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Of birds and other feathers

Looking back at Shakir Ali’s art

Of birds and other feathers

Teju Cole in one of his essays on clichés ‘In Place of Thought’ defines virginity as “an obsession in Iran and in the olive oil industry. It can be lost, like a wallet”. Pakistani artists have other obsessions, like keeping a pet, not in their houses or studios but on their canvases or within their waslis. You see horses, elephants, lions, rats, dogs, goats, cows, crows and pigeons repeatedly rendered by artists of all generations, styles or schools of thought.

This fascination or obsession may have started with Shakir Ali. We knew of his paintings of men and birds, and women and bulls, along with two canvases of ‘Leda and the Swan’ from 1965 and 1966. There has been a legacy of artists after him painting animals, including Jamil Naqsh who created innumerable variations on pigeons and females, and women with horses. Though the style is different from Shakir Ali, one can detect a similarity in terms of treating the subject — especially for it being a recurring motif.

Shakir Ali’s bird — unlike the crow frequently captured by his contemporary Sadequain — in most instances is unrecognisable. It is a generic bird, an archetype of the specie, usually flying next to a man. A group of birds are suspended between the head of a crucified man and moon in his ‘Crucifixion’ from 1965. One can assume it is a bird that belongs to the outside world or a manifestation of one’s soul — free from shackles of all sorts and sailing in the sky.

The choice of bird may not be a purely pictorial element. Ali who had migrated from India to Pakistan, studied in Europe, taught at the National College of Arts and spent his last years in Lahore was a free soul himself. He identified with birds because they do not recognise or respect borders and cross the boundaries of language, ethnicity, faith and maps of nation-states.

Bird as the symbol of freedom is found in Shakir Ali’s paintings. One can read about his fondness for Rilke, but there are other sources and associations for preferring this element. According to Ijaz ul Hassan, “While Shakir Ali was in Czechoslovakia, Fucik’s book Report from the Gallows and the tragic fate of the town of Ladice, destroyed by the Nazis during the war, moved him deeply. Shakir Ali found Fucik’s work overflowing with a love of life, freedom and of the nation. Its author even in his most difficult moments — when threatened with the sentence of death — was able to write about the Sun, flowers, and birds.”

As Shakir Ali was not limited to one cultural past for his choice of subjects, themes, and imagery, he did not reduce his birds to merely living creatures. For him, these were metaphors of different eras and civilizations.

It seems that Shakir Ali, an artist who enjoyed the privilege (or curse) of being the citizen of two states one after the other, did not subscribe to the orthodox idea of a nation-state. This does not mean that he was oblivious to history, heritage, or a cultural past. In contrast, he was a citizen of a tradition that was not restricted to one period or people.

In his painting, ‘The Woman with Bird’, a parrot is perched on the knees of a naked female, an imagery that can be located in Tuti-Nama, a Persian text in which the parrot speaks to a princess; or in his canvas ‘Leda and the Swan’, the Greek myth is recreated as a symbol of universal and eternal love. Akbar Naqvi explains: “The subject of Zeus’s rape of Leda, the queen of Sparta, was painted by Leonardo da Vinci soon after ‘Mona Lisa’. Raphael made a sketch of the theme, which was a direct copy from Leonardo, Shakir Ali was interested in mythology as a ruse”.

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As Shakir Ali was not limited to one cultural past for his choice of subjects, themes, and imagery, he did not reduce his birds to merely living creatures. For him, these were metaphors of different eras and civilizations. They represent power of nature over man-made environment. The same can be observed in his paintings and drawings of bulls, either in a cluster or with human beings. The presence or preference of bull for Shakir Ali can be traced in various pasts.

As observed by John Berger, in the earliest known paintings on the walls of caves, bulls and other animals were the primordial subjects for makers. Writing about his creative process, Shakir Ali connected it with the ancient practices of image-making, by declaring: “I must have been born in the age of the Altamira Caves. I feel as if I spent life with people then and made pictures with them. Then, again, I think that I was born in Crete and was among the people who danced before the holy bull and painted murals on the walls. And, perhaps I was among those who lived in the age of Akhenaton and made the picture of Nefertiti, or perhaps I was in Ajanta”.

Thus, for him, species other than humans were as sacred and as full of meaning as believed by our archaic and not so archaic ancestors. Just as animals are timeless, Time ceases to exist in art. It is a rather complex matter to associate Shakir Ali with modernity because in its essence, one of modernity’s outcome, modernism, was a means to attain ideal forms and perfect solutions, which in a way resisted any link to a local tradition or territory.

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Modernity for Ali was not a formal device or pictorial strategy, but a political standpoint, especially if we recall the painter had spent a brief period in Socialist Czechoslovakia. Instead of being attracted to social realism, Shakir Ali opted for a different course of art and the interpretation of modernity. This also highlights the fate of human beings in a world that was aptly portrayed by another Czech writer, Franz Kafka, particularly in his novels, which do describe local settings, but transcend them, as a reader begins to realise the fatelessness of a human being in a stifling and oppressive atmosphere.

However, in the art of Shakir Ali, instead of gloom, grief and grim tales, one recognises a trace of hope. The birds flying on the head of a man or next to naked females signify the presence and possibility of hope beyond borders. Shakir Ali was reverting back to an age, or an idealism, in which the confines of political boundaries hardly matter or exist.

For him and for us too, humanity is the common thread between regions and stages of human history, because it relies upon the basic needs and necessities of people, who seek to be free, from their caves of prehistory and from the confines of modern day markets.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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