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Playing by the Rules

Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.134)      Dated: Apr 1998

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It was a relief to see that Unver Shafis paintings were not dumb, waiting to be given speech by the artists statement in writing, Instead, we were solicited to view the work without the painter filling us in on their pet, off-the-shelf problems in life and art. The paintings did not have to prove anything, but had simply to please us as paintings, despite the fact that modern conceptualists have pronounced this kinclp of art dead-they carry the carcass around, though, to prove their point. According to Maurice Denis, an older painter, it seems, from another age, painting is “a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order.” Unver Shafis reminder of this basic truth was far more radical than the petrifying avant-gardism of the Coconut Grove exhibition. By adhering to the basic rules of his medium, Unver has freed painting to set its own tone.

Denis simplistic provocation is needed today. The arrangement of colours creates its own thoughtful ambience. The painter does not collage a pulpit in his painting, as Rauschenburg stuck a chair in his, but uses ways of control and balance to orchestrate contrapuntal harmony. And when the artist plays with such meagre but potent mearts, painting creates its speech and meaning beyond painting: Baudelaire, the great French poet and art critic, said that colours think. Issues of multiplicity and unity, hostility and attraction, conflict and reconciliation, the pull and push between the centripetal and centrifugal forces of nature, are central to painting, particularly of limited means. Art will not offer answers, but lead to questions, and to perceive questions are reward enough. For didnt Marx say that questions were better than answers? Unver Shafis paintings, playful and impudent, are his way of coming to terms with himself and his art, under a similar kind of tension and resolution that was avowed by Zubeda Agha.

Unver Shafis exhibition, from March 17 to 27 at the Chawkandi Art, contained 43 large and small paintings in oil and acrylic. Of these, only about six were his trademark large canvasses, while the rest were relatively small. One of the old Burqa series was there, and so were unexhibited variations on this work, called Burqa Unveiled, as well as a few under the name of Shamiana and Takhti. These paintings work the shapely, waving, sensual contours of the burqa and stop the eye at the surface of an animated Venetian blind. Instead of dissolving the individually repeated images, the rhythmic contours round them off at the joining edges: Bridget Riley and the academic trick of illusionism are forced to achieve Unver Sharifs tour de force. These paintings are sexy, joyful and celebratory, as in the colourful Shamiana, the decorative sign of a temporary cotton canopy erected on occasions of birth, marriage and death, which offers momentary relief from European art history. In Burqa Unveiled and Shamiana, the energised verticals become ballooning prophylactics filled with breath, the autumn of the painter. Immediately under the balloon in the first painting are two joined canvasses bearing libidinous images of upside-down arches receding into and radiating from a point of dark entry. When the canvas is stood on its head-and there is no reason why it should not be-the arches resemble an underground structure, a decorated cave opening out and closing from its core. The sexual innuendo of the imagery is not obvious, nor can we miss its sacral overtures. Unver Shafis imagery may reveal much by virtue of its derivation from architecture and nature, but the paintings bare their own meaning in a culturally expansive perspective: the prehistoric cave joins decorative places of worship from the painters own culture. Burqu Unveiled could be Unver Shafis gloss on the icon of the power of sex and love in the myth of Shiva and Parvati. I am not sure whether the (painter is a student of Sufism or the semiotics of religious art, but he has used the idea of veiling as the focal metaphor of his work. Artists, who use colour as their only means of articulation, tend to transcend the body, the fresh of nature, as a Tantric or a Sufi might do. De Koenig was the first, cannibalising the nude with paint, while Rothho could be said to be an Emersonian transcendentalist in the tradition of the Boston Brahmins of the nineteenth century. They have created decorative art as adepts at illumination.

Unver Shafi often constructs his large canvasses from separate, conglomerate canvasses. The medium is structurally fractured, but coheres in the painting like syncopated music, such as jazz. As a result, there is a competition of sorts between the parts which does not destroy the painting but makes it a playing field for the painters sport. In fact, he is no less postmodern than Zahoorul Akhlaque, but makes better sense of it all. He is the only colourist, master of chromatic alchemy, after his contemporary, Zahoorul Akhlaque. The paintings, Landscape and Industrial Erotica, the latter a wonderful monochrome in metallic grey, testify to this ability. His land and sky are not from Karachi, nor are they metaphysical as in the paintings of De Chirico, an artist whose presence was powerfully felt in some of Unver s work several years ago. The light and darkness of Landscape belongs to a geological dawn, whereas in Industrial Erotica, the colours of coal and ash mould their own shapes, in a most extraordinary illumination from hell. Sadequain lived in it; Unver Shafi glimpses it from a distant edge.

The experimental confrontation between the painter and acrylic in the small-scale paintings, the first time ever in his career, is no less joyful. These paintings have a different feel: they are more material, tactile, restful and the ordinary light that shines in them is also different from at which suffuses the oil paintings. Here, we see the emergence of a new architectonics, as in the Bath Island series, which seems to celebrate the ordinary life of the working painter as a bourgeois, as in Matisse. Unver, however, has not yet made a sustained use of decoration as high philosophy of life and art. He lives in Bath Island and has painted empty rooms to rest the eyes from the Burqu series. ln a life of stress and challenge, such rooms are the only promise of paradise in the here and now. ln principle, Burqa ought to close with a private inviolate room, where those who cover themselves with the veil or go about unveiled finally take off their coverings.

The small paintings in acrylic included a few abstract planar studies in which curves and moving contours give place to the straight lines of the rectangle. Quite a few of these works were painterly versions of his coloured drawings, which have so far been separate entities. In the drawings, Unver Shafi crafts a to land of aliens who must face, within safe conditions, the fear of life and death. Miniature Happenings, for instance, is a curious reworking of the love-myth of Krishna and Radha. Two figures, the groom and the bride, are ceremonially distanced from one another, as in any happy marriage. The hard, intense red reminds us of the Jain miniature, as in Shakir Alis great painting of a calligraphic nude and bird in a cage. This painting of Unvers, as well as Hoasehold, another mythical rendition sprung from the childrens world of familiar aliens, are both consciously decorative works, their details crafted painstakingly in ink. Shakir Ali used the subcontinental miniature to give his modernism “a local habitation and name;” Chughtai used it to exercise the European style of the Raj from Indian painting. In Unver Shafis drawings, we have glimpses of the European history of modern art, from Picasso to Surrealism, accommodated as yet another modernised format of the miniature. lt is curious that Unver Shafis miniatures should probe fears when the large oil paintings sublimate it.

The smaller acrylics, including the Bath Island series, relate to several large oil canvasses in which rooms and room decoration feature. In one painting with a fish bowl, which he made for his wife Tanya, he was playfully ironic with a motif taken from Matisse. Unver Shafi also painted a chair in which no mortal being could sit. And, unlike Matisses proverbial chair of spiritual hedonism, Unvers chair seemed to be the gift of mischievous spirits out for cruel sport against men. Van Gogh painted a chair as well; his version of a brilliantly coloured hell without fire, and Anthony Caro has honoured this great painter by fabricating his chair from painted steel junk. Employing objects of daily use has allowed Unver Shafi to materialise his abstract works as a genre of still life painting. Of course, his references are ironic, acknowledging and at the same time subverting both styles of work. His Bath Island type of painting could end with solemnity, unless he treats rooms and furniture with the same destabilising irony as the chair and the fish bowl.