The hidden Zahoor
By Quddus Mirza
Great artists, like good books, never get old. And it is for reasons other than their young wives or adolescent mistresses. A great work of art surprises you with its freshness every time you see it. Just like opening the same old text of classic books provides new meanings, ideas and pleasure.
Actually, a piece of art or literature is endowed with elements which unfold with every encounter; thus, it remains valid long after the period of its creation. In that sense, art has a life longer and wider than its maker, which can be experienced for years if not centuries. There are a number of images, artefacts, tales and verses which are enjoyed by the people who don’t even bother to find out who produced them.
Yet, we tend to have a particular image of a creative individual which is based upon a certain understanding of his work. That continues to gain strength with the passage of time. Often you meet people who will have a strong — and not necessarily wrong — opinion about a writer, despite the fact they haven’t read him (for example, Allama Iqbal or Salman Rushdie, though for diverse reasons). Their views are based on a general understanding of the author’s aura. Same is the case with artists and their work; Chughtai and Sadequain are good examples.
Only a great artist has the capacity to astonish the viewers even after his death — by either negating the general notions about him or adding new dimensions to his work. This was strongly felt during the exhibition of Zahoorul Akhlaq’s works at Rohtas 2, Lahore. The show, ‘In Remembrance’ comprised his paintings, drawings and prints from the collection of Salima Hashmi, Wasif Ali and Nazish Ataullah, thus providing a rare opportunity to glimpse some of his fine canvases, which are not in the public domain.
Looking at his work thirteen years after his assassination, one wonders about the relevance of the painter to the art world here. The show reminds one of how an artist travels between remembrance and forgetfulness. Zahoorul Akhlaq influenced the younger generation of artists but not many have been able to analyse his work on a deeper level. Akhlaq was known as a formalist during his lifetime but, in reality, his work moved beyond these descriptions.
He produced paintings, sculptures, prints, and designed monuments but, in all of his work, two aspects of our culture are dealt with in multiple ways. His work addresses the question of tradition and modernity in our culture, even though he was not the sole exponent of such issues. A. R. Chughtai, Allah Bux and Shakir Ali also tackled this duality in our situation, each providing an individual solution. But their works, though admired a lot in varying degrees, did not influence a considerable group of artists. Probably their versions still belonged to a past, which was glamorised and preserved (except Shakir Ali, who claimed to be a modernist painter); hence their aesthetics are seen as relics rather than tools which can be utilised to shape the present or to carve the future.
Akhlaq, in that context, played a pivotal role by inspiring a large number of artists through his work (and his presence at NCA). In fact his main concern — of how to ‘perceive and re-produce’ tradition in modern times — became relevant for generations of artists after him, with Rashid Rana as the most celebrated name.
One can draw Akhlaq’s parallel in the fiction of Intizar Hussain; Hussain appropriates old narrative and stories from the past in order to construct a literature that reflects the present. However, both in the works of Akhlaq and Hussian, the blend of tradition and modernity appears seamless and effortless (even though it must have required an immense degree of craftsmanship and imagination to do this). So in the works of the two, the past breathes into the present thus becoming relevant for the future.
At Rohtas 2, the works of Akhlaq confirm the artist’s concerns regarding exploring the past forms and converting them into a personal and (post-)modern sensibility. The presence of border, rendering of inverted space, and format of an illuminated manuscript are a few features evident in his paintings and works on paper. Borders are placed as integral part of imagery which, at places, turn readable, and is built with layers of marks and strokes. The images recognisable in his work are linked with figures from miniature paintings and are composed to accentuate flatness of the surface. The attempt to devise means for maintaining two-dimensionality of his visual matter is evident in the way the forms are arranged as letters on a piece of paper.
The flatness of surface, flow of line and the presence of manuscript format are some elements in his work that foresaw the emergence of modern miniature painting at his Alma Mater, the National College of Arts. It is usually mentioned but perhaps not fully acknowledged that Akhlaq’s work was crucial for many miniature painters to develop their imagery, technique and tactics (Shahzia Sikander, another successful international artist from Pakistan on many occasions mentioned Akhlaq’s impact on her art). But if his work is compared with majority of miniatures produced today, one is surprised to notice the extent of experimentation and avant-garde approach in Akhlaq, characteristics which seem to be absent in the works of many modern miniaturists. Particularly, a work in the present exhibition (from the collection of Wasif Ali) consists of marks of black lines in different directions, something like a pure abstract visual, yet the frame and format convey its link with the tradition of image-making from this region.
The posthumous show affirms that Akhlaq was more daring than the artists who followed him. There could be many reasons for this difference but one significant reason is that he did not classify himself into any one category, such as miniaturist, traditionalist or even modernist. He was an artist, like Behzad, Mani, Michelangelo and Mondrian; a fact hidden from various practitioners of art in our world.
Source: The News