Mohsin Hamid, the amazing novelist of our times, praised another author from our region saying that from among a total of ten books he produced four works of highest quality. For Hamid this was a big achievement, enough to include him in the list of great writers.
His observation made me think that as viewers or critics, we always expect an artist to have produced a large number of ‘great’ works. Actually if he manages one or two unsurpassable works in say one year, or from a single exhibition, that should be enough to gauge his worth.
Try and recall the name of any great artist and you would realise that most people never got a chance to see everything created by him or her. Only a small part of his whole oeuvre is known publically and widely. And that small segment is sufficient to mark his place among masters of art. For instance, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Peter Paul Rubens, William de Kooning and many others have painted profusely but their fame rests on select canvases. Likewise for literature; not many people have read the entire collection of Mir Taqi Mir, yet his prestige rests upon verses which form a small part of all the poetry that he wrote.
It was this aspect of an artist’s creation that became a crucial concern while viewing Nizakat Ali Depar’s recent exhibition, Narration and Imagination, at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi (held from Sept 30-Oct 12, 2014). The show included works of different scale with diverse imagery ranging from figurative compositions to stylised representation of objects and plants. But amongst all, a single piece was the most prominent due to its unusual subject and extraordinary pictorial approach. Titled Lion in Conversation with Dog, the painting was different from the rest of exhibits in many respects. This miniature showed a lion looking at a dog, represented with its muzzle in a dark hue on one side of the picture. The artist employed colours in such a scheme that the dark background of this painting appeared a part and extension of the dog’s head, while the lion looked like an alien and frightened being, almost trapped in a vast space with the looming canine presence.
Although both the title of the work and its construction remind one of Aesop’s fables or stories from Kalila wa Damina, in which animals talk and have adapted human traits, the artist’s decision to portray the two animals in that space moves beyond mere literal links or dialogues between them. Here the feeling of uncertainty, threat and doom is as discernible as in Surprize, the painting by Henri Rousseau, or in the atmosphere of miniature paintings from Rajasthan’s Kishangarh School in which hunt scenes are rendered in such a way that the physical act of hunting turns into a psychological undertaking to tackle the unknown.
This particular work represents two animals but in reality it unfolds the fear and anticipation of the unknown that haunts all of us. Thus one work stood out from the rest due to its simplicity and strength.
Other paintings in the exhibition indicate the artist’s search for varying ways of dealing with the content that is more about his outer world than his personal and private space. In that sense, the artist trained in miniature painting has reverted to the original function of miniatures made during the Mughal and other courts in India where painters were illustrating their surroundings but, because of their creative genius, turned mere scenes or figures into symbols of sublime meanings and refined imagery. Like classics, these works are still enjoyed because of their artistic sophistication and complex content.
To some extent, Depar has sought to attain that level as his paintings are a combination of various elements to build a narrative that could allude to the current situation.
In that attempt, he has picked the image of thorns on a branch and created a few paintings based on this visual that denote the difficult conditions of the country. His work seems to document and depict danger, depression and oppression. However, in some works this form was transformed into a pattern which conveys its decorative aspect more than its intended idea.
There are several paintings that suggest the artist’s political and societal position. Especially the works in which women are holding freshly decapitated heads with streaks of blood oozing out and other act of cruelties are carried out by men dressed in traditional attires. In some places, these characters are composed next to bicycles, bags and dogs, all against a background that resembles faded maps with the name of the country drawn in reverse, yet easily discernible.
Similarly, in a few other surfaces, multiple time zones are combined by juxtaposing figures from the past next to outlines of travelling bags and cows arranged on fragments of maps and smudged diagrams.
Another part of Depar’s work consists of human representation. Figures of men wearing shalwars or loin clothes are placed against green backdrops. This kind of imagery and treatment (chests exposed and constructed in a sensitive and sensuous scheme by emphasising the hair on the body) carries echoes of Anwar Saeed and Ali Kazim. Like the two painters, Nizakat Ali Depar also seems to be combining a diverse set of imagery in order to create a personal narrative and vision.
Commendably, this surge did not end up as the urge to develop ‘market’ or ‘brand’ iconography. In most miniature painters, it becomes a signature style and replaces the need to find new approaches. Many well-recognised artists keep repeating a certain set of imagery without changing their practices, visuals and methods, even if the venue, audience and occasion vary.
The exhibition of Nizakat Ali Depar may not have conveyed his clarity of style and maturity of views in a convincing manner, but it certainly communicated something basic and more important — that in art what is most valid and valuable is the “search for truth”, better than any other finding, fact and fixation.