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The other Sultan

Like the flight of birds or the fluttering wings of a butterfly, Ali Sultan’s canvases fill us with joy, pleasure and excitement

The other Sultan

My first introduction to Ali Sultan was through his writings as a journalist. Although he was interested in visual arts even in those days, I did not imagine he would take painting as a serious pursuit to the level of almost becoming his profession; and have his solo exhibition (from April 30-May 17, 2014) of paintings executed in oil, enamel and mixed media.

It would be relevant to examine the two creative streaks (journalism can also be artistic, if one invokes the great example of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many others) in a personality, and the shift from one side to the other in order to understand his work.

Actually the word ‘understand’ is crucial in connection to Sultan’s paintings, because the work does not require a usual method of comprehending content or recognising images. On the other hand his abstract surfaces, with an open geometric structure, are created in freely applied brush strokes. Often paint (mostly the house paint) spills and slips from one area to next, thus offering a sense of spontaneity and perpetual flux.

There can be many reasons for the writer-turned-artist to select this sort of image-making and preferring this type of technique, in which an individual’s untrained and raw expression is more important than defined compositions or accurate figures and precise objects. One of these may relate to Ali being a self-taught artist (he went to an art university but was enrolled in Film School), yet more than that it is his experience of writing, and particularly in papers, that may have inspired him to choose the kind of visual vocabulary which cannot be understood.

Words and images are both human tools to communicate ideas, events and emotions. But both operate in a different manner. It is presumed that in the beginning of human history, there was hardly a difference between language and images because, like pictograms, all kinds of visuals were codes to be deciphered, without causing confusion or disagreement in their meanings. This dimension of visual arts, as the generally-accepted language, continued till Renaissance and even after in Europe and in many other cultures, in which a set of imagery was not merely for pictorial pleasure, but it conveyed specific content/message shared by the society in which it was produced.

He has been exploring and experimenting with form and colour in his canvases, and it appears that his brush and palette are not restricted.

If the works of visual arts were seen as representation of reality, which could be easily identified, language on the other hand moved more towards the realm of abstraction. Although words signify specific ideas, objects, entities and incidents but when contained in a visual form, as script, these assume symbolic and abstract quality. The written diction and spoken too, in a paradoxical way, communicated reality yet embodied abstraction.

So while reading, we shift from meaning to mere shapes. What we encounter (as you are doing now) are lines, dots and shapes and translate them into concepts, things, sensations and feelings etc. But those words, in their physical formations, do not have any logical, physical or pictorial connection to what they represent.

So the act of reading or writing is a twofold journey between actuality and abstraction. Thus it is not surprising that a person like Ali Sultan who has been involved with language opted to move beyond the course of ‘comprehension’ when he decided to paint. Perhaps the experience of writing has led him to leave the domain of readability in pictorial arts and, at the same time (it seems contradictory, but it is not), the practice of working with words (shapes, lines) inspired him to employ a similar set of motifs in his art.


So, in his canvases, one comes across paint impulsively applied, often showing lines in different directions, elementary shapes and thick textures, without any discernible subject. It is the sheer experience of moving the loaded brush from one direction to other and in quick gesture, which is frozen on the surface, and to which we are supposed to identify and relate to as we do to the flight of birds or the fluttering wings of a butterfly; both do not ‘mean’ anything yet fill us with joy, pleasure and excitement.

But from this basic level, one senses that Sultan seeks to share more with his audience. Although a number of paintings are untitled, but several with names such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Metro Bus Across my Door, Sayonara (Chair), and The Pink Angels and the Backdoor Man signify or suggest the artist’s source of inspiration from his immediate reality, familiar experience or interaction with literature. However whatever the link, explicit or implicit, the viewer is not directed towards the intended meaning/intention through any clue.

Ali Sultan

In that sense, the relationship of artworks and their titles to some extent are like the link between human beings and their names. We spend our lives with one name which in no logical way ‘suits’ us. In fact names, though part of human interaction and discourse, turn into merely tags, labels and sounds. (No wonder many writers, such as, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda and Ibn-e-Insha adopted new names for themselves).

Ali Sultan has been exploring and experimenting with form and colour in his canvases, and it appears that his brush and palette are not restricted. Hence, the viewer enjoys the unexpected interplay of visual materials, and it is the excitement that replaces the urge to read anything in these surfaces. The composition of forms and layers of colours reflect a maturity in the artist’s vision, but the scales of these works somehow turn these into exercises for more spontaneous and daring canvases to come.

Although Sultan impresses a spectator with his ability to use various hues in an innovative and uninhibited scheme, it is his surfaces that are mainly in black and white that seem more resolved and sophisticated. An observation that may be bound to our appreciation of black and white movies and monochromatic photographs, or it may have a link with the writer becoming an artist. Because regardless what colourful language he uses, an author’s text is mostly printed in black ink on white paper, or usually read in black tone on the glowing screen of a computer.

The work is on display at gallery 39-K Model Town, Lahore

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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