Canvas & Colleagues, the title of a recently concluded exhibition in Lahore, invites you to investigate the relationship between artists. Can canvases be colleagues? Is it possible for two artists of equal merit to have a firm friendship? In recent history, artists known to be close companions, like Van Gogh and Gauguin or Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, eventually became estranged.
The reason does not lie, as is often believed, in their varying level of success; it is deeper than that. A creative person is after all a solitary individual, communicating in a tongue that solely belongs to him. After a few years, a phase comes when creativity is at odds with the presence, shadow or mention of another idea or thought, even of the same worth. However, it is still comfortable to have people around who may be doing similar work but are not competing with the protagonist. Many former students, even though they find their own niche, keep following the footsteps of their tutors and mentors, so they are identified through their teachers.
A project to showcase works of artists trained or taught at the College of Art & Design, University of the Punjab, Lahore dealt with these issues and more. Sensitively curated by Dr Naela Aamir, the exhibition marked the 25th death anniversary of Anna Molka Ahmed, and included works by 59 artists. In keeping with the tradition of teachers and graduates from the institution, the show comprised mostly paintings, particularly from Punjab. A few significant names who studied here but belonged to Sindh were missing, such as A. R. Nagori and Mussarat Mirza (probably due to unavailability of their works).
Yet the exhibition is a remarkable endeavour; it narrates how the genre of painting was perceived, promoted and progressed here. One must mention the contribution of Anna Molka Ahmed who established the Fine Art Department in 1940, and left a legacy that is still visible. (Claude Levi-Strauss writes about meeting Mrs Ahmed: “At the University of Lahore, I met an English lady, married to a Moslem, who was in charge of the Department of Fine Art. Only girls were allowed to attend her lectures; sculpture was forbidden, music had become a clandestine activity and painting was taught as a social accomplishment”).
The strongest segment of the exhibition was works from ‘Earlier Years – 1940-1960’: Anwar Afzal, Khalid Iqbal, Naseem Hafiz Qazi and Colin David. Some names like Zubeda Javed, Ghulam Rasul, Kaleem Khan in the second section ‘Formative Years – 1960-1980’ impressed due to their originality of thought or mastery of craft. Yet, one remained glued to a blue cube, around which you could inspect the strokes of Khalid Iqbal, contemplate the unusual play of pictorial means by Colin David, and enjoy the luxurious atmosphere managed through paint by Naseem Hafiz Qazi.
One realises that artists around Anna Molka Ahmed (often respected more as an educationist than a painter) were pursuing their visions, independently, strongly, and intelligently. Interestingly, those from the early tutelage of Mrs. Ahmed did not betray any link to her pictorial preference; instead their works could be classified in the tradition of British painting (not even French Impressionism), with an emphasis on local light and colour. Merely capturing outside reality, their canvases are about the reality of painting. Instead of imitating nature, their surroundings or features of a fellow human being, their works entail the act of painting, its joy, notwithstanding the stern profile of some of the practitioners.
I too was once a drawing student of the serious, unsmiling, unfriendly Ms. Kazi at the Alhamra Art Centre. But standing in front of her ‘Still Life’ (c. 1980s), I savoured the distribution of whites, yellows, blues and browns in a composition that is not about a specific setting but the pleasure of painting.
This pleasure is evident in the landscape of Khalid Iqbal from 1976 in which a lone tree dominates the spread of fields against receding village houses. Its composition, and carefully placed strokes of adjusting hues, elevates this work from the category of landscape painting. Like Impressionists (but stylistically different from them), Iqbal picks a subject to paint light, atmosphere, time and sensation of temperature. In front of his work, a viewer recalls and relives the moments spent in the rural areas of Punjab.
In the same lieu, Colin David’s canvas of 1988, suggests the artist’s preference for formulating his personal language rather than becoming subservient to his model in the studio. David’s selection of colours and manner of applying flat paint, with minimal details of body, changing light and shadows, confirm how the artist saw his subject — as a means to explore and extend the possibility of visual language. In that course, you recognise ‘Rukhsana with Karen’ — wife and daughter — but what you identify is the pictorial feat that David was after, through his manipulation of the medium that appeared as if directed by an inner force.
Actually, that inner force is the spirit of art which takes over the transient reality. Who is interested in how the tree painted by Iqbal looked in reality or the colour of Rukhsana’s shirt or how many fruits were placed on a table spread in Qazi’s still life?
It is still contestable how much the tree belonged to Khalid Iqbal or to his spot ‘Model Town Suburbs’; or whether the chair in Qazi’s canvas was from Lahore College for Women or how factual are the figures in David’s painting. People age, places change; so what we see in ‘Rukhsana with Karen’ is not Rukhsana or Karen but David’s forms, solely.
This ability to detach oneself from one’s subject, a remarkable achievement, resurfaces in the paintings of Zubeda Javed and Ghulam Rasul, two artists who extended the notion and limitation of landscape painting in different ways. The overpowering presence of ‘beauty’ or ‘burden’ of landscape often hampers a painter. But the real artist is she who liberates herself and her subjects from the conventional category of landscape — as seen in the works by Kalim Khan, Durre Waseem, Rukhe Nilofer Zaidi and Iqbal Khokar. Or in the charcoal on paper by Mughees Riaz in which his favourite and recurring subject ‘crow on a buffalo’ is depicted. But the way the material is used, transformed into the heavy skin of the animal or thick feathers of the bird, is a magic only possible by the artist who converts a stick of burnt coal into coat of buffalo or texture of a crow’s body.
It is Mughees Riaz we see when we glimpse his ‘Buffalo with Crow’ 2019. A similar experience awaits in ‘Dangal’ (2016) of Ali Azmat, of a male wrestler against a background of bouquet painted in the pattern of truck painters. The back of the bulbous body is rendered on a protruding surface, a detail that enhances the content of the work.
Apart from being a commendable venture to remind the past, presence and relevance of painting in Pakistan, the show certifies that artists who move beyond the tyranny of subject or style survive for posterity — as independent artists as well as part of a school, even if not as colleagues.
(The exhibition was held from 3rd to 8th May 2019)