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In black and white

Why are the artists in this country using a monochromatic scheme of colour in their works?

In black and white
Sadequain: Crucifixion, Martin Luther King; Zahoor ul Akhlaq: Radio Photograph of Objects Unidentified.

A child who was only making black and white drawings was taken to a psychiatrist by his parents. The specialist spoke to the child about the pleasant side of life, love, happiness and friendship. He then asked the boy why did he prefer to paint in dark tones. “Because I don’t have pastels of any other colour,” he innocently replied.

No obvious connection there but many artists in Pakistan are using different shades of grey in their work — whether it is based on minimal and geometric imagery or built with layers of pigment or depicts human figures or includes landscapes. One only needs to collect the invitation cards of exhibitions in a calendar year to confirm this trend in Pakistani art.

Of course, some works demand to be rendered in black and white since chromatic scheme is an indispensible ingredient of the content and the artist’s concerns. For example, the recent canvases of Muhammad Ali Talpur required a restrained colour range due to their optical interplay and precision of shapes. Likewise, there are artists for whom the selection of grey is essential to communicate meaning, like the imagery of Sadequain which needed to be executed and expressed in dark tones.

However, there is an unusual rise in black and white works including those at degree shows or group exhibitions. One wonders if the artists feel comfortable because tackling diverse hues could be a daunting task. Perhaps the monochromatic choice is dependent on other contradictory and complex factors.

One reason for the popularity of black and white in visual arts could be our fascination and romance with black and white cinema and photography. Both are regarded almost with a sense of sacredness, regardless of scale, views and subject. Just the fact that they are devoid of other colours bestows upon them a certain level of seriousness, sophistication, subtlety or supremacy. Because when you reduce the vocabulary, you convey the illusion of being intelligent. Like in real life, a reticent person is considered intense, intellectual and deep.

In the realm of visual arts, colourful canvases are often considered as exercises in playfulness, like children who are relying on their instinct and mood while making art. It is probably this association with colour palette that forces us to wear black or dark colours which is considered a sign of good taste.

Art cannot be distanced from social beliefs. The connection of subtlety with a monochromatic scheme is so strong that the artists who employ a wide range of colour, mostly without a conceptual license, feel pressurised. They appear alienated among a crowd elegantly dressed in the shade card of black.

Several modern artists of Pakistan have preferred a limited palette. Artists like Anwar Jalal Shemza, Sadequain and Zahoor ul Akhlaq were more selective in their tonal options. Artists of younger generations are following this course on a larger scale. As for the modern artists’ preference for black and white imagery, it could have been based on their training in schools. Many had studied in institutions where takhti (wooden tablet) writing was a part of education and in a way it offered the first introduction with art making. Like preparing the surface of a canvas, one has to coat the takhti with diluted clay, and then dip the reed pen into ink and make marks on the surface.

Even if it was just an exercise in Urdu writing, it may have had an impact on their art making — hence the glimpses of text transformed into shapes and forms in the work of Sadequain, Shemza, and Akhlaq.

In the art of Zahoor ul Akhlaq, the painter who had a greater influence on generations after, writing is not about text. He employed the format of a manuscript and incorporated the structure of grid in his compositions. His works with grid are attempts in exploring a two-dimensionality and can be connected to the art of book making — since traditional manuscripts offered illustrations, invoking the flatness of a visual.

The use of manuscript format demanded the image to be in black and white tones because books are in one colour. This was reinforced in Akhlaq’s practice as a printmaker (ideally an etching is printed in black on white paper).

The association of Akhlaq and painters from earlier generations with text cannot be ignored because, arguably, art making in our culture was not separated from writing, hence the term used for brush among the painters of transport art and signboards is qalam (pen).

Several artists, including Rashid Rana and Muhammad Ali Talpur, at some point in their careers have been influenced from Akhlaq and one can see the structure of grid usually rendered in black and white in some of their works. But this idea or motif is explored in distinct ways. In fact, for artists like Rana and Talpur, the concept of form is more important on a philosophical level rather than its pictorial manifestation.

In contrast, some other painters just pick this palette as an easy device to impress the audience about the seriousness of their concerns and depth of their concepts. Stuck in producing multiple shades of greys, they prefer pink, orange and turquoise pants (not paints) while showcasing their sombre, subtle surfaces.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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