Going Places

DATED: 2 MAR 2002

Unver Shafi Khan talked of suffering from show fatigue: I had this feeling in 2000 during my last exhibition in Lahore, that l would not be back for a while. The time had come to cool down, to paint and hibernate, writes Marjorie Husain after meeting the artist at a recent exhibition of his work at Chawkandi Art.

Unver owned that his feelings had a lot to do with the fact that people were now making their way to his studio, and the more that happens, the less incentive there was to show his work. “The Pakistan art scene is taking off, there are more artists, more work, and more galleries, and there has been a change over the years. Im not saying Im not going to exhibit my work, but perhaps Ill space the exhibitions out.

“Since my first exhibition, Ive had about 14 solo exhibitions and thats a lot of work. Ive always believed, not so much in a group or circle of friends, but more importantly, that all the artists must be working and showing their work in the context they live in. I have done that and that is my answer to anyone levelling the criticism that todays generation doesnt keep together in a group.”

It is hardly surprising that Unver Shafi needs a change of pace. He has been showing his work in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad since 1986 when, two years returned from the Kenyon University, Ohio, with a degree in English, he introduced himself to Ali Imam at the Indus Gallery. In those days the Indus Gallery was located opposite the Nursery area of the PECHS where it had been a centre of art activity since its opening in 1971.

Ali Imam was impressed by the young mans work, which was unlike anything any other artist was doing at that time. The veteran man of art arranged the younger artists first exhibition and printed a brochure that carried a photograph of the 24-year-old, confidently smiling man, who somewhat resembled a youthful Frances Bacon. Ali Imam thus launched him with an exhibition of 41 pieces, works in oils and small, paper based works in pen, ink and coloured pencils.

“In the Pakistani context Unvers works are different and fresh. Aware of his surrounding he has painted fine canvases, strong in structure and sensitive in colour. He paints with assurance impressions of cities, interiors of rooms and views seen from a room. These themes may not be apparent in his work, but they are the base of his structural grid and colour compositions.

“With his first exhibition Unver makes his mark as a young painter whose paintings stand apart from the run of the mill works we have been seeing for many years,” said Ali Imam back then. Never lost for words, Unver explained his work at that time: “Each painting of mine is an expression of a certain kind of emotional experience. I dont repeat yet each painting has a dialogue that reflects the variety of life… the possibilities of life. I feel free working on large-scale canvases… there is dynamism in space, the movement is pronounced… Karachi is the source of my inspiration.”

At the Kenyon University, Unver was actually going to major in art when he got into a discussion on poetry with the chairman of the English department who advised him to major in English Literature since he was obviously well read and loved poetry so much.

At that point Unvers first semester was to do with painting, drawing and sculpture. Although he lacked the beginning courses, the chairman offered to waive the preliminaries saying: “Lets get right into it,” And he did, Unver jumped headfirst into it and had a great last year-and-a-half.

“I had my years sculpture and painting, which is only given to students majoring in art, because I had completed my foundation studies. I had my independent study of T.S. Eliot and independent study of Wallace Stevens. I literally would just read and paint and I had a great time.” The artists love of literature and art history has often been fused over the years in paintings that carried references as intriguing as those used by T.S. Eliot in his poetry.

1987 was a landmark year. Unver was offered a job with a leading advertising company in Karachi, and showed his work in Islamabad and Lahore for the first time. In an interview at this time he said: “…after ten years lll know whether 1m a painter or not.” Approximately ten years later, at the 7th National Visual Arts Exhibition held in Islamabad, Unver Shafi Khan was numbered among the National Award winners.

As far as the gainful employment was concerned within two years of the venture into advertising, Unver had climbed the ladder through copywriting to the post of Creative Director but it cost him too much in terms of time and energy. Taking a bold step motivated by his conviction and desire to paint, and with the support of his family, he became a fulltime painter.