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In Search of the Self

Author: Shahid Mirza      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.148)      Dated: Nov 1995

Exhibition Navigation

Self identification with nature – not with sublime nature but with daisies and daffodils like Wordsworth – is Afshar Maliks method of artistic pursuit. His prints are on show at the National College of Arts Gallery in Lahore, along with the etchings of two other artists, Anwar Saeed and Ali Raza.

Afshar Malik comprehends nature not as a power outside ourselves, nor as a backdrop against which the futility of human action is to be staged, but rather as an ideal harmony amongst discordant elements. In the manner of Mughal miniatures, Afshar portrays life untainted by sorrow and anxiety. The dreamlike images he fabricates also borrow visual motifs from miniature paintings. Drawing upon the distinctive style of the miniature, Afshar repeats various elements to create a strong design surface and achieves a sense of timelessness by ignoring spatial perspective. Despite all these allusions to and borrowings from an authentic aesthetic tradition, however, Afshars work lacks lyricism and life. A clash of colours lends vibrancy to his images but the glow which results from establishing tonal relationships is absent.

Although Afshars prints seem lifeless, they nonetheless manage to trigger certain associations. Like illustrations from childrens stories, they tickle your facial muscles but lack intensity. “Beauty is not the aim of my art,” Henry Moore said about his work. “For me, a work of art must first have vitality, a pent-up energy, an intense life of its own that is independent of the object it represents.” This pent-up energy is sadly lacking in Afshars work.

Fortunately, however, Afshars smaller prints do not suffer from the monotonous treatment of the larger ones. Here the stress is more on form and less on atmosphere and their subject matter is simpler: Cat, Hand, Clock, Eye, Sun – the titles say it all. There is also a strong tendency in Afshars work to geometricize and refashion ordinary objects, where the artist employs ornamentation to transcend the physical quality of objects. This distillation of form brings forth something simple, limited, fixed enduring and universally valid.

One print, The king, is based on a folk tale and shows a bird sitting on a mans head. “He is the king,” Afshar says, “not a tyrant but the most humble and compassionate of men – so much a part of his surroundings that the birds fail to notice him. This man is peaceful and pure.” Peace and purity, one-ness with nature, are ultimately the states of being that Afshar tries to communicate through his prints.

Anwar Saeed shares most of Afshars concerns but his visual vocabulary is almost in total contr to Afshars festive and often noisy surfaces. Anwar Saeed employs a dark and sombre pallete to address issues of religious and cultural tolerance. Most of Anwars work is rendered in monotones. He uses colour transparently so that instead of seeing coloured objects we see through them, much like looking through a pair of cheap cellophane sun glasses that tint the situation with their garish hues.

Anwar works in photo etching, a technique through which photographic images are transferred onto a plate which is then treated with acid. As the acid bites into different parts of the plate with varying intensity, the photographic image is accentuated and tonal gradation is achieved.

In his prints, Anwar juxtaposes images from a variety of sources – Botticellis Venus, Egyptian masks and indian sculptures -any image, in fact, as long as it fits into his composition. In some prints he has placed these images upside down, “to experience them differently,” he explains. The act of abstracting icons from their context and trying to impose upon them a new discipline where the images lose their historicity signifies the artists wish to travel beyond a given context and meaning in order to establish a pictorial space which recognises no boundaries of style or tradition.

I do not think that Anwars Saeeds work raises any moral questions about borrowing images, since artists have always exploited their heritage of visual vocabulary. Anwars work is part of this tradition, where each artist adds a contemporary dimension to images and motifs borrowed from an earlier source. Like retelling an old story, such a method links the past with the present, where the storyteller pumps new life into an event which existed only in our memories.

The problem with this way of working arises when an artist seems only to be using the material to conform to a given theme or a set agenda. ln such a case, the icons lose their vitality and the act of borrowing imagery is reduced to a mere exercise in composition. With such concerns in mind, I asked Anwar about his use of ready made images. “Originality is rare,” he responded. “Original work is produced once in a century. People like us just follow genius. Nonetheless, l do have an emotional involvement with the work, a sense of choice, of arrangement. Using ready-mades is a pleasurable game or play.”

Apart from the play with visual icons, Anwars prints have a story to tell. Despite their deliberate attempt to break away from pre-given meaning, his prints are composed with an intent to narrate. ln his subtle way he invites the viewer into a world of harmony, a world without prejudice. Using photographic images and old texts, and combining various styles, he tries to portray conflict and difference as illusory phenomena. A Mughal prince, his head decorated with an Egyptian mask, throws a flower to a Bodhisattva standing against a backdrop of Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. The title, U-man I, adds to the mystery of narrative. A similar juxtaposition of seemingly discordant elements is in evidence in most of his work. By putting a wine glass in Buddhas hand, or replacing a Devis head with an Egyptian mask, Anwar attempts to depict unity as a melting pot of diverse influences. But without a hint to locale, and decontextualised as they are in the extreme, Anwars icons lose their vitality and instead of creating a mosaic melt into a dark and sombre surface.

Ali Raza is the youngest of the three artists. His work has fullness and a richness of feeling that is enhanced by the glow of colours. His etchings are not high contrast prints but executed in subtle tones. “I am unable to abandon the pleasure of drawing,” Ali Raza confesses. He adds that he is struggling to find a style, but that he refuses to invent formulas and impose them on his work.

The relationship of titles to his world is one of cause and effect. ln How to kill time, a man with a hammer stands in front of a clock, while Jobless days depicts a couple of beggars. Such literal titles limit the viewer from indulging in his or her own interpretations and reduce the image to the status of illustration.

Honesty of expression is the most fascinating aspect of artistic pursuit. As Gaughin once said, “You can criticise me for failing, but not for trying.” One hopes that Ali Razas concern for tonal application, his love for drawing and his humility will lead him far in his efforts to achieve a personal style and unique vision.