“You should take him for walk; he has put on weight,” I said.
“Jamil has forgotten how to cross a road, so he stays indoors”, Najmi Sura, his wife and a major artist, replied to my suggestion when I paid him a visit last June in London.
I could not have imagined then that in a year’s time, Jamil Naqsh would cross the most difficult, hard and hazardous road to eternity.
Jamil Naqsh was 80 at the time of his death but I never considered him old. His presence of mind and sharp memory were evident as he sat on a chair and held forth about art, literature and life. It was surprising how he remembered dates, places, people and episodes in their minute details. But what was really impressive was how he connected these with each other and with the larger art world of which he was a most prominent part.
Although Naqsh lived in London, he always remained related to his soil and its art. His day used to start before dawn and ended around dusk. He spent most of those hours in front of his canvases; the extraordinary energy was manifest in painting after painting, each distinct in terms of subject, style, colour and technique.
After saying what turned out to be a final goodbye to him last year, I went to see his new works to be displayed at Pontone Gallery. Familiar with Naqsh’s aesthetics and six decades of image-making, I found his last body of work shocking, rather perplexing. I couldn’t fathom where those vibrant hues, broken forms and sensitive surfaces were coming from. Looking back, I now understand it was his last breath of creativity — unusual, unseen, unstoppable.
Naqsh was known and respected for being a prolific painter but not an artist who repeated himself or was ‘bought’ by the market. Actually it was he who ‘bought’ the market. I don’t know if it was true but in the early 1980s, it was rumoured that collectors signed the back of blank canvases, ready rather grateful for whatever he would like to paint on them.
What was it that Jamil Naqsh liked to paint? To an ordinary viewer or a superficial commentator, he made naked women next to birds or horses; pigeons and calligraphic scripts. As a novice working on a book of interviews of Pakistani artists in 1997 I asked him if he was not tired of drawing women and birds for so many years, and how about moving to other imagery. Jamil Naqsh rubbed his fingers on the leaves of a plant close to him and said: “I have also been painting this for several years; when I am able to make it, then I will switch to another subject!”
That was a magical moment; it made a young artist and writer realise that what he sees is an outer layer while there is a lot more to the phenomenon of art-making. What Naqsh was after was the sophistication of a painted surface. Naked flesh of a woman, bristling feathers of a bird, taut skin of a horse, composite structure of Arabic script, all providing him the opportunity and occasion to experiment and excel; to extend mere visual information into a sensory encounter and recollection.
Along with other aspects of his life and art, Naqsh will equally be remembered for his sensuous application of paint that takes our eyes hostage. For example, his large painting, ‘A Tribute to Shakir Ali’ (1976), at the Shakir Ali Museum Lahore, consists of a rectangle weaved with dots of paint, colours that complete the features of the former Principal of NCA, a foremost modern painter, alongside his favourite subject, a woman with a bird (with another woman next to a swan). Although Naqsh never taught at an art school, that painting can guide many young artists on how to resolve formal issues. Coming to Lahore from Karachi, a young Jamil Naqsh in 1955, sought admission at Mayo School of Art, but somehow became a student of Ustad Muhammad Sharif for two years.
That training in miniature was pivotal for the painter who kept executing large canvases in oil but his language in essence emanated from his training in miniature painting. The use of line as the defining tool for shapes and forms, in addition to ‘shading’ which reminds of ‘pardakht’, link his work to the history of image-making of this region. It would be important to disclose that the artist who never wanted to have a solo show in his life, nor planned one, was interested in an exhibition titled ‘Homage to Haji Sharif’ at the Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery, NCA. He wanted to pay tribute to his teacher at a place where he got his first art lessons (one hopes the show does happen in March 2020 as decided during Jamil Naqsh’s life).
While selecting works for this proposed exhibition at a public institution — regardless of the fact that it is an art college — one has to be careful about displaying nude figures; even of exquisite quality. So you revise, reduce and compromise, fearing social and state pressure. At the same instance one recognises the courage, clarity and confidence of the painter who kept producing nudes despite living in the Islamic Republic. This may have made him a voyeur to some puritans but, if we take a larger view of the society we live in, painting female nudes was not about the male gaze but a political stance. In a culture where the human body is an abhorrent entity and an unclothed one is prohibited, Naqsh continued to paint what he preferred: female nudes, birds, references from our Hindu and Buddhist past and the Indus Valley Civilization with its Dancing Girl, reinterpreted in his canvases not as the bronze statue of a slave girl but a living being, a fisherwoman.
His nude paintings, the finest specimens of figurative art in Pakistan, are signs of an artist who looks at flesh and enjoys rendering it. But more than that, these are paintings of resistance; marks of an individual who followed his vision and imagery despite official restrictions (lingering from Zia’s regime), and the general moral pressure. His is an example of an artist’s freedom of expression. I feel it is art — only the ‘high art’ — that survives the forces of bigotry. Thus, it was a profound moment to see Jamil Naqsh’s retrospective at a public art space, the Mohatta Palace Museum, curated by Marjorie Husain in 2003. His work is a testimony that if you are attached to your subject deeply and explore it honestly, you will succeed, to the level of never dying.
Artists are kind of sturdy; they never leave, they just shift their locations, from one city to another, from one world to the next. Jamil Naqsh too moved to London in 2012. For the last two years, it has been my desire and also a kind of duty to see him, and have long conversations with him. This summer too, I was organising my travel to London in a way that I could meet him. But that was not meant to be. God knows how many more years it will be before I can meet him, not with a brush in his hand may be but with a glass, admiring the beauty created by God. Something he made us look at and appreciate. Could we have done this without him?
(Jamil Naqsh passed away on May 16, 2019)