Between life and art
One of the key differences between writers and visual artists lies in how their creations are received by the audience. No matter how prolific an author, it is possible for the readers to have read all his work. This is not possible in the case of a visual artist; mainly because the works of art are displayed in galleries and museums, and it is not convenient for ordinary art enthusiasts to see all the works of an artist. This is not entirely impossible if they have the means and the time to view everything in original.
Apart from accessibility, in most cases, the public gets to know an author because of his/her debut work of fiction that makes waves like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid and so on. In comparison, artists are seldom remembered for their first painting or sculpture or even their first exhibition.
In that sense, when an artist is studied or valued, usually the earlier works are not considered. In many cases, these works are just academic exercises or modified versions of other people’s work. In most cases it is after some time that an artist’s individual voice and independent expression is formed and he is recognised for that. So a monograph of an artist’s life and work is important but, unlike the oeuvre of a writer, several of these works are included and studied for the sake of documenting history.
A monograph not only presents the past of an artist, it makes history as well, since it connects the life of an artist with his creation. A fine example of this phenomenon is seen in a recent book on Ajmal Husain, written by the painter’s niece Afsheen Ahmed. Published by Nigah Magazine, the monograph The Life and Art of Ajmal Husain: The Painter of the East, includes the photographs of works of artist, a detailed essay on the life of the painter supported with the rare pictures of his family, friends, exhibitions etc.
The book offers a comprehensive view of the painter who somehow was a part of the Pakistani art world but did not enjoy the attention that mainstream artists do. His early inclusion to the Art in Pakistan by Jalal Uddin Ahmed (the first book on Pakistani art) was sufficient enough to consider him as one of the important painters of the country but, in later years, his presence was not widely noticed because he lived in France and did not exhibit frequently in his home country. But the book establishes his place in this surrounding, even though his work is not seen here often nor is it a part of major collections.
The Life and Art of Ajmal Husain is important for many reasons. More than helping to remind a forgotten name, it provides a personal view of the history of this country — the painter was born in 1926 in Dhaka, moved to Calcutta for his education, later shifted to Delhi and then migrated to Karachi after the partition.
Ajmal Husain belonged to a family of “scholars and Lawyers. His father, Mir Altaf Husain, was a Professor of English in the Education Services of the Government of Bengal”. So the biography is not just a depiction of his creative pursuits, it presents the situation of the subcontinent during those turbulent times. Besides being a painter, Husain was associated with the political movements mainly through his family, and narrates his first meeting with Quaid-e-Azam. “Soon the meeting was over. Mr. Jinnah walked up to Ajmal, put a hand on his shoulder and led him to a small painted map hanging on the wall. Pointing to the map in his emphatic husky voice he said, ‘Young man very soon this will be our new homeland of Pakistan’ ”. The book continues with the episode of his Pakistani flag hoisting on the India Gate in New Delhi in undivided India.
It also provides a strange but not unexpected encounter of Ajmal Husain with Sikh rioters, and how he was saved by the British soldiers. Thus, the book becomes a significant document in understanding the mindset that demanded a separate homeland.
Ajmal Husain moved to Pakistan and showed at Karachi, mainly with Ali Imam at his Indus Gallery. But the last exhibition of his work in his homeland was at the “Goethe Institute Gallery in 2010. Ironic, since Ajmal’s first debut solo exhibition was in Bonn, Germany in 1952”. And then “Life goes on. Two of Ajmal’s paintings were displayed at the prestigious Salon of the ‘Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris in January 2012 at the Cite Internationale Des Arts. In their catalogue, on a full page tribute to Ajmal, it said ‘That he is a great Pakistani modern painter. He continues to paint even at the age of 87 without stop to overcome his sadness to see anarchism and barbarism that prevails in his country’.
The French art centre aptly described Ajmal Husain being a modern painter, because, in the works collected in the book, one realises his modernistic approach even though the artist tried a number of genres and styles. Due to his association with Zainul Abedin, one can see an influence of the celebrated Bengali painter in the works (from the early 1950s) of Husain. During the 1960s, the work moved into the aesthetics of abstraction.
During his long career, Ajmal Husain has been fascinated by a number of art movements, most prominently the Surrealism. His adaptation of Surrealism appears more like a formal trick, because it is not possible that a painter decides that he is choosing a movement, without being part of conceptual or formal concerns. Like other entities, such as inventions, technology, and societal practices (including democracy and human rights) we have borrowed the ideas but do not manage to apply these in our circumstances.
So like democracy and freedom of speech in our lives, Modernism and Surrealism are also treated as pastiche in the art of Ajmal Husain; thus it does not surprise anyone to leaf through the monograph and realise how the artist has been selecting one way of working or the other (not different to a man who has to decide what to wear before going to his office in the morning). Hence, in his work one finds links between varied Western movements, all explored on superficial levels, which can be considered both a lack of deep understanding on art or a great advantage (like Picasso’s who also appears in one of Husain’s work) at the same time. Depending on which side of the fence you stand!