appear in such a location, one could say that artists don’t necessarily present so-called ‘reality’. Most interesting is the inner frame above the reflections to the left, showing human figures in a courtyard – one appearing in the flesh, another in spirit, while a third gazes out of the window at the base of this inset. Meanwhile, the architectural details here include a raised pavilion, while the garden beyond adds to the excellent depth of field which might otherwise have been lacking.
The renowned Noor Jehan Bilgrami once told me that, “Some critics are only interested in wearing the hat, and write their reviews merely on the basis of what’s on the CD they’re given.” But imagine, if you can, how much visual delight and effective detail they miss in doing so, plus the pleasure of feeling the texture of a piece with the fingertips.
With 20 solo exhibitions and a long list of awards – including the President’s Pride of Performance Award – to his credit, Mashkoor Raza is an extremely prolific artist whose works span a number of different genres. However, as one understands from his works displayed in this show, he particularly likes to paint horses and women, often in a semi-abstract manner. Indeed, by 1991 he had produced pictures of horses in all conceivable positions and moods – sometimes done with care, sometimes roughly brushed in. He has also composed many non-figurative abstracts, and one hears that in the early 70s, his early abstracts were so much in demand that he was known to have offered two exhibitions in a year. Then there is the story of the foreign visitor who appeared at one of his shows and ordered every painting to be shipped to his country!
Mashkoor, as aforesaid, is fascinated by horses, with their rich symbolism of grace, power, victory, honour, domination and virility. But he is said to be fascinated also by the solar eclipse, a natural phenomenon formerly attributed to a supernatural agency. Clearly, the best of Mahkoor’s 13 exhibits was his riveting depiction of wild horses stampeding under a total eclipse. Though the stampede represents our unruly emotions, it is known that as the darkness of an eclipse sweeps down, the air and the world of nature become still. Of course, like life itself, an eclipse is transient.
A great red wash covers much of the canvas, fitting for such a wondrous body as the sun. The smoothness of the wash contrasts with the roughly painted black sun, while the pale grey ring around it adds much to the overall effect – giving some unity to the upper and lower parts of the composition. Since the subject is so arresting, the large vacant spaces in the picture present no problem.
Many of Mashkoor’s exhibits at Clifton Art Gallery are, of course, abstracts. Several show horses and women – one suggesting a polo match – but one of the best is a mysterious pure abstract, with a suggestion of geometrical shapes here and there. The picture is gently divided by the differing colours of the wash, while the spaces in the corners are cleverly filled with subtle forms. Mashkoor is well known for his management of colour and space. Added interest comes from the downward flow of brown and grey; and with the placement of red and yellow. Yet despite all the activity, this is somehow a peaceful composition.
Domes are prominent in A.Q. Arif’s work – powerful symbols of the vault of heaven
A.S. Rhind, a graduate of the Karachi School of Art, is a painter with almost 40 years of experience, having begun as a super-realist painter before exploring calligraphy and contemporary styles. Works from his numerous solo exhibitions are to be found in both public and private collections worldwide. This exhibition featured a number of his exquisite studies of the women of his native Rahim Yar Khan, reflecting a strong cultural influence from that area. He is renowned for his stylised presentations of women, accentuating their charm with long necks, extra-large eyes with delicate eyebrows, voluptuous figures and chunky ethnic jewellery. The reproduction of verses from Ghalib, Faiz and Allama Iqbal lends further depth and class to his works.
His study of a beautiful woman, gracefully playing a flute – the symbol of love – held in her supple fingers exemplifies his rich palette – with the deep orange-red of the background contrasting with her sea green garment and long black hair. Her bangles and chunky earrings are accompanied by fish motifs, the artist explaining that “we like to have fish and other animals as company”. But there is much more to this pleasing composition than meets the eye. Consider the watery domain of fish: water being an ancient symbol of the subconscious and of depth of knowledge. It is also symbolic of femaleness, being connected with the origin of life. Furthermore, fish themselves are linked to fertility, birth and femininity, while the fish-mother symbolism goes back in some cultures to the 6th millennium BC.
Mashkoor is fascinated by horses – symbols of grace, power, victory, honour, domination and virility
His colourful study of three women includes the whimsical touch of a bird on the head of one. This is a happy sign of goodness, joy, wisdom and intelligence, while the poetry quotation to the right gives one food for thought. Two of the women appear to be in conversation while the third looks wistfully outwards. Meanwhile, as elsewhere in this body of work, the skin texture with its pattern of lines adds a subtle point of attraction. However, whereas most of Rhind’s women are in brilliant colours, his pensive study of a woman alone, her flute at rest in idle fingers, is in subdued shades of blue and mauve, enhancing the quiet mood of the piece. Behind her, the full moon rises – queen of the night and of the realm between the conscious and the unconscious, shedding a halo of light about her hair.
The great German artist Albrecht Dürer once said, “What beauty is I know not, but it adheres to many things.” These four well-known artists have presented us with a variety of beautiful works, showcasing qualities such as mystery, spirituality, vigour and depth of meaning. But study and analyse them as we might, can we say, even so, what beauty is?
Noor Jehan Mecklai is a student of Tibetan Buddhism and lives in Karachi. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org