Black Is Beautiful

DATED: 15 OCT 1991

In the last few months, we have been lectured twice by painters from Lahore, who had come down to Karachi for exhibition of their works. Perhaps they have a thing about Lahore being the intellectual centre of fine arts, if for no other reason than for the architecturally impressive, but academically dilapidated, National College of Arts. First, in April, Zahur had visitors to his exhibition stopped right at the door, and served with a printout containing his thoughts on his painting. This attempt to collar and guide was wholly unnecessary, for the simple reason that the painter is not a writer or even a thinker of any consequence. Even without his prompting, one could see that at least fifty percent of the exhibits were really bad and the rest, in varying degrees, delightful. He, too, depended on black colour to play with his own Manichean aesthetics, that is a dialectical play between darkness and light in which neither is a clear victor. This was so because each depended so much on the other for life and effect.

Then, we had Sumaya Durrani at Chawkandi in August, another Lahore artist, presently based in Turkey, who revelled in the darkness and light of the black. She, too, sent out the notice of her exhibition with a six-line, two-sentence instruction on her works. I got lost in what she was saying about the material reality of her paintings and their spiritual depths, because her language was far from being reader-friendly. She had something in mind about contradictions and conflicts in art, and it transpired later that her works were created under the stress of the Gulf War. Sumayas themes were loss of life, and the destruction of civilisation and culture and her own anguish over this. One could say that it was from this vast panorama that we were to look at the exhibits.

Two powerful impressions were registered on a viewer. The first came from the fact that each frame by itself was a full-fledged image of expressive stillness. This was interesting, because her earlier works that l remember, were large canvases in which colours cavorted and contorted in full-bodied flow. They exhibited powerful currents, eddies and pigmented rhythms in a free orchestration. There were no contours of visual imagery that could be picked, drowning in the mass and surge of paint. But in the mixed-media works at Chawkandi recently, action was replaced with reflection. She had used paint, varnish, paper cut-outs, bits and pieces of etchings, xeroxed copies of prints and pasted them on paper. Despite the almost riotous richness of details on the surfaces of the works, one had to compliment the artist for retaining the wholeness of the fabricated image, which like a silent totem stared into the eyes. While Sumaya had used the analytical approach of Cubism, she had not gone so far as to create highly personalised and even arbitrary forms mirroring a splintered world. The civilisation depicted by her imagistic ally may have suffered destruction, but in her works it was still intact as form and design. What she had done was to make a picture first, then cut into pieces. These pieces were then put together without compromising the picture.

We come next to the other impact of her work, and this had to do with the richness of the surface details. It was a feast for the eyes, and with pigment and a razor blade, she had done so many things that it was a wonder that they were held together as a unified image. I have spoken of the force of the image in Sumayas works. It is time now to speak of images in the plural for each line which was the razor mark on the surface, each and every accidental scratch as on walls and furniture, even of veins of crumpled paper used for surface decoration, of niches and arches with votive statuettes. In them mostly of outraged women, of the effect of light reflected from varnish, the creamy feel of the acrylic colour and the dryness of a wall done in water-bound pigment. Anyone can pick and choose, and enjoy the application of any or all of these visual elements in their respective places and their dutiful contribution to the unity of each work. The word “cleverness” comes to the lips, but this would be unfair to the artist who showed so much of sensitivity to and grasp of design and form. Particular experience becomes universal in art. At the end we were not thinking of the Gulf War or even of human tragedy. That darkness which signified tragedy was not missed either. But the joyfulness of a good design, and the eloquent silence of an image, were such that the tragedy Symaya had started with got placed in the context of art. Aristotle, speaking of Greek tragedy wrote about catharsis that it is the state of mind in which man not only witnesses tragedy with pleasure, but also learns how to enrich his or her mind and life from it. Tragedy was popular entertainment in Greece, and what people received from it was the moral resilience for accepting pain and divine punishment. They learnt to be responsible for what they brought on their heads. Symayas art is not of this plane, but it is no less genuine for having sprung from her own anguish and skill. It certainly gets the better of her to become autonomous, and this is why, instead of being autobiographical anecdotes, her works were seen as images, subsuming within themselves, both experience and aesthetics.

Black may be the shade of mourning, the end of light. You cannot have colour without the presence of the sun, no matter how marginally or indirectly. But darkness even of a grave is not the end of life, because the unbelievable furnace burning at the core of the earth sends its heat all round like pulsing veins under its crust to create life. Whenever we come across black paintings, be it of Reinhardt, Zahoor or Sumaya Durrani, we find the artists using it as a colour that is not without light as in a black-hole. The thing to note is how they give life by thinning and thickening its chromatic effects, and breaking surfaces with abstract or visual images and streaks of light.

This requires quite a bit of artistry and on this alone, than on any other thing, the liveliness of this kind of painting depends. As in the cosmos the sun never sinks only the world turns away from it in a diurnal dance of day and night and seasons. The black paintings derive from these changes even when the artist is not aware of it. So, when I told Sumaya that there was more joy in her work than suffering and pain, I meant it. In the tussle for expression, she lost on the primacy of her personal experience, and her works won, to her credit. The artist must start with his or her anguish or ecstasy. She can explain how she made her works. But it is for the work to speak directly to the viewers. The artist should not come in the way.