A Sweet Madness

DATED: 26 JAN 1989

To watch Wahab Jaffer painting, is a joy because, in a very special way, each painting is, in itself, a performance, and each performance confirms what we might suspect: that nature seeks to express itself through some of us.

“Painting is a joy.” Actually, he said it first in Urdu, in the same tone of understatement, “Painting me mazah aatha hai, yaar”. On the tiled bathroom wall in front of him are stuck two old sheets of newspaper. Over that, a little above eye level, usually two at a time, stuck upright, are his Canvas boards.

“Theres nothing like painting against a hard wall.” Between him and the wash-basin to his right, tubes of acrylic paint are already wriggling like fish being drawn into the mouth of a whale.

He had come back from his Directors chair in the familys mercantile trading office. He had quickly shed his coat and tie and rolled up his shirt sleeves knowing that in two hours he would have to be changing again for one of the relentless diplomatic, business, or wedding dinners of the high-season in the city. One canvas is already in bloom as he begins work.

He is a stocky man, and, as he faces the canvas, his whole being is that of an athlete, a sprinter, a cricketer, a swimmer, poised to burst into action; body, eye, brush, paint at the tip, a spot on the canvas-all one circle of coiled energy. The painting begins to force itself through the canvas as if light itself is breaking through. Now his eye quickens, his wrist moves swiftly, the brush takes each shaft of light and begins to compose. Not until the canvas has relaxed under his greedy hands does he pause for breath. The avalanche of colours has been gathered. Now, when he touches it again, it is as if he is carefully sifting the harvest, and enjoying the pleasure of each form and movement.

It is a joy to watch Wahab Jaffer painting, because, in a very special way, each painting is, in itself, a performance, and each performance confirms what we all know to be true yet refuse to face: that nature, the force of nature, the excesses of nature, the proliferation of nature, the inexhaustible reserves of nature, nature, grand and grotesque, tragic and gay, nature itself seeks to express itself through some of us. It is this truth which distinguishes a painter of the East from modern Western artists, who, even when they are expressionists are never quite free from a sense of personal desperation.

Jaffers painting especially when he returns to a canvas which lies in a pool of passion, exhausted and fulfilled, sometimes become nervous, too spontaneous, and even incoherent. They become statements of style, as if, caught in a moment of supreme self-indulgence, this lonely outcaste from a social class condemned by its own conformity, this freedom- freak, suddenly finds himself giving explanations. Most of Jaffers work is so hypnotic because they appear to have been done in secret. As though a butterfly had alighted on a leaf in front of him and he is frightened that a slight movement of his brush will make it fly away.

The present exhibition of Wahab Jaffers paintings is his fifth one-man show. Most of _ his admirers, and all his critics, have so far been able to come to terms with his unique status in Pakistani painting because of his self-confessed debt to Ahmed Parvez, probably the greatest natural force so far to emerge, and survive, forlorn but not forgotten, in the demoralising, “establishment” -dictated art fashion of this feudal society. My own hunch is that he now faces the most crucial phase of his development.

I am prepared to take a huge risk. Wahab Jaffer has been for so long, since him inside him, an excessively modest artist. This tentativeness has been his answer to the servile, cringing, hypocrisy of the particular strata of society in which he is placed. There are hints in Jaffers work now of much that is to come later, but they are still unconscious hints because he is inherently a generous and courteous man. He also knows, of course, how Ahmed Parvez was destroyed and betrayed by the very powers that earlier encouraged his creativity. Wahab Jaffer might appear timid, but he is not a coward. He is saved from cowardice because he is unashamedly sensual, and sensuality is an expression of courage and endurance in an artist.

If painting, for Wahab Jaffer, is madness, then it is a sweet madness which we should not only forgive but also seek out. For me, a foreigner in Pakistan, aware that all revolutions in this part of the world soon deteriorate into governments, and all true art descends to the levels of bureaucracy, Wahab Jaffer stands out for the innocence and the joy of his creation. It is an innocence which has been nurtured against the odds. The next phase, I venture to risk, will be more sophisticated, subversive.