Conflict At The Core

DATED: 6 JULY 1997

Painter and printmaker, Anwar Saeed is a tribe of one. His personal demons and their exorcism, his personal obsessions and the symbols they evoke, provide imagery that is powerful enough to exist without words or texts. The work is knotted and knitted and stands as its own justification. Here, he speaks to Aasim Akhtar about his own evolution as an artist and art in general

NS: Has there been any turning point in your life that helped you decide in favour of becoming an artist?

AS: Being an artist comes first and is essential to becoming one. Coming off a family such as mine, I had no inclination to become an artist. I think the idea began to take shape when I decided to join the National College of Arts.

I was a loner as a child. This loneliness inclined me towards more refined and tender shades of human life, such as music. I remember enjoying listening to Bhajans on Radio Ceylon in its morning transmission. My interest in literature also stemmed from this loneliness. When I was matriculating, I came across such progressive Urdu writers as Krishen Chandra, Saadat Hassan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi and lsmat Chughtai.

I was interested in painting as a child but the stage came later where one comes to realise and know the true potential and significance of art as a means of expression.

TNS: Your decision to become an artist came about as a result of the decision to join the art school. Does it necessarily imply that those who train as an artist become one?

AS: No, not necessarily. A lot of people are essentially or temperamentally artists, but never have the opportunity of going through rigorous academic training of art. Some people have an intuitive sense of visual art without prior training, whereas some cannot acquire it in spite of training. A lot of factors that contributed to making me an artist were merely coincidental.

In recent times, the media machine has opened up avenues of knowledge and exposure on the entire world. The realm of folk and indigenous painting has caught the attention of the world, for example, Madhubani painting or Kalighat painting or Mithila painting which have all the ingredients of a sensitive, refined and spontaneous expression, without any academic background.

TNS: Yet folk art traditions have not been assigned the status of a modern, contemporary expression in art.

AS: There are certain urban artists who have looked up to folk expression for inspiration. They learnt from their rural counterparts, imbibed this learning into their work in a spurious attempt to contemporize it. One way of looking at it is to approach it from the angle the developed world has taken. The developed world decontextualises craft, turning it into a decorative commodity the craftsman works in isolation on his craft for his own domestic use or the local market. And as such, is away from the mainstream.

But once the craft finds its way to distant shores so that a larger group of people could benefit from this aesthetic value, it almost automatically reduces or declines in quality. On the way it loses out on its spiritual essence.

We are used to looking upon craft in a stereotypical fashion that it perhaps follows a formula or scheme. The Gallery of Modern Art in Tokyo has devoted a whole wing to Madhubani painting. Going back to our earlier premise. If Madhubani painting, by virtue of being a folk expression were craft, as it were, then the entire corpus of miniature painting would also classify as craft.

TNS: Your work, it seems, was more of a reaction to political oppression during the Martial Law days?

AS: I was still in college when Martial Law was imposed on Pakistan, and I think it was my generation that got most affected by it. It was a time when people were hanged or lashed in public squares. Execution in public would be telecast daily. No one could possibly keep indifferent or desensitized to the political reality However; I dont regard my work from those times as political. It was then that the symbol of death developed in my work in the garb of a soldier.

Around the same time, my first solo exhibition of painting called Windows, was held at Rohtas Gallery in Rawalpindi. In those paintings, windows served as a bridge or link between the inner world and outer realities. There were two types of paintings: those that cast an outside-in look with a desire for peace, love and prosperity, and those that took an inside-out approach finding blood, chaos, killings, fire or death.

TNS: Could you resolve the chain of human predicament through your work?

AS: There has always been a conflict at the core of my image-making. The conflict between the inner desire for peace and the world outside made itself more understandable during the Martial Law regime. I believe that the foundation of being is based upon singularism and plurality. Here, plurality implies the sense of another being around you who you could feel. The conflict borne out of this singularism has continued to contradict and confront me. lt has continued to flourish through my work whether its between ones being and the other or otherwise.

TNS: What does the other mean to you?

