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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Aasim Akhtar      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.166)      Dated: Nov 1991

Exhibition Navigation

Anwar Saeeds recent show at the Art Gallery in Islamabad assures him a secure position in the annals of art. The work, mature both in form and content, serves as a key to the artists life and to his ponderings on the themes of human existence.

In terms of their subject matter, Anwar Saeeds mixed-media paintings succeed in breaking ground, old as well as new, while establishing for themselves a comfortable position somewhere in between. The immediacy of his theme, married to an appropriate technique, has produced results beyond the prediction of the artists most ardent admirers. Deftly enough, he has brought several elements of painting into play, adding to the textural richness of his surfaces.

The fact that the work grapples with too many inquiries simultaneously can often be disconcerting. But the urgency of colour and the implications of strong conceptual thinking help the paintings to retain their composure.

At first sight, the work evokes feelings of ambivalence in the viewer. The figures which form the integral motif are not mythical gods, but representations of a concrete reality transgressing the barriers of time and space. The absence of a terra firma naturally pits gravity against levity. And the feeling of weightlessness that is created marks the alienation in the artists own life.

ln the first painting of the series, Glass Wall, two male figures are shown standing, caged behind a sheet of transparent glass. One figure bears a single wing over its right shoulder, representing the desire to attain freedom -the glass wall standing for physical limitations. In the next few paintings, we witness a number of double-winged figures, the desire to rise up from the ground growing deeper and taking on a definite shape.

The artist appears to reflect the desire of these figures by actually showing them rising in few more paintings. Ascension and Suspension are the best examples in this case. The former shows a male figure just about to leave the ground, rising in the void of the space, while the latter shows a man suspended horizontally in mid-air, in a mood of contemplation and contentment. ln these paintings, as in all others, the artist has perhaps consciously blurred the facial features of his subjects, blending them into the ambience and lending them the air of apparitions shrouded in white. It also helps him maintain the anonymity of his subiects, prefiguring a sense of misplaced identity.

The artists knack of playing with diverse imagery has enabled him to turn to various sources for inspiration. And one is tempted to believe that Saeed paints the element of uncertainty in human nature and the inability of human expression to stretch itself beyond established norms.

The vulnerable figures in Saeeds work, divested of their conditioned reflexes, smoothly rise above the surface in an almost negative vacuum of space. Apparently, this act of levitation is never-ending, for there is nothing solid around the figures for them to hold on to. The departure seems to be an endless journey from weightlessness that the figures from weightlessness that the lightness of being.

Further on, the desire for freedom culminates in absolute diffusion of the figures into space. The age-old belief that the body ultimately perishes while the soul remains, is painted with the optimism of a mystic. Pieces of clothing (shirts, in this case) symbolise souls that endure the test of time while the figures melt into non-existence. The garment hanging loose in Soul ll against an emerald background has its arms stretched out on both sides as if the invisible figure that once possessed it has been cruicified.

Apart from work that centres around one particular theme, there are some paintings that are rather loosely connected to each other, like Paper Moon, which shows a bent figure framed within a rectangular space in the middle of the canvas, hiding its face from the viewer, or Man Watching His Dream, showing a framed, winged man waiting for his dream to materialise.

But the paintings with inverted landscapes (to develop a sense of levitation?) miserably fail to create any profound impact of displacement. Ice Block, on the other hand, comes forth as a powerful work. lt shows one figure caged in a frozen cube of ice and another half-naked beside it, out in the open, mocking and celebrating the absence and the attainment of freedom. And above them all is death, characterised as a black panther roaming around a sleeping figure. The artist has let out his fears without inhibition, giving sleep a space in the neighbourhood of life and death.

The formal unity of the work on display is restored by a heightened sense of control that the artist commands over his paintings, and his technical skill. In most cases, he has used fragments of old Persian manuscripts pasted on paper or canvas as his surface; verses of Masnavi and Urdu kalaam occasionally show. Some other texts, such as leaves from the Hindu Janam Patri or Graha and the Pehla Qaida show moons, planets, suns and a succession of aliph, bey, pey striking a strong balance with the winged figures. But this device also makes the paintings appear anecdotal. The atmosphere in them is strangely nocturnal, the moon glimmering luminously in unashamed white.

Saeeds works can be faulted, however, for leaving out all representations of the female figure. Besides, some of the work is rendered with such academic detail and empirical observation that it looks pre-fabricated. lt also acts as testimony to the artists obsessive concern with the concept of displacement. But the ferment that gives the figures the weightlessness on canvas also ends up crediting the artist with the kind of maturity of expression that he needs to pull off such a complex exercise.