January Issue 2015
Oscar Wilde famously said that all art is useless. Here at Newsline, we don’t quite agree. As a record of history or a harbinger of future trends and philosophies, both art and the artist are relevant to the age we live in. In times of social tyranny and political uncertainty, its practice becomes all the more necessary.
Seven young artists tell us what art means to them, as they present their most recent work made in the last one year. Each of these artists has employed a different medium to express themes that are close to their heart.
A graduate from NCA, Donia Kaiser is a miniature artist settled in Lahore.
“It may sound like a cliché, but art is primarily about exploring and expressing oneself. Its impact on society comes later on. I enjoy finding subjects that intrigue me and to place them in my imaginative landscape. I try to relate to my subjects spiritually, and explore the relation between the Divine and social beings. Sometimes, an image comes to mind and l then look for references to paint it. I like to meet my subjects before painting them or I paint people I already know.
Often, it’s not before finishing the painting that I become conscious of its meaning. Sometimes, I have to spend time with my paintings to understand them. Painting is a simple practice for me. It can be used as a gesture, a tribute, an expression of sympathy or to communicate an overwhelming emotion.
I portray nature, animals and trees in my works, as a hint of the lost innocence of humans. The painting titled ‘Cosseted,’ features my pet Siamese cat, which is pampered and loved like a baby or family member.”
Muna Siddiqui is an art critic and owner of The Craft Company.
“My creations are based on my love for Mughal miniature art and the illuminated manuscript. The intricate paisley and the controlled colour palette has always influenced my designs for The Craft Company, and encouraged a dialogue within me for representation that is accurate in its substance and expressive in content. Being a watercolourist and used to layering washes of paint, I wanted to include the complexity and detailed design that I have always been so fascinated with in my works. I work as a mosaic artist as well and am always breaking down light and shapes into particles and putting them back together to form an image. I feel that this practice has influenced my painting greatly.
My series titled Eternal Bloom is a feminine perspective of a woman’s realm in Pakistan and my odyssey of watercolour and the painted narrative. I set out to tell a story, as seen through the eyes of a woman who lives in the subcontinent. Hence, I carefully construct my colour so that it is distinctly feminine and nostalgic. The construct of flora is a language I use to translate design and movement so that each leaf is interwoven to create movement and draws the viewer into the painting. I want to create a dialogue about the eastern woman, her relationships with her world, her quandaries as seen in the warmth yet restraint of the couple’s pose. I want the viewer to feel her place in our cosmos as she acknowledges the beauty of her paradise, yet is aloof from the detail and violence of nature. There is a savage beauty in the way the bird has a mangled butterfly caught in its beak, not noticeable at first to the viewer or the world within the painting. The angels trumpeting life or death may bring a spiritual element into this eternal paradise. I also like to section the paintings, reminiscent of detailed ornate Mughal gilded frames that told their own stories. In my world, the sub-levels in my paintings visualise the subtext, so within the world created if you look closer, there is more going on if you lose yourself and imagine.”
Dua Abbas is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore.
“For me, art is intrinsically linked with storytelling. It need not be a tidy little tale that is traceable to a beginning and end, or something you can pluck, examine and hold up to the light with pincers. Stories that get lost in the dark are stories too; stories that may scuttle off a surface and go missing; stories that have miasmas as important as their clearings. Irrespective of where they come from and in what state of completeness they reach you, they leave you with a heap of symbols, anachronisms and similarities. And the female form, as familiar as it is perpetually enigmatic – for me – is the perfect performer for these tableaux. I try to depict these female figures as characters: anonymous yet universal.
In my recent work, I have been exploring the roles allotted to females in myths and folklore. It is not a very conscious exploration, and can be seen as an expression of vague disgruntlement at how trim and perfunctory these roles have become over time. The systematic truncation of feminine roles has been even more drastic in our iconoclastic culture and religion. This has made me look to the past all the more in search of settings in which to place my protagonists. Pagan and medieval Christian backdrops appeal to me, because females were still part of the iconographies of those times: they wielded mysterious powers, had vestiges of divinity and miracles were associated with them.
At the same time, there is a kind of theatricality and unintended humour in many medieval paintings that I also find suited to expressing the ennui that seems to define the lives of so many girls around me – a kind of passivity, neurosis, a pantomime that has no grandeur. Medieval art at times seems to be about affectations of grandeur, and provides me with a key for presenting the mundane ceremoniously and to find cause for celebration in acts as routine as waiting for a phone call or deliberating over whether to make a phone call or not.
This diptych was inspired by two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. The musical angels of the original panels have been replaced by groups of girls paused in acts far less sublime than making heavenly music. They are accompanied by some devices that have carried on from my previous body of work, such as the motif of the bumbling hero and the use of a secondary visual narrative to depict that. The speech scrolls – serving more as thought bubbles than revelatory documents – carry bits of original poetry that allude to the domestic apotheoses going on.”
Irfan Hasan is a miniature artist who specialises in Realism.
“Realism has stimulated and informed my art practice for over a decade now. It led me to study da Vinci’s drawings, sculpting heads in the style of Rodin and painting self-portraits with Courbet as a reference – all of which also formed the basis of my training in Indo-Persian miniature painting.
Throughout the course of art history, various artists have responded to art movements, styles and techniques preceding them, such as Francis Bacon’s study of Velázquez, Lucian Freud’s painting of Cézanne, Rembrandt’s drawings of Mughal miniature and 19th century East India Company paintings in colonial India.
