Anwar Saeed: Paintings With Soul


Anwar Saeed is an artist who seeks solace through contemplating the metaphysical. But the fact that he is an artist gives him the difficult task of trying to express this desire for meaning in existence through his paintings. Anwar does this in some expertly rendered works, mystical blue paintings with figures floating between here and another world, and a meticulously worked texture exuding an iridescent sheen.

Anwar Saeed, who hails from Lahore, brought an array of his latest oil on board and canvas works to Karachi, which was on display at the Chawkandi, earlier this month.

Educated at the National College of Arts, Anwar went on to study for a year at the Royal College of Arts in London. He participated in the Degree Show there in 1985, and thereafter has taken part in several group and solo shows, including the “Now Art” exhibition at the Nearing in Lahore in 1991, a solo show of paintings at the Art Gallery in Islamabad, and the “Seven Artists from Pakistan” event at Kunstnersenter in Oslo, Norway. At present he teaches printmaking at the NCA.

Anwars is a cerebral, thoughtful art. His paintings show lonely, meditative figures. Either in a room, or outside under a tree, but always at night under an ink blue sky glimmering with hidden shades. Neither fear nor happiness on their faces, but a lost expression, an expression of being in several worlds at the same time.

The canvas is divided into several regions of blue, and the figures are confined within frames, symbolising our incarceration in this mortal shell. The figure is nevertheless free to contemplate other worlds. He is looking heavenward, or is in a trance with eyes transfixed on the horizon.

Anwars paintings depict people trying to find meanings in other dimensions, or even in the past, present and future taken together. His work is heavily influenced by Sufic ideas. The lonely figures, such as the man reclined at the bottom half of the canvas in Another Dream, is contemplating his place in the universe, surrounded by this blue, ethereal night. The sky is dark and brooding, but it releases subtle energy in the form of a multicoloured radiance, symbolising potency and life in the universe.

Discernible under the layers of thin paint are Urdu, Arabic and English letters which give his work an added dimension of literariness. Anwars technique is to first layer the board with strips of printed paper. The surface is then painted over with thin layers of acrylics. The printed matter underneath gives the feeling of a constant and subtle movement of letters and words, as if words were always near at hand, as if the words were the thoughts of the lonely, pious, lost figures of the paintings.

Anwars rendition of these figures is naturalistic, even photographic. This exact reproduction of the figures and the animals makes them style less and cold, and takes away from the painterly quality of the work.

What would have bestowed true power to Anwars work is an eccentricity in rendering the figures, a mannerism, a style. Fortunately, despite this shortcoming, Anwar manages to come out ahead on the basis of his content, his thought and motivation. His inspiration is well grounded, and the series does manifest a certain creativity and imagination, despite the photographic quality of the painted figures.

The painting No Mans Land has two figures facing each other, but separated by distinct lines on the canvas. This imbues the painting with an intense feeling of alienation. And, since the figures are mirror images of the same person, an alienation from oneself. Above, in an eerily peaceful and sedate night sky, three moons with halos peer through an unreal haze. The figures stand in the foreground of a chamber, a symbol of confinement, and which provides an interesting contrast with the placid sky and the multiple moons.

Anwars use of several moons is a powerful device to suggest the multi-dimensionality of life, at least in the spiritual realm. The painting its a long time now, uses this lunar device to good effect. A man, naked to the waist, stands under a sky with four moons. The background is alluring, with dark, brooding shades. In the darkness stalks a panther, an ominous figure in profile, half here, half elsewhere, an apparition symbolising other life forms and other realities, Strangely, a single bird wing juts out of one shoulder of the figure, a token of mans capacity to fly, in spirit if not in body.

Anwars use of fantastic animals and the strange backgrounds, as well as the symbolism, reminds one of the metaphysical paintings of Henri Rousseau, with their dark figures reclined in a strange forest of oversized leaves and unnatural beasts.

Symbols play a key role in Anwar Saeeds work: the horses standing or strolling ghostlike on a night when the moon is out, or the dark, ominous profile of a panther, are unreal creatures denoting other lives. The kneeling figures of men denote piety and the effort to free ones spirit, while the rooms and the walls speak of worldly confinement.

In A sign of the times three identical figures look up towards a patch of cloud, illumined by a hidden moon. The identical figures represent a soul divided, fragmented by confusion, doubt, the uncertainty of the real world. At the same time they are united in their desire for truth: they all look up to the same corner of the sky for answers.

Anwars work is no mere aping of some Western styles, with their penchant for anarchic abstraction, purposeless distortion, or change for the sake of change alone. Even his surrealism is more in tune with our own culture and his own feelings.

Anwar Saeed paints to vent his inner spiritual and philosophic sensibility. The Sufic content is quite evident in works that speak of self-questioning, doubt, earthly confinement and the longing for a more solid truth. His figures, animals, and the setting of his paintings are meditative, more in line with our own spiritual and contemplative traditions, and for this reason Anwars work carries weight. If there is a distinguishing feature of Anwars work, it is that it has soul.