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The Medium or the Message?

Author: Dr Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald–Fine Art (p.131)      Dated: Apr 1998

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Painters and sculptors have always spoken their minds through their respective media. But more recently, a number of contemporary artists not yet fully established have taken to making statements as if this is what will lend their work importance. In a recent exhibition at the Coconut Grove in Karachi, titled “Karachi Contemporaries: Part I”, painters, photographers and sculptors presented their idea of conceptual art as was done, just last month, by Indian and Pakistani artists at the NCA gallery in Lahore. Meanwhile, Ghalib Baqars exhibition of watercolour paintings, also in Karachi, was an old fashioned enterprise where skill and craft mattered more than the artists statement. In fact, here the medium was the focal point, expounding its handling by the painter.

Ghalib Baqars watercolours at Chawkandi Art, on show from February 24 to March 5, were put up to demonstrate what he can do with Mir Anees taalli or bold, personal claim for his genius. It seems that he had to do this in order to raise his medium to a level which the European tradition of painting does not award it. In Evelyn Waughs novel, Brides head Revisited, a character speaks thus: “My father belonged to a generation which divided painters into serious and the amateur, according as they used oil or water.” Similarly, in this country, until recently, most watercolour painters found it difficult to exhibit their work. This medium, once he “high art” of the East, fell into decline with the demise of Chughtai, certainly in Karachi. The few painters in this city to have crossed over from Nazimabads Urdu belt to Defences English pretensions are pioneers of a sort. It is not surprising, then, that the son of a great Urdu man of letters and literary critic should be perhaps the first in Pakistan to remember three Urdu poets as his spiritual ancestors. In fact, Mir Anees couplet could well be the manifesto of Ghalib Baqars art in the Western style: “guldasta-e-maani ko nai dhang se bandhun/ Ek phool ka mazmun ho to sau rang se bandhun” (I make a bouquet of meaning in new ways/ And add hundreds of colours to the text of the flower). A friend commented that it was a pity the introduction to the exhibition was written in English. But who would have read, or recognised, Mir Anees and the other poets associated with Ghalib Baqars paintings? You see the risk to which Ghalib Baqar exposes himself.

The couplet mentioned above draws attention to the aesthetic orientation of Indo-Persian art and the poetry of the subcontinent, to which Ghalib Baqar would like to harken, as Sadequain did, and on which Chughtai built the mansion of his art. David Ales worth, a permanent British resident of Karachi, also uses Urdu calligraphy as a cultural token without meaning. But his work, and that of his former students from the Indus Valley School to Art and Architecture, exhibited at the Coconut Grove, relates to what is current as art in the West. That exhibition justified my fear, expressed earlier with reference to the British Council exhibition of British art, which was, incidentally, installed with the help of Ales worth and his former students. However, it is reassuring to know that British art is under severe critical scrutiny in the winter 1997 issue of Modern Painter, where it is dismissed as “pseudo kitsch nonsense” in Bryan Robertsons article, “Something is Rotten in the State of Art.”

David Alesworths interest in Urdu calligraphy and Asma Mundrawalas in kitsch are symptomatic. The appeal to popular culture and bad art are politically correct postmodern statements. Anjuman, Sultan Rahi and Barbie dolls are all the pop icons of Ales worth. The American press celebrated Barbies 30th birthday last year, whereas the immortality of domestic folk ragdolls has been under wraps and was uncovered only by Meher Afroze. One also recalls Ijazul Hasans large paintings based on hoardings of popular Punjabi cinema and the Vietnam War, and Zahoorul Akhlaques use of the Mughal manuscript and oriental book illumination in the 1970s. Ales worth is working within a well-established Pakistan tradition, but without being in touch with it. Ranging from fabricated reliefs of miniaturised boxed angels and European bridal couples, which are illumined when their lids are opened, to renditions from Andy Warhol, he shows what he knows and understands about this country. Asma Mundrawala, his student, repeats her style of urban kitsch as untaught art in the manner of her thesis work, shown some years ago at her school. Aliya Khan, another of Alesworths students, declared that sculpture was obsolete and exhibited photographs instead. This exhibition of David Alesworth and his students presents the fine art culture of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Huma Mulji, Manizhe Ali, Sheher Bano Hussain and Danish Ali (who calls his two works Marlborough Butterfly, as if the creature were extinct in Karachi), are students of the school. Their confidence is derived from their art education, which does not place a premium on skill but rather on conceptual verbalisation. Ghalib Baqars exhibition, on the contrary, drew our attention to the value of skill as a requirement of the medium.

Ghalib Baqars watercolours are about the sovereignty of the medium and its semantics, which have been naturalised on the subcontinent for 200 years and lost their colonial patina. Baqar paints Karachis seaside and land, which appear as codes of their geography. On his refracted surfaces are remnants of houses, land, water, boats, foliage and the sky, which fussy and frenzied washes displace whichever way they will. The reflections into which the surface divides and multiplies itself demonstrate the way the medium performs under the painters hand. What he has yet to achieve is a vision which is intense and yet simple, veiled by the medium but free from the ruptures of the abstract expressionist manner.

Art is a discourse on how surfaces act and react under certain conditions; Mir Anees couplet operates on a surface filtered by literary, imaginative and spiritual values which are, nonetheless, useful to the visual arts. On the other kind of conceptual and postmodern surface, the artists intrusive text of meaning diminishes the medium and its freedom to express. It is the medium which has to be the message; the artists skill with the properties of the medium, and not words, must be the stage on which meaning is enacted. Concepts are valid for the artist, but not for art, unless they have been consumed by the medium. Nor is the autonomy of art exhausted by the artists intent. The American painter, Frank Stella, whose mature art is what I would call decorative and Eastern in an original manner, can throw interesting light on the importance of the surface. He was commenting on Matisse who, like Cezanne, adapted watercolour techniques in oil. Stella said that Matisse created “three kinds of surfaces: the slightly raised surface of relatively undiluted pigment, the very diluted, scrubbed or thinned-out pigment, and the surface of the canvas itself. With these three surfaces he gave himself plenty of depth…. He didnt have to worry about flatness because the surface was always yielding and layered.” Ghalib Baqar handles surface in the European way and transforms its space, light and air. There are the Chinese and Japanese ways of watercolour painting, the latter used by Chughtai with the Persian, Mughal and Pahari interpretation of nature and life. Both the painterly layering of washes and the cultural layering of his to and memory added depth to Chughtais water based medium. I would like to add here that Stella speaks of depth as a Western artist would, who is familiar with the aerial perspective of Leonardo da Vinci, whereas in Muslim art, from which Matisse learned the concept and meaning of decoration, depth is a painted surface of veiled reality. If Ghalib Baqar were to copy what his eyes see, he will not achieve it. He must perceive what he sees as a reflection in water, as another painter, Zahin, captures Thatta in his best work, Mir Anees offers Ghalib Baqar the promise of refining his skill to capture the true essence of what he loves about Karachi.