There’s nothing like a big name to draw a crowd. So art lovers and critics flocked to Clifton Art Gallery recently to see a wondrous and varied display of works by some of the country’s foremost artists, including Ahmed Parvez, Anwer Jalal, Bashir Mirza, Colin David, Ghulam Rasul, Gulgee, Iqbal Hussain, Jamil Naqsh, Khalid Saeed Butt, Mansur Aye, Mudassar Manzoor, Najmi Sura, Sadequain, Saeed Akhtar and Waseem Ahmed. “What’s in a name?” asked the unforgettable Shakespeare. And we were about to find out, whether or not we were familiar with every name mentioned.
The bedrock upon which art critics rely is based upon some fundamental elements, which are: the name or the names (if given) by the artist to his works; and the dates, actual or approximate, upon which completed. All else, the nature, style, content, media, awards, background and so on, tends to be common knowledge, unless the artist comes out of ancient history – say, 1,000 years ago, or for some other reason is quite obscure. If any one of the above elements is missing, the art might be valid, attractive, important, but arguably quite frustrating to discuss, although there’s a widespread – and may we say, largely accepted – tendency nowadays to present even whole solo exhibitions without titles. Right, so let’s look at some of the above mentioned artists’ work, titled and dated – or not.
Whether or not viewers understand a single graceful flourish of Arabic, this does not lessen the beauty of Gulgee’s work
Although the names and the work of many top ranking artists are familiar to many, few actually know the details of their lives, education, artistic development, and such. How many of Gulgee’s admirers, for example, know that he was born in Peshawar in 1926 and taught himself to do portraits in his early days, when these were not done amongst Muslims? He also seemed to have had a love of horses; and to see his renditions of dappled grey horses capering about is an undiluted pleasure.
Having qualified as a civil engineer, he moved in 1950 to the U.S. to further his studies, first at Columbia University, then at Harvard. Here he took up painting seriously, and moved to Abstract Expressionism, amazingly holding his first exhibition in his first year. But Abstract Expressionism was brand new, and soon every would-be artist hopped on the bandwagon, with many buyers plonking down good money for mediocre art. Gulgee, however, soon became rich and famous, and on his return to Pakistan, found himself a big fish in a small pond. Not only was he prolific, but he soon began to mix media, moved upwards, and began to win awards. “I live only when I paint” he said. “The rest is but a wait, a preparation mixed with prayer for crossing the threshold from life into the experience of life.”
Most of Gulgee’s work for many years, until the untimely and un-solved deaths of himself and his wife, Zarina, also an artist, has been inspired by Islamic calligraphy. For art to be valid it must communicate using a visual language. Thus it uses its own language, and whether the artist employs the most explicit realism or the most obscure brand of abstract expression, it is still a visual language. But whether or not viewers understand a single graceful flourish of Arabic, this does not lessen the beauty of Gulgee’s work. It is not only the form that he paints, but also the background and the way they fit together that is so remarkable. The painting shown here brings to mind a winged animal, running at full speed. His bold brushwork, bright colours, and especially his generous use of brilliant blue, which rivets one’s eyes to the composition, naturally force one to wonder on which calligraphic figure it is based, while the sombre, slightly variegated background of brown complements it all perfectly.
The delightful miniature work of Khalid Saeed Butt is sometimes interpreted as positive romanticism, freely fusing traditional and contemporary artistic subtleties. He graduated MFA from Punjab University, and like many graduates of that university, stayed on as a teacher, eventually becoming Assistant Professor of Art and Design. He has exhibited in Singapore, China and London, to considerable acclaim, whilst at home he has participated in numerous national and provincial shows, receiving two national awards.
With his faithful use of squirrel hair brushes, he produces foliage and colours with exactness, and confesses to being “obsessed with linearity from the moment I got to know the forms of expression. The curves and the flow, the congenial impact and the liquidity, and above all the force of line, spellbound me to explore the mysterious and unfathomable world of miniature painting.” And he adds, “Today I feel that I cannot paint other than miniatures. The sensuous curvatures and transparent folds… To me, my miniatures look as if they are musical compositions, soaked in the romance of symphony, soft and subtle…”
This reads exactly like an evaluation of the exquisite study shown here, of two maidens reclining on a bough among the foliage of a mango tree, admiring its fruit and watched by a peacock, symbol of riches and royalty, while a singing bird performs at the other end of the bough. Despite their seemingly precarious position, they are above all graceful, relaxed and lovely, whilst the folds of their garments over their shapely limbs, are fully deserving of Butt’s description of ‘sensuous curvatures.’ Meanwhile the dreamlike, silver-lined clouds above add an extra touch of elegance and beauty.