AS: ln my opinion, the consciousness of the other develops much late in life. The other, as it has been defined by the Existentialists and more recently by the French literati, is inherent to being. lt is the presence of another being within a being. But the other manifests itself rather late.

Conceptually, the other is the enemy that lives within oneself. The fact that you are the carrier of feelings that are generally forbidden, and that which induce guilt and remorse in you but which you cannot help feeling or thinking about. The other manipulates within you as a product of a society that induces such feelings of guilt. It blemishes the purity of human thought and experience by contradicting and negating it.

TNS: How do you relate to Genets principle of the other?

AS: The presence of an aggressor is common to Genet`s and my own work from the Martial Law days. But Genets relation with the aggressor cannot be seen as a commonplace phenomenon because Genet was, by no means, a common being, to a much lesser degree, we can find it in every soul but nobody wants to acknowledge the presence of that other. On another level, the other is the unbridled energy or a relentless impulse which can nibble on the fabric of life that the society has so dutifully woven around you. Genet, as a thief and as an illegitimate child, stood above the narrow width of this fabric. The desire for freedom is present in us as a seedling, but we consciously regard it a prohibited territory and keep the window closed.

When World War II broke out, Genet was still in his youth. The aggressor in his case was foreign (German). ln my own case, l was a youth too when Martial Law came into existence but the aggressor was homegrown yet alien.

TNS: How do you separate the image from a symbol in your work?

AS: I like to analyse images. The images of Yakshis and Boddhisattvas make a recurrent appearance in my work. The Boddhisattva, for inslance, was a prince known as Guatan Nellambar. He left his palace, his worldly possessions, comforts and luxuries and set out on a soul- searching journey. At that stage, he was neither a prince nor the enlightened one – the Buddha. He was yet to attain nirvana, Likewise, I relate to images of prophets and apostles in a more mundane context. I see them imbued with human qualities and traits. Sometimes, however, the image becomes more real than reality itself. One probably has to look for ones own sense of reality in an image.

Whereas symbols are a more objectified universal language with a common link with the intellect than with passions. But there can be a personal symbolism too which does not offer itself as an obvious revelation. A symbol is what rises from within. By a gift of intuition, one can decipher the presence or emergence of another being either in an object, or in a living creature, or in a manifestation of nature.

TNS: Could you tell us about the personal symbol of a lungfish in your work?

AS: The symbol of lungfish is an ironic one. l was once reading a book called. The Evolution of Man about those animal species that later evolved to become man. Those animals were born in water as germs, gradually became fish, arms and legs sprouted from their fins, and they later came to the dry land and grew lungs. The lungfish is one such species that could not evolve further after it had acquired lungs. It is a smooth-skinned, corpulent fish which buries itself in mud whenever theres less water in Lake Victoria, where it hibernates for up to two years. It respires through an opening on its head, causing a hole in the mud. Apparently its dead when it is not. I have employed it in my work as a symbol of love. This ideal of separation or longing is deeply embedded in the sub-continental psyche, be it music or poetry. It was in this region that Devdasa was born who comes forth as a forceful symbol of self-indulgence and self-destruction consumed by the sea of an ill-consummated love. Even the concept of shahadat or martyrdom is an extreme measure of Iove.

TNS: What do images of winged men and paired figures designate?

AS: In the beginning, when I painted the male figure with a wing, it was obviously taken to be an angel contrary to my own idea. Around the same time, I painted fish as well. The conflict between a bird and fish, one signifying height the other signifying depth, found a missing link in these images.

Like Genet speaks of God as a sublime and elevated being, and in contrast, man as the wretched of the earth. a conflict in comparison builds up. The winged figures in my work – a broken or damaged wing – aspire to fly, to reach for the heights but lack the ability to do so.

In other cases, where there are paired figures, water and night simultaneously emerge as very significant symbols. In my opinion, both water and night point towards the dormant or concealed aspects of human existence that envelop the secrets of the subconscious. Those paintings can be seen as riverscapes, with figures half-immersed in water.