Abdur Rehman Chugtai’s miniature adorning a corridor in the United Nations building in New York is Pakistan’s representative art piece among the global art work found in every nook and corner of the UN complex. Last week, Chugtai’s work was in good company. It was an ecstatic experience to see work of three generations of Pakistani artists, spanning the exploration of new mediums, scale and themes in response to local and global socio-cultural changes.
The group exhibition “New Pathways; Contemporary Art in Pakistan” featured Jamil Naqsh’s signature pigeons were settled in his two paintings, one a flock with a background of shades of blues and the other a lonesome pigeon with a long-necked female head amidst pleasant yellowish and orange – somewhat floral – patterns. These never fail to attract the viewer. Ahmad Khan’s masterly calligraphy was painted in the rich deep blue and reddish colors with text in rich gold successfully reinforced its calligraphic message and majestic title ‘’The Oneness of God” and reminded us of the traditional calligraphy and subsequent experiments in Pakistan. Mansur Rahi’s cubist painting ‘Love’ depicted the usual world of Rahi – described in straight lines and muscular limbs in lighter blue and red and another one in beige monochrome. Jamil Naqsh, Ahmad Khan and Rahi’s work could be termed as the first generation’s work displayed in this exhibition.
Naeem, Jabbar and Amin Gulgee belong challenged the traditional structure of Pakistani painting
Next were R.M Naeem, Abdul Jabbar Gul, Abrar Ahmad and Amin Gulgee. Naeem and Jabbar are both products of the National College of Arts from the early 1990s and belong to the generation of Pakistani artists – along with Amin Gulgee – who challenged the traditional structure of Pakistani painting and are more attuned to a globalised world. The only sculpture in the exhibition, Amin Gulgee’s sequence of vertical human hands was not as lonesome in its display and presence. Abrar Ahmad’s work consisted of strong lines decorated with coloured patchwork.
R.M. Naeem has made an indelible mark as a painter and a teacher. His work challenges the global stereotypes and the negative assumptions around national and religious identity and gender. The first response to his work is to question our daily stereotypes but as you dig deep into it you realise that these symbols have a positive message and require the viewer to think rather than reinforcing the messages we assimilate through media projections. His work transmits his views through more than one vertical dimension. Horizontal layers linked through a line makes the eyes climb up the reality of the painting until it culminates into a space. These linkages were seen in two of his displayed works and as Naeem himself elaborated, “the cubes, different shapes and signs represent the material world and help in establishing a connection with the metaphysical.”
Salman Toor’s two human figures are seen in motion – in a grey but colourful ambience
Jabbar is doing extensive work, forcefully expressing himself through painting and sculpture. His exhibited painting from his series ‘Ordinary Souls’ had a Sindhi Ajrak inspired background with traditional Ajrak motifs dominated by play of multi-angular script deduced from different languages. While this motif covers the rectangular proportioned canvas, the focus of painting becomes a lovely butterfly representing beauty and thought. The butterfly hovers over a human head, suspended with eyes closed in a rectangular box. This head depicts a contemplative soul inspired by beauty of the motif and butterfly. The color scheme of red, navy blue and dark green and the symbolism on the one hand conveys social pressures or the burden of taboos; and on the other hand a common universal message. According to Jabbar, “the face symbolises a universal human being and the unreadable text is also kind of universal text.”
These four artists give proof of the diversity among the exhibition’s ‘second generation’ artists and lead up nicely to the work of contemporary, younger artists – Sana Arjumund, Salman Toor and Atif Khan.
Sana’s exhibited work tries to explore a bigger canvas, experimenting with gold coins – a visually pleasing experience. Her painting ‘Ascension’ with a big blue sky seen from the ground and a flying vessel with truck-art pattern was another pure delight to see. Her work and that of Atif Khan shows the influence of present-day miniature painting on many of our younger painters. Atif Khan’s finely done work with larger Mughal miniature figures riding a cycle, horse or an automobile explored different modes of transportation and world of flat maps. Finally, Salman Toor’s work brought totally new colors to the exhibition’s pallet and his two human figures are seen wavily in motion in a mostly grey but colourful ambience.
The exhibition, organised by Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi of Pakistan’s mission to the United Nations brought Pakistan’s contemporary art to the UN and New York City, documenting the last few decades. This artistic journey has been arduous but fruitful for Pakistani artists, making many of them familiar names in international art circles.
Suljuk Mustansar Tarar can be reached via email – firstname.lastname@example.org