Najmi Sura, on the other hand, takes the subjects of courtly Mughal miniatures, and enlarges them to the scale we expect of European genre paintings and court paintings. In this sense her work fits neatly into the framework of ‘appropriation’ that has come to dominate some aspects of today’s avant-gardism. Originally she was attracted to the colour and movement of abstract art, but advised by Jamil Naqsh, she began to practice figurative art. She found her signature in the beautiful themes of Pahari, Rajput and Mughal schools. Her work is seldom seen, but she has received national awards.
The eye-catching piece presented here features beautiful colour contrasts, firstly in the emerald green hills and foliage under a delicately clouded, pale sky. And one marvels at the image of a beautiful girl, generously decked out in fine pearls, with darkly henna-ed hands and delicately painted feet, as she sits on a traditional stool, before a contrasting white wall. The orange dupatta she holds above her head, and the flimsy white lower garment leave little to the imagination, but it is nevertheless a remarkable study of courtly beauty.
Considering how figurative art, portraiture – call it what you will – was frowned upon early in Gulgee’s career, it is amazing how many are now engaged in it. One such is Saeed Akhtar, who was born in 1938, lived in Quetta, graduated from NCA and was presented with the Sitara-e-Imtiaz. His major commission was a portrait of the Quaid-i-Azam, which hangs in pride of place in the State Bank of Pakistan, Islamabad. He was also commissioned to design Pakistan’s largest stamp issue, comprising 27 stamps. Then on Pakistan Day, 1988, during the military parade, the crowd was mesmerised by his gigantic portrait of the Quaid on display, measuring 61 x 40 feet. It has been said that Saeed Akhtar is to Pakistan what Michelangelo was to the Sistine Chapel.
A master craftsman and an innovator, his works create a lasting impression on the viewer, his favourite medium being oil on canvas, though he also works with charcoal and knows the art of playing with lines like a magician. Take, for example, his charcoal study of a bearded man with bushy eyebrows, drawn with firm lines and perfect symmetry, with skillful shading and lines of the face and the chaddar, probably due to his strong observation skills. Mind you, he says that colours are life to him, and this is borne out by his paintings of women in various moods, engaged in activities like dancing – some from Rajasthan, their jewellery a sight to see.
The delightful miniature work of Khalid Saeed Butt is sometimes interpreted as positive romanticism
Ghulam Rasul is known as ‘the people’s painter’ – a legendary artist who painted the true picture of Pakistan. He concentrated mostly on picturing the Pakistani part of Punjab, with the true feel of the rural landscape, the added dimension of human habitation and the value of nature. In the early 1980s he began to produce more detailed, realistic visions of all this. He studied at the Atelier in Paris for the year of 1984, after which his style became more expressive, and redolent of the relationship between man and nature. He concentrated more on village scenes, especially in Saidpur, a picturesque Mughal-era settlement in the foothills of Margalla.
It is said that his later style is reminiscent of the work of the 19th century French impressionist Degas, where the combination of light and shade, people, flora and foliage creates an almost surreal, eternal quality (though he is mostly associated with dance as a subject). This is true of his village scene contributed to this exhibition, with its fields presented in brilliant, varied colours, divided towards the back by a river that reflects the bright blue sky. The continual shower of autumn leaves contrasts beautifully with the slender, black wood of the trees in the foreground, whilst the buffalos grazing peacefully near the mud huts complete the picture of a serene village.
As for Iqbal Hussain, a graduate and teacher of NCA, he has been described as one of the finest painters we have .Most of his paintings show women from Heera Mandi, the centuries old red light district in Lahore, while his own mother was a prostitute. He brings to life characters who are often neglected or spurned by the hypocritical culture of Pakistan, where although his subject at times tends to shock ‘puritan painters,’ he follows his own visions and continues to paint his unconventional and radically innovative works. Furthermore, he has won the UNESCO Headquarters prize in 1995, and one of his pictures was auctioned at the prestigious Sotheby’s
in London. He is equally masterful in landscape painting and still life, but is best known for his portraits, mostly of women.
His dancing girls aren’t painted dancing, but mostly as women of modest looks and appearance – fully clothed, except for the absence of chaddar or dupatta, maybe even stout, and with blank or resigned expressions, staring at us or at nothing. However, among his exhibits is a beautiful but sad looking girl, maybe not from Heera Mandi, judging by her lovely blue dress, her elegant surroundings (unless she’s in Madam’s best parlour), and her general appearance. Then there is his new work, titled ‘Imaginary Beings,’ among which are interpretations of his impending demise, one of which shows him in the ‘Bardo’, as it is called by Buddhists, between life and death, surrounded by burkha clad women wielding swords. Amongst these ‘Imaginary Beings,’ the generous use of black is quite unusual for him. It is hard to tear one’s eyes away from these unusual works.
Ever since its opening, Clifton Art Gallery has amazed us with its remarkable presentations of senior artists and their varied styles, this time with a polished performance by 15 accomplished painters. We look forward to their future exhibitions with keen anticipation.