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Intimacies and Distance

Author: Muna Siddiqui      Publications: Dawn - Gallery (p.2)      Dated: 2 Mar 2002

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Unver Shafis abstract paintings, exhibited at Chawkandi Art last month, were studies in pure space and need to be approached from an angle outside of European art history. The reason for this is that art history is neither European nor American, even though this is what we were taught and led to believe, Instead, both the  traditional or modern art of any country has a universal  jurisdiction of its own that encompasses more than one culture from the centre of its particular territory and civilisation. If Orientalise stands for European control of the Middle Eastern or Asian arts and its scholarship, the countervailing control by the erstwhile colonies over European art ought to be encouraged. This branch of study could be called Occidentalism.

The discourse of the Occidental and the shaping and forming of our own Euro has advantages because it explains what we take from it and what it receives from our side. This view of art challenges the egocentricity of European art and its pretension to universality. The unacknowledged presence of the Orient in Europe from which it received its religion and culture is a matter that should be brought into the open. The manner in which Europe recovered its health and wealth by robbing the Orient at will is a shameful scandal. The Occidental discourse of Pakistani art, on the other hand, was not of plunder but far more civilised.

Talking about these developments at our recent meeting, Unver explained: “Its all tied in to economics and how one survives; its a matter of competition and opportunity. Ive been lucky but its still not easy, but its a matter of being happy with ones choices in life and to adjust ones sights to the way one lives and accordingly, to be at peace with those decisions.”

Unver Shafis fifth solo exhibition took place in Karachi in 1991, when Gregory Minessale, writing for Herald pointed out that Unver, who had been responsible for bringing across the most interesting interpretation of American abstraction seen up to that time, in his work of that period showed traces of the cultural traditions of Klee, Shamza and Zahoorul Akhlaq. “Unvers paintings are brimful with intellectual asides, signs and metaphors from western and to a lesser extent, eastern painting traditions… And then, there are the surfaces themselves; the voluptuous pleasure of impasto, the uncanny atmosphere created by under painting, and a dazzling array of other, purely painterly techniques…”

An 8th solo exhibition followed in 95, when Unver Shafi returned to the Indus Gallery and Ali Imam, who spoke of the artists work as that of a painter endowed with a cerebrally questioning mind “that provided solutions in the form of motifs and symbols in semi-figurative images structured in sensitively evolved forms with definitive assurance.” Visitors to the show admired the fresh viewpoint and searched for references in the juxtaposed panels of large scaled canvases put together in tradition of diptych and triptych paintings.

Looking ahead to an exhibition scheduled next month at the Green line Gallery, Dubai, Unver was enthusiastic. “Dubai has really changed and now theres a First World capsule sitting in the desert. Its important to think of what the future might hold – to be part of a quality gallery in the west, challenging to see how they classify the sort of painting Im doing right now.

“India would be a big challenge; thats a part of the scope of my ambitions during the next five years. Ive been to India twice; there is good work going on and good writing by critics qualified in art history. They raise the level of Indian art and awareness and can place it in a context that we are not presently able to do in Pakistan. I told the students who visited my exhibition, to read art history. Artists outnumber art historians and in future the academic structures in the country must rise. India has critical mass and they can place each of their artists in that context, we cant do this as theres not enough written. Lack of interaction between both sides of the border keeps coming into it and its hard to move forward. We can all do our little bit for cross pollination rather than some bogus, Third World gallery in the west.”

We talked about the work at the exhibition and developments emerging from the Burqa, Shamiana series. “All those obvious forms and what could have been limbs are now very organic. Ive taken the narrative out of the titles.” The large diptych and triptych pieces are instantly recognizable as the artists signature style, highly clarified with the surface tension greatly apparent.  The small paper works, acrylic and ink on paper, show a change of mood, expressionistic, the textured mark-making and gestures with original motifs part of the larger pieces. “Fun and frivolity” says the artist. “The media changes the subject matter. Recently someone remarked theres the same sense of freedom and enjoyment, the do-what-I-please element in my work. Now I have developed my ovm vocabulary – my building blocks and I love playing around with them. The large pieces are actually the backbone of the show and when editing the work for Dubai and Karachi, I put my best work here. Karachi is my home town, its where I live and its important to me.”

I remarked on the prevalence of the colour blue in the collection and asked him where it came from. “The Sky,” was the answer. “For years Ive stayed away from blue working a lot with darker colours that I put light into. I call it Khrishna blue, temple tops. I may end up doing a series of these, this kind of plasticity. Im enjoying some of the darker, organic shapes.”

Unver is seldom seen at the openings of other artists exhibitions and I asked him why he was seldom seen at workshops or seminars. “I dont go to many openings, only the people Im friendly with. I dont mind if others dont come to mine. I dont like workshops, and have never taught. I dont want to be involved in the process. Its not constructive for me, for others may be, but not me. Most of my peers are teaching. Ive shown my work in group shows abroad but not in a high-powered show except in Hong Kong and that was good. Shamiana and Burqa were a strong lot, transitions started going somewhere in 94 and the work just took off and Im still going somewhere.”