Author: Ayesha Khan | Publication: Dawn - Art Fiend (p.6) | Dated: 18 Jan 2003
It was Anwar Saeed’s second solo in Karachi within a year which took off with a bang fulfilling the expectations aroused by his earlier show held at the Canvas Gallery. It was a drawing retrospective with works from 1978 to 2002 on display.
The Chawkandi gallery brought forth the exhibition comprising 38 drawings, primarily in black and white, with colour employed stingily, almost like a whisper. The medium was predominantly pencil and charcoal, although crayon, graphite, pastel, collage and pen and ink also made their measured appearances. The absence of colour immediately reminded one of Saeed’s recent paintings in bright hues that came with a fluorescent flavour.
The figurative drawings covered not only decades of Saeed’s development as an artist but also the socio-political climate of Pakistan through the ages. The drawings were highly potent spilling with compressed energy that seemed to find its way through fissures. They were simply touching in their stark honesty and naked passion.
Anwar Saeed’s works are not about an individual’s rebellion against society but an attempt to come to terms with his human condition and to find order in its chaos. They are recognition of the personal need for constant confrontation with a society full of restraints and with the self in all its glory and vulnerability. The result is an art that speaks the language of sensuousness and immediacy.
“I feel a sense of achievement about my work only when I can see electricity running through it. Aik current mehsoos hona chahiye,” said Saeed.
The human figure remained central to the compositions on display. “It is, after all, a vessel for the human soul, the wall between the inside and the outside world, interacting on two levels of conflict simultaneously. The universe revolves around man and not the other way around. I can’t imagine composing a work without a main character,” he elaborated.
Why does he prefer drawing semi-nude or nude men? “I take pleasure in drawing the male figure in bare minimum, in his freedom of nakedness, stripped of layers of suffocating influences. It is a consuming experience with me,” he replied.
Other interesting objects appearing in the drawings included fish, horses, phoenix and headless people with winged arms and disproportionate limbs. They were all imbued with Saeed’s personal symbolism derived from rich personal experiences. For example, the fish, which for most people has feminine connotations, has come to represent maleness for Saeed. Also, he looks upon it as a pet to be embraced and cuddled as is evident from his work from the late 90s.
“If the soul had a physical form, it would be a fish because that is the shape of a cell when examined under a microscope,” he elaborated with an air of certainty.
The artworks on display began from 1978, when General Zia’s repressive reign had just begun. These included titles like Kandinsky Making a Joint, Stoned Man Walking, and Growing Boredom in pencil and collage on paper. In all of these, there was a lonesome figure playing centre stage in the sitting, reclining or falling positions with a cigarette in his hand.
The mid-1980s experienced a change in Saeed’s drawing approach and there was also a shift in subject. The introspection of the 70s gave way to a study of external events occurring in the wide open. These were illustrative drawings of armed men stationed on the streets. The reality of military rule, like with other artists, remained a hard truth to swallow.
Silent Flowering, a work from the early ‘80s which aroused interest, had a cupboard- like grid of three compartments, the top one housing a head placed in front of bars, the middle a shirt and the last one, a pair of shoes out of which a flower was shown growing. The head represents the persona we adopt when facing the world, the shirt and the shoes a cover for all that lies unexposed within but which nurtures hope that flowers secretly and silently.
Playtime Begins was a product of the late ‘80s where a naked, headless man sat holding his mask-like head in his hand. It was almost like a modern, tragi-comic version of Sadequain’s headless figures. This work also complemented another, The Stranger, in which a horse, again a loaded masculine symbol with an inverted head, stood in solitude.
Drawings from the ‘90s, like the Monsoon series, which had a pair of figures running away from rain, could be categorized into what later formed Saeed’s signature-styled, short, winged-men in loin-cloth, often holding fish in their arms with the moon echoing away in the background. For him, the distance between the fish and the moon, immortal symbols shrouded in mystery, is an unbridgeable one.
Saeed’s drawing strokes have now become increasingly gestural and immediate, so much so that in Situation I, dated 2002, the form of a winged figure pouring water over his head, is almost lost in the swirling motion of graphite.
“All paintings are self portraits, no matter how much one tries to detach oneself from the idea,” confessed Saeed, “and all have a story to them. I plan only about 20 per cent of my work content. The rest of the narrative works itself out naturally.”
Having come of age, the art of Anwar Saeed is still taking new direction. The secret of the success of this remarkable artist could be that he has not allowed himself to settle down yet. The more he exhausts his energy, the more he produces to march on.