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Flowers beyond the grave

Ahmed Zoay comes alive at an exhibition of his works and a monograph on him at Hamail Art Gallery Lahore

Flowers beyond the grave

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist, has advised that authors must write as if posthumously, with the awareness of how their work will be read after they are gone. Perhaps a painter should also work like that because the art pieces, too, outlive the maker of images.

However, when it comes to art, the matter of life and death is not a simple one. Many artists keep producing works beyond their graves — through the hands of forgers who keep a steady supply of canvases of dead artists such as Chughtai, Allah Bux, Sadequain, etc. Then there are artists who are so aloof and lonely that one hardly hears about them till the shocking news of their death arrives.

Of such artists, Salahuddin Mian seems to be drifting away from the collective memory and official narrative of Pakistani art. Ahmed Zoay would have met a similar fate had a book on his art and life not published or his solo exhibition not arranged soon after his death. Of the two, Zoay had more chance of being condemned to oblivion because, instead of teaching at an art institution, meeting his contemporaries or frequenting art exhibitions’ openings, he confined himself to his residence in Samanabad Lahore. There he painted away canvas after canvas, making collages, creating mixed media and drawings as if he was the sole spectator of his art.

This fact, of not being bothered about who looks at his work in his life or after, was a major factor in determining the aesthetics of Ahmed Zoay: he was not concerned whether he would be rightly judged, valued or understood. It also affected the way he spoke and behaved.

A primitive-like existence, and longing for beauty, was the driving force behind his last works loaded with vibrant hues and aggressive marks. His painterly quality was justified in terms of his chosen imagery which could be described as violent. Compared to artists who have been painting female figures juxtaposed with geometric jewellery and horse-like manes or wearing nomadic costumes from Thar, Zoay expressed himself without any amendment or alteration.

Now when Zoay is permanently silent, his soul speaks and talks through the words of Marjorie Husain and his works.

While this liberated him from the constraints of customs and norms of society, it proved to be a restriction of a different sort. Because once the artist was not interested in his viewership or his place among contemporaries or his interaction with the art world, he turned himself into a blind alley by reproducing similar visuals, techniques and colour palette.

These last canvases of Zoay can be read not as a eulogy but an elegy of freedom. How the illusion of liberation may include a cage of invisible wires. In his posthumous solo exhibition at Hamail Art Gallery Lahore (March 2-7, 2015), one came across canvases with thick impasto, urgent lines, and scattered dots, all of which start to appear like a pattern or convention if not a formula. Despite the recurring imagery and treatment, one discovers the constant imagery or fixation of Zoay — women.

However, beyond the classical or detached adoration of female figure, Zoay drifts into the realm of sensuous pleasure. Hence all paintings bear an unmistakable mark — based on parts of body that are usually draped or hidden but are clearly described in his almost inflammable imagery.

Although most of his painted surfaces emerged from his instinct and feelings, it was his mixed media, mainly collages, in which the artist appeared to be taking risks — both in terms of formal and conceptual arenas.

The recently published monograph on Zoay offers multiple sides of the man, who is usually understood as a painter of sensuous surfaces. In ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone….’ the author, Marjorie Husain, provides a detailed account of the man who continued to paint till the last days of his life. The book (1947-2014) is published by the Topical Press, Lahore and was launched at the inauguration of his exhibition at the Hamail Art Gallery.

Along with 62 of his works on display, all from the artist’s collection, the book on his art is important to understand the way Zoay evolved as an artist. The text deals with his early years at NCA, his travels as a hippie in the early 1970s, his friendships, especially with somebody called ‘Mo’ (whom Husain describes as his ‘Acid Guru’). The monograph is an unusual document, because it brings different perspectives and context to comprehend his life and art.

Accompanied with rare photographs of Zoay, his wife Ingrid, his Italian girl friend Margherita, their journeys, his studio and reproduction of his exhibition’s invitation card from 1987, the elegant, flowing and engaging text of Marjorie Husain resurrects a personality that was buried under mysteries, myths and misunderstandings during his life. Reconstructed with the help of notes, articles, diaries provided by the painter and her communication with him, the narrative is as interesting and engaging as Zoay’s life and works.

The author’s research includes discussions with people who closely witnessed the rise and fall of the painter which turned him into a disturbed individual and a solitary practitioner in our art world. More than secondary sources, it is the artist’s own voice in the book that declares, “I do not want to be happy, I want to be quiet. I want to do my Art”.

Now when Zoay is permanently silent, his soul speaks and talks through the words of Marjorie Husain, and in the tones and textures of those surfaces, which are unique in their restlessness, energy, urgency and honesty.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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