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The Art of Alienation

Author: Dr Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald– Fine Art (p- 158)      Dated: Mar 1996

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Scores of expatriate painters and artists come to this country annually, in some cases enriching the experience of the local viewer and in others only serving to add to the already burgeoning ranks of mediocre home grown artists. Two such natives in exile, Tasadaq Sohail and Mansura Hasan, visit Pakistan regularly to show and sell their art. Tasadaq will exhibit at the Indus Gallery later this month, while Mansura displayed her latest work at Chawkandi Art a few months ago. But the manner in which they interpret their experience of exile-and, indeed, the significance of what they bring to viewers at home-illustrates two widely divergent approaches to the art of alienation and displacement, the phenomenon of expatriate art.

Born in Jallunder and evicted with his father and family at Partition when he was just 14, to this day Tasadaq Sohail cannot forget the harrowing scenes of murder and rapine he witnessed, including the preparation to massacre a group of 100 refugees fleeing from East to West Punjab. Once in Pakistan, Tasadaq completed his schooling in Lahore and went on to the Islamia College in Karachi, working at the same time in an insurance company. To please his revered teacher at the college, the great Urdu short story writer and art critic Hasan Askari, Tasadaq wrote short stories in Urdu. But while still in his third year, he fled to England because he could find no other way to stop his father from marrying him off. Not wanting to become indigent proliferators of mankind, Tasadaq tried to put the greatest distance between himself and his father, and London seemed far enough. Today, all Tasadaq sees of his country is an annual sojourn to its shores.

Mansura Hasan, too, visits Pakistan regularly. But that is about all she has in common with Tasadaq Sohail. Born into a well- to-do family, Mansura attended the National College of Arts in Lahore and first showed her work along with a group of fellow graduates at the Indus Gallery in Karachi. She then married a World Bank executive and has lived abroad, mostly in the USA and South America, ever since.

The difference between the two artists does not end here; it also extends to the nature of their work. just as pariahood and anchorite solitude come naturally to Tasadaq-a sense of loss of country, family and his own national being, albeit by his own choice-elitism, the good fortune of being born in comfortable circumstances and belonging to the right type of people sits well with Mansura because this is all she knows. The influence of her exclusive world shows in her painting, as Tasadaqs bizarre alienation does in his.

Many other women and men have painted in Pakistan and later gone abroad. But they do not travel to their place of origin with the same regularity. Rahil Akbar, one of Shakir Alis panj piyaras from the Lahore Art Circle, lives in the States and visits Lahore almost every year. But he does not exhibit in this country although he paints and is selling well in Clticago at the fringe of that citys art world. Lubna Agha, who lives in California, occasionally sends her drawings and paintings to Karachis Chawkandi Art, while Naz Ikramullah, settled in Canada, shows here at such infrequent intervals that it does not count. However, Lubna and Naz participate in exhibitions of Pakistani painters that travel to places like Bradford and Huddersfield, the Third World ghettos of art, tucked safely away from the mainstream in England. Shemza, too, lived abroad and sometimes sent home his paintings before he died.

Among this group of painters in exile-whether through necessity or preference-is Rashid Arain, a Trotskyite plainter and activist from Pakistan who now lives in London. Arain went to England to study engineering and, like Tasadaq, stayed on to dedicate himself to art. He has exhibited his rather unique work- commonplace abroad but considered avant garde here-only twice in Pakistan. ln the seventies he floated a number of coloured Frisbee disks in the now drying PECHS lake, with half a dozen unsuspecting ducks afloat on the water and Ali Imam in attendance as the sole human member of the audience. On the other occasion, Arain came to Pakistan to participate in baqr eid along with his family. He slaughtered an animal as a statement, photographed every step and prominently reproduced his work in a book as evidence of an art “happening”. At present, Arain erects huge billboards adorned with inoffensive Urdu poetic couplets in Nastaliq. He has arrived at this position of harmlessness after exhibiting huge animal bones arranged on floors and against walls to commemorate genocide in the postcolonial wreckage of Empire. He, too, visits Pakistan from time to time but does not exhibit here any longer. Instead, he now keeps in touch with adventurous young pseudo and genuine artists with a view to advancing their admission to various art circles on British soil or furthering their ambition for a one-time berth on Channel Four. I do not know what clout he still enjoys to advance such ambitions after Mrs Thatcher put his borough out of business, though.

While artists like Arain seem content in their adopted countries, and equally comfortable on Pakistani soil, Tasadaq deals with the theme of nomadic or outsider ship-if I may be allowed to coin this expression-in the Pakistani context. Tasadaq is a runaway who soon learnt that freedom was an illusion and that running away was like falling into something whose nature he had not suspected. London was no different from his fathers fief, no matter how humble and indigent, nor could this vast city of people offer him camaraderie or togetherness with people. Exile did not help him forget is suppurating wounds: the loss of land, friends and relations killed on the verge of Partition. ln fact, London further intensified his loneliness and pain. He was already a short story writer but it was not literature that became his ishq a “cancer of the soul”. Rather, it was drawing and painting with which he made sense of his life and his memory, creating in the process a mad world of his own fantasy.

Not trained in art when he arrived in England, he enrolled in evening classes at St. Martins and another school essentially to meet girls, as lonely young men and women have always done under the aegis of art in European galleries-art, you see, can be fulfilling in more ways than one. Tasadaq attended night classes and followed his girls from school to school, thus learning whatever he could.

Fortunately, he did not learn much. More importantly, he had the sense to use his utter disqualification to its greatest advantage. lt is odd, then, that Tasadaq admits to being deeply offended when Ijazul Hasan excluded him from his book on Pakistani painters on the grounds that Tasadaq was “uneducated”. In fact, Sohail has education enough for his art. A playful innocence informs his otherwise sinister images, and in the magical web he weaves lurks a modern variant of Grimms fairy tales. You will also find Mansur Rahi painting thus in Islamabad.

Tasadaqs is an insular world that does not obey the laws of nature, a world unto itself that floats upon the air like Laputa, the island of Swift (the author of Gullivers Travels). Inhabited by horned animals, flying fishes, snakes, furry ruins and habitations fit for reptiles and old men of the wilderness, Tasadaqs eerie domain is like a night creature of resplendent colour when caught suddenly in the light.