January issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

It was 18 years or so back when I saw an exhibition of Bilal Maqsood’s paintings at the PACC. He was then a student at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture. There was enough talent, combined with the energy of youth, for him to become a significant painter of the country. Instead, he chose to pursue a career in music and is now internationally known as a member of Strings, of which he is the lead guitarist and singer. I do not listen to pop music much but Strings is one of the groups I admire for their style, mood and meaning. That is only to say, I am not so old that I cannot follow the young musicians with their sensibilities and robust self-confidence. Now that one has said a few words about Bilal’s musical power, one is faced with his intervention in the visual arts, particularly old-fashioned painting, with its humble tools like the brush, the palette knife and, in time to come, even his fingers. He told me that like a potter he likes to muck around with paints.

This is a salutary breakthrough of a well known artist at a time when, but for a few painters, art students have forgotten how to paint. In the age of conceptual art and installations, we have left aesthetics behind and entered the phase of sociology and economics in art, which are art in name only. I will suffice with a quotation from my guru Robert Hughes: “One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture. It’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse, you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs.” What goes on in the name of arts is merchandising and speculation on investment, and the egregious Satchi, the advertiser, is its new Medici prince or medieval Pope.

Bilal paints in more than one style, so forceful is his urge to muck around with paint, but I shall comment mostly on his crow paintings. He paints them because he likes them. They are not menacing like the swarm of crows Van Gogh painted flying over a field, before he shot himself. Bilal’s subjects are friendly pests that live on strictly their own terms.
To illustrate the effect of Bilal’s paintings, I will tell a story.

I know someone who detests crows. She is sick of them because they dirty her small garden pond, dirty the garden chairs and make a mess of her lawn by dropping bones and even half-eaten rats and lizards here and there. She was the last person to have responded with anything but horror to Bilal’s paintings of three crows. But after some reflection, and leaving her world momentarily, she entered the world of the painting and liked it. What made her respond so positively, despite her dislike of the subject? She spoke of the boldness of the division of canvas, between a vast, choppy white plane and its golden yellow section. Above all, she was captivated by the painting, resulting in what she admitted was a new interest in the everyday nuisance that is a bird. She confessed that she then became aware of the birds as beings worthy of a new understanding and admiration. This used to be the magic of art once: it created its own charisma. It first happened when the cave man painted his bull more than 50,000 years ago and came to understand better the life and power of his subject. In whatever language he spoke, it was magic, which allowed him to be taken in by human skill.

In Muslim art, which Europeans ignorantly call illustration, the skill of making lines, planes and colours is the repertoire of illusion of a new kind of reality called illumination. This light came from, in the words of Orhan Pamuk, “all great masters” in their works seeking a “profound void within colour” and “a space, outside time.” You have colours to play around with, whether you do it like a Van Gogh or find a way to channel the madness of this great artist into a horizon of sanity, in the words of Nasr, inbesat — deep pleasure which fills the mind and heart with the light of a new awareness. It appears as if we have entered the secret of creation itself. This ought to be Bilal’s goal. He should be congratulated for making a surprising start in a direction which knows no end, unless it is to play Schopenhaeur’s silent music of the spheres.

Supposing, Bilal had killed three crows, taken them to a taxidermist and then mounted them on the canvas in the mode of Rauschenburg, he would have created a contemporary, avant-garde work of art. But would he have achieved the void of colour and timelessness? The crows would have collected dust and cobwebs. Bilal’s crows, by not claiming any other kind of reality but that of the illusion typical of painting, do not claim to be real in any other way but in that of imaginative recall. It is an invitation to the 50,000-year-old man/woman in us: see and comment on the skill of recall, which is our spiritual heritage. To quote from Pamuk again: “God must’ve wanted the art of illumination to be ecstasy, so He could demonstrate how the world itself is ecstasy to those who truly see.” The crows you see in Bilal’s painting evoke pleasure, if not ecstasy, because we see them in an entirely different way from that in which we see them every morning while feeding them milk and bread. These are crows that Bilal has painted with his hand. And those who use their voice and hand to please us are blessed.

Bilal showed me a number of other paintings, each capable in itself of stylistic innovation, like ‘The Cat’ and even the presumably Rajasthani woman with which Sadequain began his painting career and which Bashir Mirza made his own signature tune. They fell, however, in the trap of illustration, in so far as dress and colours were concerned. The Rajasthani woman is not a poster picture, but as enigmatic as any subject of traditional art, and needs to be worked at diligently to create an illusion and thereby inbesat. I wish Bilal luck and am confident that just as his musical ensemble has its own style, mood and meaning, his paintings will add to his name and fame as a musician with equally worthwhile values in other fields. Not only this, but Bilal should be able to run his music into painting and vice versa. If some say it is unreasonable to wish it, since when has art been reasonable?