This work is an extension of a series titled After, which is my homage to European classical portraiture and the practice of stylisation in Indo-Persian miniature painting through the synthesis of segments of classical figures and portraits with miniature painting. They are rendered in opaque water colour on paper with a single hair squirrel tail brush.
Here, I recreated the painting of Simon George of Quocote by Hans Holbein, as it reminded me of the classical portraiture in Mughal miniature painting. What I found really interesting was how different styles of paintings from entirely different regions share common subjects and imagery. The subject’s posture and the way he is holding a flower in his hand remind me of Shah Jahan.”
Usman Ahmed is a self-taught artist from Islamabad.
“Being an artist means creating something that makes a difference – even if it means baring your soul for others to pick at, knowing what brickbats it will engender.
Even if it means being unsure if what one creates will resonate with others, but still answering the need to express it. To have a fear of the unknown, but willing to take a chance – this is what being an artist means to me.
Being a visual artist in Pakistan means restricting oneself at times, but there are a few of us that break the boundaries and create what we truly feel. I began by making portraits of people who inspired me, then branched out into experimenting with different techniques of art and continue to experiment on my canvas almost everyday. There is always a risk involved. I don’t know if my artwork will come out the way I imagined, but that’s what art is all about: taking risks and pushing yourself, getting out of your comfort zone to create something meaningful. I make art that’s relevant to our surroundings, of things we may not often speak about but are aware of. I always add bright colours to my dark subjects so that my work doesn’t become too morbid. There is also a hint of satire in my works.
Recently, I made three paintings for a group show in Lahore with one theme in common: freedom of expression. In ‘Dreams of Freedom,’ I was inspired by Japanese manga and intricate tattoo-making styles and combined these with themes of violence and freedom. In our part of the world, we desire freedom, but somehow violence always intervenes. Yet, if you look closely, you will see there is still hope amongst the chaos. There is always hope.”
Born in Mirpurkhas, Muhammad Zeeshan is a miniaturist by training.
“We live in a time of great polarity. The political and corporate establishments worldwide are exploiting the minor differences within populations that have long lived alongside one another in peace. Humanity is embroiled in ideological and physical battles. My work deals with the similarities that are more apparent and less important than the perceived differences. Honouring historical and metaphysical figures from Hinduism, mysticism and Islam, my images celebrate the subcontinent’s cultural diversity. An important part of this diversity of conversation belongs to the historical imagery of the battle of Karbala, where sacrifices of not just martyrs, but of the horse ‘Zuljinah’ are commemorated and eulogised every year by Shias, Sunnis and Hindus. Zuljinah represents loyalty, bravery, righteousness and the fight for justice until the end. During the creation of the Zuljinah series, I deviate towards reciting nohas. I find myself getting so involved in the history and practice of the tradition observed that I subconsciously follow the rituals of Muharram during the making of the paintings.
The imagery of my latest Safarnama, Posternama and One for the Birds series is directly borrowed from posters found locally. These prints illustrate stories and traditions, which are orally narrated and passed down through various historical documents. Our local artists have depicted images with their colours and landscapes, according to their region and culture. Interestingly, the imagery of Zuljinah remains the same, but the ornamentations reveal the artist’s locality. These posters allow us to look into the commonality of the stories: our shared values of social order, accountability and justice serve to diminish the rhetoric of manufactured differences.
Whether using grainy sandpaper as the primary surface for my art, or executing the pieces with a laser-cutting machine, notions and assumptions about miniature paintings are also diminished. Seeing a miniature with rough and coarse textures, or realising that the seemingly delicately rendered drawing is actually the result of an industrial machine being controlled with engineered precision so as to not cut the surface, we realise how confined we become by our thinking, shackled by the formulations of our minds and society.”
Adeel uz Zafar is an artist, illustrator and art educationist.
“Art plays a significant role in my life. When I was younger, I had no clue about the impact and myriad changes that ‘art’ can bring to one’s mindset, as no one ever really took the time to explain to me why we should appreciate art. Going to an art college completely transformed my vision and I started to think outside the box. After graduating, I involved myself in projects that marked my early identification as an illustrator. While working on my illustration assignments, I had the chance to live in the relatively remote and isolated northern areas of Pakistan. It was here that I began producing etched images using a cutter, due to the unavailability of the conventional mediums.
My surface of choice is plastic vinyl, which I scrape using sharp tools to create extreme linear detail. The method has sort of become my signature now as I continue to produce work in it, slowly developing and evolving my subject matter, imagery and colour palette. Employing the scratch method to build my trajectory, I literally work from the inside out on a thick vinyl base, which lends itself well to grazing, scraping and scoring lines. My drawing support, the reverse side of full-scale vinyl sheets, were roller-painted pitch black on which my image was etched out line by grey line. Since the medium of my work is so sensitive, every mark is permanent. So if the mark goes off a bit, there’s nothing one can do about it.
‘Ogre’ is from a series of seminal anthropomorphic characters known around the world for their incredible feats and heroic actions. In visual art, ogres are often depicted as inhumanly large and tall and having a disproportionately large head, abundant hair, unusually coloured skin and a voracious appetite. The idea of the ogre can also be seen more broadly in literature. The seducer who devours his or her victims in a sexual sense is a kind of ogre, as is a political tyrant or dictator who controls and exploits others and, in a sense, swallows them up. For me, this variation in its perception has a very clear parallel in today’s world. The imagined content is not necessarily based on facts, but it contemplates and interrogates society, politics, philosophy and life. I believe that the life of this fictional character has similarities connecting it with the age we live in and that is why it is close to my heart.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.