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Banal Confessions

Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.148)      Dated: May 2002

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Without meaning any disrespect, the paintings of Anwer Saeed exhibited at Canvas Gallery last month look better in photographs. The medium adds its lies or, to put it politely, its own illumination and colour to make them a virtual reality of what they, in fact, are not. The images, grotesque, ugly and repellent have not changed over the years but the unblinking, Cyclopean eye of the camera gives them a persuasive charm. This may not necessarily be the effect desired by Saeed who intended his work to be explicit. If this were all his investment in art, the work would not be worth tuppence. They are more than explicit, because explicitness here is not a matter of culpable exposure in public but an unoriginal discourse from outside. The rawness of the paintings, crudity of brushwork and frankness of sentiment, are substitutes for what used to be the beauty, harmony and style of art- the pretense of art in a state of denial. Saeed has painted arts disgust with life which may well be popular in the West but is clearly not the only truth about art.

After the camera and industrial art (including advertising) took over form and design from what used to be called art, contemporary non-art or anti-art has been pandering to the banal realism which the West has managed to sell round the world. As a result, the poetry, romance and sublimity associated with human feeling have been substituted with vulgarity, bathos, hate and filth. Art has become conceptual, dumb despite the artists philosophic pretensions. Modern art was all about shock but once it became classical and canonical, it ceased to fulfil its brief. Similarly, the avant-garde began as an outrage and proceeded to become academic sooner than expected. Thereafter, experiences hither to suppress in art were given a postmodern window of exposure and themes such as homosexuality were explored to the extent of becoming depressingly banal.

Seen against this backdrop, it is impossible for Saeeds work to shock any more. His explicit paintings may have been intended to bare his soul but what one sees is a belated toeing of a postmodern trend. And even then he is nowhere near the explicitness of several American artists in the art of calling a spade a spade. What was earlier understood and negotiated with subtle poetic irony in his 1992 painting of liquid, lunar light titled No Mans Land or the sacramental The Punishment Orders in 1995 is now a series of explicit statements. Despite Saeeds predilection for the kind of internationalism that is entrenched at the National College of Art, his art must draw its sustenance from the Greek and Sufi tradition of homoeroticism which was not crassly sexual and remained within the confines of love and friendship to explore its freedom.

In his desire to be explicit, Saeed has opted consciously for banality. This is not meant as criticism but as recognition of the aesthetics within which he now thinks and works. He did not have to make a public confession of his sexual preference outside of his own tradition. And if the paintings are confessions, he should have known that this is a piety obsessively used in western paintings of the time. Unless he wanted to open a chapter of western homoerotic politics in Pakistan there was no need for in to be offensively self-defensive. But he was saved from his own intention by his genes if nothing else and the paintings on show are not without dignity. Art must be dressed even in sackcloth and cannot throw civility or civilised persuasiveness overboard. After all, the Persian-Urdu poets knew the etiquette of open expression as did the Greek sculptors.

Over the last decade, Saeed has been successively using the style of urban folk art or kitsch seen on the trucks and buses plying our roads.  Moreover, compared to his uneducated counterparts, Saeed is a relatively sophisticated painter and his style in the genre is that of an informed art teacher. The bald man in Shadow Between Me and Cezanne could be Jean Genet, a homosexual jailbird, famous novelist and playwright whom Sartre canonised as a saint. The angels in some of his earlier paintings were connected with him and possibly with Rilkes dark angel, a subject Shakir Ali painted without the visible appearance of the tormentors. But Saeed may not have him and his work in mind which can be reconstructed as his suppressed homoerotic longings. In the right-hand corner of the painting, he quotes from Cezanries famous painting Les Grandes Baigneuses. Saeed has substituted the Amazonian women with scantily-clad or nude athletic men.

Genet-like clones also feature in Towards the Unknown with a white buraq in the air and a traffic sign behind pillion-riding cyclists. In the past, Saeed charged the distance between friends and lovers with the magnetism of their bodies. In his latest paintings, though, the sense of touch and distance between bodies is present but without the sense of pull and push. The buraq and the figure of Buddha have been a presence in Saeeds art for a while. He uses these images to irradiate his works with a deep sense of spiritualism. Saeed makes a good case in principle if one thinks of Persian and Urdu poets, their tippling, love of angelic boys and penchant for the expression of malamat. But the malamatis did not recognise themselves as sinners, which is mandatory in the European literary and artistic culture. On the contrary, they were convinced that their malamat was spiritual penance in the interest of truth. They turned the poetry of love and friendship against the nasih, muhtasib and sheikh, the custodians of hand-me-down orthodoxy and soulless ritualism. The compulsion to confess and absolve oneself of sins is a Catholic predilection whereas the confessions of the poets and artists in our tradition used to be for the ears of the beloved. They exposed their detractor through exhibitionism, the theatre of malamat epitomised in Lal Shahbaz Qalanderss couplet: “Bia janan, tamasha kun ke afar ambohe janbazan/ Basad samane ruswai, sare bazar mi raqsam” (Come and watch my beloved how in a throng of your zealous lovers/ I have put on the accessories of blame to dance in the bazaar). Our tradition offers a wide range of charm and affront but Saeed does not make use of it. It is a pity that he has not mentioned Madholal Husain in any of his paintings despite being his admirer. What his explicitness amounts to is a declaration: “This is what I am and if you dont like it be damned!” The statement may be a popular ploy in the West but our standard of correctness has its own poetics and politics.

Perhaps the painting titled The Room is Humming may represent the two-in-one relationship of Madholal and his sheikh Husain. It may be mentioned that gazing at the beautiful face of a man or woman was a blameless spiritual exercise. The Hindu yogis contemplated a naked virgin seated before them. Among the Greeks and the patriarchal societies of the Muslim world it was the men who were considered the pari chehra log while women were relegated to natures reproductive cycle. As for homoeroticism, it was the threshold of higher levels of love without sex.

The ambience of the painting, its colour scheme of red and yellow, the Urdu writing in the background and the rectangular mandala of eyes places it within its cultural context. Hindu pandits wear a yellow chaadar which is written-over with ashlokas or verses in Sanskrit. The pity is that this Jain-like chromatic piece should be beholden to the camera. The single eye is a charm used for protection against evil. In Drunk Man Talking to a Fish, the fish, a symbol of life, in the hand of a man who holds it lasciviously, is as explicit as it is ambiguous. The single, bewitching moon, duplicating and triplicating itself amidst its aqueous light which gave Saeeds paintings from the 1990s their characteristic charm has been dismissed due to the desire to swim with the tide.

Paintings of political correctness must dispense with the art of persuasion as it was known and let the camera do the job. Is it any wonder that much of conceptual art of the time survives in photographs? The blame for the camera cheating Saeed of the satisfaction of committing a historic rudeness must rest with the art of merchandising on which both the gallery and artists survive. We have a native culture of rudeness in the dying breed of bhands, decimated by egregious pretenders on the television screen. These folk artists of profound understanding and ironic subtleties are far more interesting and dignified than the conceptual artists of Lahore. Playing the fool is a taxing and difficult art. It is time that art learnt something from the bhands.