Blurred Vision


What intrigued one about Anwar Saeeds recent exhibition, held at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi last month, were some misquoted lines from the American poet Walt Whitman on the invitation card. Was Saeed trying “to correct the widespread suspicion”, in the words of The Sunday Times art critic, Frank Whit ford, that most painters “are illiterate”? One also wondered if Whitman, who had elevated phoney transcendentalism to the level of high poetry, was being accredited as the inspirational fountainhead of the exhibition.

This was not evident anywhere in the work on display. Whitmans energy and afflatus certainly had no bearing on the show; Anwar admits that all the Whitman that hes ever read are a couple of his translations in Urdu. Perhaps this is of no consequence anyway. Poets may inspire painters, but the latter have to communicate in their own medium, relying on their intellectual curiosity and artistic ingenuity.

Going by the titles of the paintings, Anwers reading is eclectic. One may also question why, instead of using titles for paintings as a customary baptismal rite, Anwer uses them to guide the viewer to their meaning. ln not allowing the works to speak for themselves, Anwer reveals his own lack of confidence.

The exhibition was a celebration of the colour blue. But the angst and passion that the colour conveys found no expression there. There was a striking canvas, called Love Is A Lungfish-l, with an arched human figure in the act of diving into a built-in, transparent recess with a nondescript fish. According to Anwer, the lungfish is a native of Lake Victoria, Kenya. It is the only existing fresh water fish with lungs. When the water of the lake dries up, it buries itself in the mud and survives.

According to Anwer, humans and animals have a lot in common. He says that he loves horses, which is why he paints horses and tigers in addition to fish. But Anwers animal figures lack the weight of history and experience. They are often mere silhouettes, and do not embody their animality. The animals dont work well even at a symbolic level.

The quality of a work of art is judged from the intellectual and spiritual intensity of the artist. Ideas and feelings milling around in him pull disparate parts together into a comprehensive vision by the sheer force of their momentum, giving body-warmth to colour and form. There was little reason to believe that this painter had wrestled with ideas. Anwer Saeed knows how to break habits of sight and perception. However, the palpable feeling of strangeness, a touch of hysteria or panic, and the throb of the human psyche drumming its way into visibility, are in abeyance.

ln a painting called Unavoidable Meeting there is a tiger casting its deep shadow on the ground and a naked man sitting in an act of prayer. The figures were placed at split levels in an enclosed space, but separated from one another cleverly by a transparent recess of emptiness. There was a mandalic triangle and two moons, one full and the other a crescent, hanging from the roof or the wall near it. Despite its overall blue effect, a multitude of colours had been deftly worked into the surface. But the scene was frozen and the light on the claustrophobic theatre of the abstract was without mystery or mystique. The problem with Anwar Saeeds exhibition is that one walks away from it as a neutral spectator.

The most impressive painting in the exhibition, by virtue of idea and craft, was No Mans Land in which two men confront one another in a rigidly posed impassivity, against another simpler and transparent interior. Once again there were moons, but three in number this time, in various stages of waxing and waning. The recess in the painting was filled with aquatic light, throwing the men into sharp relief. The human figures were like hamzads. Between them was a never-to-be-bridged distance of privacy and alienation. The togetherness of the two had latent possibilities of symbolic and existential exploitation. lt required movement, drama, which the painting could have mirrored.

One can only admire Anwer Saeeds skill with the use of pigment and colour. He has chosen cold blue to dominate the exhibition because of the difficulties he encountered with sharp, clashing colours. But the light which poured into a rectangular aquatic receptacle on the stage was touched with mauve, pink, grey, green, yellow and shades of blue. He has painted transparent divisions from one plane and depth into another admirably. But the colours lacked warmth, except for the skin of the male torsos, and the current of muscles rippling under the surface. It appears that several indigenous artists have learnt to make abstract expressionist surfaces with the expression left out. Andre Gide wrote that “in art, where expression alone matters, ideas seem to retain their youth but a day.”

Anwer Saeed teaches print making at the National College of Art, Lahore, and being a teacher, he seemed to be solving problems he had set for himself as a set of academic excercises. For reasons of creative health, he should take occasional holidays or play truant like any schoolboy. Art born of irresponsibility would be of a different quality. Paul Klee sought the child as his mentor, and delved deep into its mind so that he could paint artlessly. Others foraged through museums for African artefacts in search of tribal aesthetic mores and primeval energy. Anwer Saeed will have to find a mentor and put his art through the test of a transvaluation of values.

Success and failure almost balance each other but not in the exhibition: while Anwer Saeed has control over the medium, as is expected of a printmaker, he lacks the vision that makes an artist. The painter has failed in creating a unity of effect from the several elements in his paintings. Twentieth century art is about developing form and design from bits and pieces of a broken culture. Disjointedness became the very syntax of this revolution, and chaos the field of design. But there was a magic to it.

To mention only two examples, we have Picassos Three Dancers, a renunciation of civilisation as Europe knew it, and Eliots The Wasteland, a transvaluatlon of poetic values. Anwer Saeed should perhaps go back to the secret sources of that magic.