Expression In Gold And Clay

DATED: 24 JAN 1992

Karachi has become the centre of art where artists from all over the country bring their work. ln a country where national art exhibitions and awards are not institutionalised what bigger success can an artist have than an exhibition that is a sell out. And in this city, exhibitions have been heard to be sold before their official opening.

This month two artists from Lahore are exhibiting their works in Karachi. Askari Mian lrani, a calligraphist cum painter, and Nabahat Lotia who has returned home after a stay in Lahore.

An ornate extravaganza of colours and forms borrowed from our religious past – painting after painting of classic calligraphy in hues that sparkle like Turkish glazes and kufic letters imprisoned behind grids and patterns of the Taweez and Tughra -greet the visitor to Naqsh-e-Kohna Brang-e- Askari, Askari Mian lrani`s solo show at Chawlthandi Art.

Askari Mian proves him a master with colours. His palette is as bright and subtle as the colours of the Caucasian carpets. With silken blues and greens, woody browns and parchment yellows he creates rich combinations of calligraphy. Gold is used in abundance and makes the paintings glow under artificial light. However the canvases are marred by overcrowding of elements. The artist has adopted many elements, motives and architectural forms but he has been unable to fully integrate them with his theme. Some are overcrowded and others are simply over worked. ln both cases they lose their usual appeal.

The eight-sided geometric star has been used without restrain – it has been repeated over and over again to fill up empty space and sometimes these stars are strung together to form decorative borders.

Whenever visible, Askari Mians surfaces are sensitive. The subtle colour variation created by the dripping paint technique that he has mastered is seen in almost all his work. The fabric on fabric mounting of his smaller paintings show the artists keen understanding of the treatment of the surface but unfortunately little of these spaces are left unworked. They are covered by yards and yards of calligraphy which like a marauding army wipes out all open spaces and subjugate sensitive textures.

Two of the most fascinating paintings at the show are the renderings of Naqsh-e-Panah. The larger rectangular canvas has s form that unfolds like a roll of paper. lts wave like movement encourages the viewer to explore the centre which is a circular pattern of Quranic words and numbers set in a design that resembles a cob web. The other canvas is square in shape with a similar, circular design. The colours are muted yellows and greens and the paintings remind one of ancient astrolabes and seafarer maps.

Very different in style and content are the figurative paintings inspired by the Mughal miniature. The compositions bear elements of Mughal architecture and Mughal themes. These contain the colours of the Mughal painting but they lack the understanding and sensitivity with which a Mughal miniature painter rendered his work.

Askari Mian tries to link the background with the figures with the dripping paint wash but he only succeeds in giving the architectural forms a decaying look – against which the intricately worked Mughal prince and princess with their pets stand out like cut-out figures. Particularly the princess in white appears a ghost haunting her royal habitat.

Askari Mians work, despite his high prices attracts buyers because it appears rich and decorative, but discerning buyers and critics look for answers in his work. What is his aesthetic problem? Why are all his exhibitions so similar? If the artist wants his work to endure he has to address these problems in his future works.

Held on January 16th was Nabahat Lotias Fomis in fired clay. This show was a celebration of the potters craft. With shapes derived from age old matkas, gamlas and martabans, the designer created her originals.

The presentation took place outdoor, in the courtyard of architect Habib Fida Alis sprawling house, where amid flickering dais and haunting music Nabahat displayed her terracotta pieces. The pots were mostly unglazed and were varied in shape and size. The taller ones were narrow cylinders with unadorned surface while the others were decorated with clay collages of ropes and textured pieces. Nabahat rightly calls her work designer garden ware for terra-cotta is suited to outdoor conditions and her pots add charm to a landscape of trees and plants.

Although most of the shapes have been repeated from previous shows – two new designs have been developed – the multi-purpose wide-based bowl with a meandering rim – this can be used as a bird bath or a salad bowl with equal success. The other design is a vessel with a conical bottom and narrow mouth matka like top. This according to the designer is difficult to make as it is done in two shades. A variety of shades for hanging bulbs were also on display. These are modern forms that remained one of the simplified Swedish designs.

Nabahat has no formal training as a designer but she has learnt from experimenting. She designs and executes them with the help of a local potter as most of her work is wheel thrown. Glazes are not Nabahats forte for she has not been very successful with them and has used only low temperature glazes – she confesses, that this is a technique she has yet to master.

This was Nabahats fourth exhibition and a large number of shapes could be seen. What she needs to do now is concentrate on fewer shapes and improves their design. Nabahat should also make more use of surface decoration techniques available on terra-cotta like scratch method slip and oxide painting etc. To improve the quality of her shows she should be selective and should restrict the display to her finest pieces.