Different Strokes


“Amural,” said painter Richard smith. “Should be like a piece of Mozart: well mannered, not grabbing you by the lapels, complex and challenging only when you choose to look at it up close.”

The same is true for the painted images of Salima Hashmi, recently on display at Chawkandi Art, Karachi. Her work is subtle rather than dramatic. Her art is the search for her identity in the context of the socio-political history of the subcontinent.

Every mark, smudge, smear, or wash, draws one in, each acquiring its own significance. Yet, the painted or drawn image is not a complete image without the narrative -its title. The relationship of a work of art and its title is a symbiotic one. There is an inter-dependence, the extent of which is controlled by the artist. At what point the two meet is a tricky question, opening up many relevant issues of twentieth century art. In this exhibition. Salima titles one of her pieces after one of her fathers first published verses.

The discourse on the visual content begins with the graininess of the paper, the crevices of its uneven edges, the subtlety of its tea washes, the smudges created by the manual manipulation of pigment. The building up of layers is gradual, as well as poetic.

Salima derives inspiration from Mughal art and its representation of beauty. Her work, therefore, with nature its dominant theme, has a soothing, calming effect, and a wonderful sense of harmony. Also present is an overall feminist consciousness in terms of strength and spirituality, with shades of joy, love, life and beauty. Thus, there is a pouring out of organic forms. The flower in bloom, rain and clouds may signify fertility, birth, intimacy, or bounty. A strong element of hope is conveyed, along with the intellectual strength of womanhood. Nonetheless, among the many layers of her work is also an element of pain – the pain of the loss of a loved one, or the pain felt for Karachi. Parallel to this is nostalgia, and a longing to connect with the past, which is deeply imbedded in our psychological framework.

Salima`s work seems like the innermost feelings from the pages of a personal diary that have been transferred on to the canvas. The artist reveals the core of her being to the viewer. At the same time, her images are like painted drawings. They reinforce the expression of drawing as an end unto itself. Going back to drawing is like going back to the beginning. This stirring rawness coexists with the harmonious and flowing tea washes and the subtle use of rich gold leaf. She negates the use of violent gesture or forceful painterliness, which itself reaffirms the existence of violence.

Like Salima, Anwar Saeeds point of reference is also the miniature. Unlike Salima, though, Anwar, cleverly turns around the conventional sensibility of the miniature. His dominant imagery. the figure, is deliberately stylised to break away from stereotypes.

His art speaks of an underlying need to question conventional concepts of taste and beauty and reflects a cynicism with the general perceptions of the day. He chooses colours borrowed from the local context -the gaudy and the crude -to challenge conventional notions.

As with Salimas work, Anwars art exists on many levels and layers. Much of his inspiration stems from the puppet show. He clearly identifies strongly with the narrative tradition that is associated with story-telling. The visual imagery is constructed with the presence of a strong figurative element, masks and personas. It is a psychoanalytical study of the self. The frames, whether they are doors, windows or mirrors, look at man from different perspectives.

Anwar readily concedes his fixation with the idea of a frame and its evolution in his paintings. In 1990, the frame in his work was akin to the conventional structure of the Mughal miniature. By 1991, the space had been divided, and different layers had started to emerge. In subsequent years, the framing and division of space developed further, with one or more figures in it.

During the Zia regime, there was a visible political undercurrent in Anwars work. Over the years, he has gradually evolved from the larger context to the personal.

Inspiration for both Salima Hashmi and Anwar Saeed stems from the need to redefine the context of Pakistani art. They consciously reject the modernist and the post-modernist approach for its lack of spiritual content, and in the process have created a language all their own.