January issue 2014

By | Art | People | Profile | Published 7 years ago

It was purely by coincidence that I came across the work of contemporary artist, Muhammad Zeeshan. A ‘like’ by a Facebook friend on Delhi’s Latitude Twentyeight gallery’s page, featuring Zeeshan’s exhibition titled Posternama — a collection of paintings that merge folk imagery with a pop-art aesthetic — immediately piqued my curiosity. The works depicted were captivating, both familiar and unique at the same time, and I had to know more about the artist himself.

I met Zeeshan at his apartment in Clifton, close to the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. It turns out that his life is as interesting as his works. Born to a working class family in Mirpukhas, the artist studied at Lahore’s National College of Arts on a scholarship (“At NCA, my family didn’t have to pay a single penny; they wouldn’t be able to afford it, in any case.”), before proceeding to the United States for further studies.

Zeeshan elaborates, “In small towns, one has to select a profession at an early age. I was painting at home, but my father wanted me to go into electronics, since painting was frowned upon as a profession. He wasn’t successful in persuading me, and at the age of ten, I was assigned my first job which was, to sum it up, censoring the cleavages of actresses on cinema posters. The first lesson Mirza Irshad Beg, my ustad, taught me was ‘Linain lagani hain chuphane ke liye, laikin dehain se; sab chup na jaye.’ There’s an element of this technique that I still use in my artworks today.”

Confessing to be awara in his youth, Zeeshan would constantly get into trouble for indulging in dog-fights, or for painting at the theatre which would sometimes play x-rated films. He says, “There would be raids, and the police would pick up everyone in and around the movie theatre. My family would have to bail me out, sometimes as late as 4 am, from prison.” To ‘tame’ the rebel in him, Zeeshan’s elder brother locked him inside a room for eight months. “I hated him for it initially. It was a strange time; I was always outside of the house, and now I was locked up inside this one, dimly-lit room. However, I’m grateful to him now, as it was in this period of seclusion that I really honed my skills as an artist,” says Zeeshan.

His brother, who worked at a textile mill, would bring rolls for him to paint on, and over the course of the eight months, Zeeshan painted over 700 rolls — mostly in the style of Iqbal Mehdi. One day, one of Mehdi’s students, Jawad Imdad, who was also a friend of Zeeshan’s brother, came upon his work and encouraged his brother to put him in an art school. “This was when my brother realised that I had a gift and he started taking me to various art galleries within his reach. I always did art for my own pleasure, but because I didn’t have the exposure, I never thought of taking it up as a profession at that time.”

Recounting his journey as an artist, Zeeshan says, “My initial training taught me to meet deadlines. In the ’90s, especially during election time — and there were a lot of elections at that time — we used to paint countless banners. Other principles [I learnt] like how to utilise a surface, the right use of colours… those remain with me to this day.”

I asked him whether going from a small town in Sindh to a foreign country was a culture shock for him, but Zeeshan reveals that the bigger culture shock he faced was within his own country: “In NCA, for the first time in my life, I saw girls in jeans casually interacting with boys and smoking in public. I remember the first time I attended a drawing class, there was a girl in jeans who sat next to me. I couldn’t concentrate on my drawing and had to leave the room! But, gradually, I became used to it.”

A teacher of miniature art, Zeeshan critiques how this genre is taught in universities. “From my own works, one of my favourite series is Dying Miniatue, which is an institutional critique of how miniature painting is taught here. I question whether we are actually learning the traditional discipline or — given the contemporary mediums and tools we use — simply copying a traditional image?”

Most of his work touches upon socio-political themes in a subtle manner through the use of borrowed imagery. “For example, I may take a painting of a beheaded John the Baptist, but I’ll reinterpret it my own way. So the collection makes a statement, but those statements were already made by someone else in the past; I simply regurgitate them.”

From the ‘old masters,’ his favourite is Sadequain. “I’m inspired by, not just his work, but the sheer volume of it.  Wherever you go, you’ll see that Sadequain has left his mark; it’s as if his own body was a walking-talking studio. From the contemporary artists, my teacher Imran Qureshi is also a favourite.”

This profile was originally published in Newsline’s January 2014 issue under the headline, “Poster Boy.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.