“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began
So it is now I am a man
The child is father to the man”
These words of romantic poet William Wordsworth aptly describe the career of well loved artist Aqeel Solangi – who understood from his youth in Ranipur, northern Sindh, that he would become a painter – and the happy reaction of many viewers upon seeing his work. Mind you, seeing his first exhibition after his return from a year’s scholarship at Bath Spa University in the U.K., many were disappointed at the radical change in his style, though it was gradually accepted as part of his development as an artist. He himself said at the time that he had been doing his nature based work – with so many pictures featuring sadabahar flowers in the circle of eternity – for 10 years, but that he had moved on, not knowing where the new road would lead him.
As it happens, he has now returned to his old style, and says, “During my stay in the United Kingdom in 2015-16 I produced works that addressed my immediate surroundings and the people around me. After returning to Pakistan, following Claude Monet’s words, ‘As we travel – we return,’ I have returned to the practice where I was incorporating the periwinkle flowers in almost every work. The periwinkle (sadabahar) is my lifeline as an artist […] The symbols in my work denote a constant dialogue with nature; I believe every object in nature has its own emotional/historical/cultural relevance.”
Here it is worthwhile to consider the periwinkle flower (native to Madagascar) and how it entered his repertoire. In the Middle Ages it was a potent religious symbol tied to the Virgin Mary, possibly due to its purity and simplicity, and now and then it appears in old stained glass church windows, though in the Victorian Era it came to symbolize a beautifully blossoming friendship. Aqeel’s first teacher, sign and cinema board painter Ustad Mehboob, gave him his first lessons in painting this flower, symbol of eternal spring; and later at NCA in the M.A. (Hons.) Visual Arts course he chose naqqashi (fresco painting) as a traditional practice, where he learned the stylisation and forms of various flowers from Ustad Saif-ur-Rehman. In his works, Aqeel places periwinkles as in traditional weaving – a flower upon another flower, or side by side.
His recent retrospective show titled ‘Fictional Homelands,’ the most in-depth study of his work to date, was held at Karachi’s renowned Chawkandi Gallery, which was beautifully repainted at curator Aasim Akhtar’s request, in colours bound to enhance the beauty of Aqeel’s work. The exhibition offers a review of his artistic development from 2008 to 2018, from his early work to later developments in his style, and includes mixed media – oil, acrylic, graphite and powdered pigment mainly on paper and canvas. It shows how he has gradually added a considerable variety of symbols and objects, such as clouds, cacti, and man-made structures among others, along with a range of flowers including Arabian jasmine, the rose, the marigold, chrysanthemums, hibiscus and the periwinkle or sadabahar blossom. Flower symbolism teaches us about the importance of nature, and how we are all linked to it. And nature is a reminder that we are all part of something greater and more meaningful. Seeing the creations of the poetic and spiritual artist Solangi, a son of the soil, one is certainly aware of this. Incidentally, he is sometimes referred to as a surrealist painter, but though he agrees that here and there his work includes surrealist touches, he sees himself first and foremost as a poetic painter. Along with his inspiration from nature, over the years the work of poets and other writers such as Kavi Kalidas, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Amrita Pritam, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Nasir Kazmi has been a source of of considerable influence on his work. However, for his 2011 show, ‘Vus’at e Bahr o Bar,’ he found inspiration in listening to Raga Megh, and also in the Sur Sarang portion of the Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, thus linking himself with the treasured tradition of tasawwuf or mysticism of Rumi.
No doubt the quality, mystery and images of his work led to his selection by the National Council of the Arts in 2013 as one of five artists to participate in a two-week workshop in China, from which he produced ‘Tactile Journeys,’ a beautiful exhibition rich in the use of Chinese cultural,historical and mythical symbols. From this we have his impressive study of a chrysanthemum flower, an important symbol of vitality and longevity in both Chinese and Japanese culture. In Chinese culture it has been, since ancient times, one of the four flowers symbolising noble character. In Japan, it represents the monarch, who occupies the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the legal authority in the existence of the government. Furthermore, in Japan’s autumn there are chrysanthemum festivals held in many places, the first one having been in 910 A.D., and sponsored by the imperial family. In Aqeel’s picture we see a full-blown yellow chrysanthemum flower against a textured yellow and black surround. The artist has painted this flower with great attention to detail, below it placing a begging bowl, one of the Buddhist monk’s few possessions. Thus there is an impressive contrast between the symbol of royalty and the symbol of humility and voluntarily embraced poverty, two states in the artist’s continual search for the essence of human identity. Meanwhile, the yellow frame completes in its simplicity the unity of this composition, and underlines, along with humility, another important element in Japanese psychology – simplicity.
