February Issue 2019
Art Review: The Silence of Being
So much about contemporary art invites conversation – the ambiguity, the textual interplay, the use of multimedia – all entreat viewers to discuss and dispute. R M Naeem’s work, on the contrary, encourages the silence of meditative observation. His expansive canvases luxuriate in the details of the human figure, the patterned surface and the breathability of space.
At his recent show at Sanat Gallery, Naeem presented 15 acrylic-on-canvas paintings under the title Revisit. The show was curated by the artist Muhammad Zeeshan, who was once a student of R M Naeem’s and is currently the curator of the forthcoming Karachi Biennale.
A wall plaque displays the many linguistic associations that are linked to the title word. Among these is a reference to the first known use of the word which dates back to the fifteenth century. This era marked the development of the Renaissance in Europe. Artists explored the aesthetic ideals of Classical Greece and Rome and introduced naturalism into their depiction of the human figure. Linear perspective, lighting and a meticulous observation of the human anatomy characterised their work. These principles are also to be seen in Naeem’s work, even though the ethos of his expression is a modernist one.
Naeem is a superb draughtsman of the human figure and he has not felt the need to deviate from his forte. The severed Buddha-like heads, which have figured in his repertoire in previous series, have been set aside. In Revisit, he has concentrated mostly on the full-length figure which he renders in meticulous detail. There are lithe young women with slender outlines in contrast to the fuller maternal form of a woman holding a baby in ‘Absence.’
His portraits are infused with profound humanism. The figures, whether clothed or nude, are unselfconscious. Their heads are tilted downwards as if in deep reverie, basking in inner contemplation.
The direct gaze makes a rare exception in the painting titled, ‘Even if you deny me I am there,’ in which a seated and apparently abaya-clad young woman stares boldly at the onlooker.
Naeem prefers to infuse his characterisations with indeterminate mystery, created by space and subtle symbolism. His use of symbols such as the doll-like cherubs and signposts has enhanced in subtlety in the Revisit series. His figures are posed against space. They seem to float on the surface of the picture plane which accommodates them generously without conceding the illusion of great depth. Another recurring element in Naeem’s work is the geometrical shape or striped line. The human figures share space with orthogonal forms, cubes and the recurring red-and-white striped line.
The curvature of the human body and the angularity of geometrical forms invite consideration into the formal structure of how body and mass interact with space to convey monumentality or volume on the flat surface of the canvas. This is a highly architectural construct and is another echo of the Renaissance interest in mapping human body proportions against a geometrical template.
Naeem does not offer a narrative in his paintings; rather, his formal arrangements of human and geometrical elements seem to suggest a metaphysical orientation. Time and space seem neutral to the specific nature of individual personality or history. In paintings such as ‘Emancipation ’and ‘In the presence of,’ the modern attire conveys the contemporariness of the setting, but in paintings such as ‘Unwrapped’ in which the figure wears a gown or ‘Metamorphosis’ where the figure is nude, there is a mood of time having been transcended.
Yet another element in Naeem’s paintings is the landscape. It depicts gentle triangular hills with the coastline deeply cut into by still water. A sinuous S-line is formed by the meeting of water and land. The view is presented from the aerial perspective. It never intrudes into the human imagery. Unobtrusive and silent even, it contributes another layer of metaphysical reality.
Such enigmatic and metaphysical elements are exemplified in the painting titled ‘Within, Without.’ The kneeling young woman with head bent and eyes shut is a world unto herself. She is contained within a translucent cube. The calm landscape occupies the upper third of the painting. A signpost/moon/balloon-like object is tethered to the cube.
The American writer Paul Goodman wrote on the many types of silence, among which he highlighted “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, from whence emerge new thoughts.” This is the silence that Naeem’s paintings encourage from whence questions may be contemplated: What is form? What is space? What is thought? The abstraction of silence serves as a shrine to the humanism of Naeem’s art in which classical elements coexist comfortably with modernism.