Though here and there his work includes surrealist touches, he sees himself first and foremost as a poetic painter
Cypresses, on the other hand, came into his work when he decided to revitalize the traditional motifs which he normally used. This widely cultivated, long-lived tree, with its durable, scented wood, suits his search for the mysterious, the spiritual. In classical antiquity it was a symbol of mourning, and even today it is found in cemeteries in both the Muslim world and Europe, yet besides this it is symbolic of immortality, elevation and hope, and is often used as a decorative tree. It is used repeatedly in both east and west, in both literature and art, for example in the work of Van Gogh, Chugtai, Iznik ceramics and Persian miniatures. Part of its spiritual appeal to Solangi is that it points to heaven, hence the beautifully stylised clouds above. And here within the graceful frame, a form derived from the Indian Subcontinent’s classical arts, he has set it appropriately on a base of sadabahar flowers within a circle of eternity, against a golden sunset – perhaps the sunset of life. In its twin iconic forms, the artist explains that it is also “symbolic of the divided self, the divided mind, so they are almost like self portraits.”
Despite its beauty, grace and impeccable balance, ‘The Fruitless Tree’ is a somewhat less promising form. How many circles of blossoms there are on this tree! And one asks how many worlds, physical, spiritual or astral, are enclosed within these circles. But for some reason it does not bear fruit, like so many of our plans and resolutions. Even the ominous clouds enclosed in the circle above lack freedom and promise. The air of mystery and sombre poignancy in this piece is underlined by the tree’s still, unmoving, unspeaking appearance, its burden of barren branches among those that are flower-laden. The sombre mood is rooted in the artist’s knowledge of how land in his native Sindh has often been abandoned, owing to centuries of political conflict and sectarian persecution.
Now, what is an enigma? Its meaning includes such things as a mystery, puzzle, riddle, conundrum, paradox and so on. Aqeel’s piece titled ‘The Enigma of a Familiar Place’ was originally inspired by something in his classroom at the now non-existent Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi. He says, “There was always something enigmatic in the atmosphere of that room – but an imaginary (seascape) has replaced it. Now, I am sitting at the window gazing at the pristine white water with fresh clouds above. The original dark shadowed periwinkle circle has been replaced by a pair of circles, one mauve, and one white with cerulean blue, while a surprising yellow light enters the door. This yellow light is also visible in the original painting, and maybe this accounts for the enigmatic feeling, as yellow light has its own spirituality. It represents the enlightenment that God’s wisdom brings into our souls. It is part of the system of angel colours. and is full of creative and intellectual energy.”
‘The Enigma of a Familiar Place’ is a charming, intriguing picture within a picture, though it has been criticized mercilessly as an “unlikely combination of forms that in themselves maintain an air of fierce objectivity.” Well, why not let the painter, especially one of such reputation, create pictures as he sees fit?
‘Roman Bath,’ in a completely different style, owes its origin to his time at Bath Spa University in 2015-2016 and he was a frequent visitor to the baths, which gave the city its name, and were constructed during the 400 years of Roman rule in Britain. The temple in the complex was built in 60-70 A.D., and the bathing complex was completed during the next 300 years. Interestingly, on the site about 130 curse tablets have been found, many relating to thefts of clothing while the victim was bathing. The picture is a result of Solangi’s fascination with historic places, as also with water. At that time he was painting pools, the sea, water resevoirs and so on. After completing this piece he realized that the upper part is done in black and white, whereas the bath area is in colour. The work includes a few of the buildings nearby, though the imposing church there is only partly included, so as not to detract from the actual subject. The picture is a faithful rendition of the place, from the Roman statue standing above, to the building itself, including its reflections, enhanced by a slight feeling of movement in the water. The piece has, for the most part, a delightfully rustic air, diametrically opposite to the mysterious rendering of his melancholic and poetic night time study of a plinth from the Bath Parade Gardens with a circle of clouds above.
Finally, there is a diptych combining precision – the triangle – and chance, whereby a brilliant red hibiscus flower has flower has fallen from a brightly illuminated place above, bypassing the lahriya-patterned water and finding a soft landing on a circular bed of sadabahar flowers. In fact, the hibiscus flower is associated with the Lord Ganesh in Hinduism, just as the lotus flower is associated with Lord Buddha, sometimes referred to as The Lotus-Born, in Buddhism. It is said that Lord Ganesh should be offered a red hibiscus on a subtle level, as the colour and fragrance have the capacity to attract the principles of the deity, which benefit the worshipper. As to the triangle, it has many meanings, but in whatever context it is presented, its exactitude is important. Aqeel has shown it as an erect triangle, thus connecting it to the male principle. The circle within gives a softening touch, while it does not interrupt the lahriya pattern. And the carefully drawn five petals of the hibiscus come together to show ultimate peace, helping to prevent severity in the study, where black is prominent.
‘Fictional Homelands,’ in its profundity, its beauty, its variety of presentations in no way detracts from Solangi’s stature as an artist. What will he show us next? Yes, the child is father to the man, but could the child have had any inkling of the heights to which the man would rise?