Pakistani masters have stunned their audiences by precisely portraying the intricacies and essence of our cultural heritage through their keen observation and artistic expression. Painting and sculpting are about 5,000 years old in the subcontinent and still forms a major portion of this region’s image and identity. Much of the credit needs to be given to Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Jamil Naqsh, Meher Afroz, Hajra Mansur, Masur Rahi, and Iqbal Hussain, who have spent decades developing their distinctive style to define symbols, figures, and landscapes that now personify Pakistan. This article seeks to explore the manner in which they connect with Pakistani people to make their art feel like home.
Sadequain was a prolific artist. He found peace in being an observer to the toil of life and expressing people’s truths. The artist, in every Karachite art lover's mind, was born in the 1930s and moved to Karachi following the partition. In the deserts of Sindh, he found inspiration in the Cacti. It is apparent that he is present in his artworks with his oversized hands and skewed smile. He is considered one of Pakistan’s most gifted painters and a comprehensive book - ‘The Holy Sinner’ was written to document his numerous artworks. Recently, a second edition has also been published, hence the great demand for the first edition. It is a beautifully presented book and a must-have for Sadequain lovers.
From 1954-1987 Sadequain’s murals were plastered across the Mohatta Palace and according to Nasreen Askari these pieces were the “closest to his [Sadequain’s] heart.” This exhibition dazzled collectors since the breadth of Sadequain’s non-calligraphic flair was seen here too. Featured in this exhibition was an entire spectrum of human geniuses from science, music, mathematics, and countless other areas. Sadequain’s monumental masterpiece was named ‘Treasure of Time’ and it adorned the walls of the State Bank of Pakistan in Karachi for over 40 years.
Traditionally, Pakistani art was inspired by geometric Islamic designs. Ismail Gulgee brings a modern twist to this with his vibrant colour choices and bold brush strokes to depict some of the most meaningful messages in the Quran dramatically. Action painting with a broad, paint-loaded brush stroke is Gulgee’s signature. In a world-renowned book called Image and Identity, Akbar Naqvi cited Guglee’s action painting style for proving Newton’s law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Gulgee felt that the best works are a balance of movement and orientation. With various harmonic colours, Ismail Guglee was able to create incredible exhibits that are sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Hajra Mansur & Mansur Rahi
Mansur Rahi and Hajra Mansur are both highly sought-after artists who settled in Karachi in the ‘60s after completing their formal education. After their marriage, Rahi began to paint his ‘Queens’ series. The series mainly consisted of cubist-style women wearing elegant crowns and all displaying a stark resemblance to his muse, Hajra Mansur. The couple is concerned about art education in the country and takes the subject very seriously. With the help of Mansur Rahi, the Zuberi sisters established the Karachi School of Art, which was the first art school in Karachi.
Mansur Rahi is a cubist legend in Pakistan, whose major influence and teachings of abstract painting techniques have inspired more artists than any other art teacher. He paints geometric forms of, predominantly, the human figure. Rahi’s paintings and drawings are considered abstract, however, the visual imagery remains representational of his intense ideas and feelings. He is noted for his emphasis on form more than tones which underline that, to him, the compositional structure of his work is foremost.
On the other hand, Hajra Mansur’s themes include Moghul miniature art and romances of the golden age of Pakistan, which have delighted her audience in Pakistan and Worldwide. She takes inspiration from the South-Asian beauty ideals in women and exaggerates them. Elongated eyes, vibrant skin, and articulate hand gestures, at times carrying birds like pigeons and peacocks, are a sign of Hajra Mansur. Another one of her inspirations is Abdur Rahman Chughtai, who was a highly skilled painter artist from Lahore, Pakistan. Chughtai created a distinctive painting style that was derived from and influenced by Mughal art.
Meher Afroz migrated to Karachi in the early 70s after completing her education at the Government College of Art in Lucknow. Her work has been a critique of our societal values, especially in her ‘your mask and puppet’ series she explores the idea of people having layers which they choose to show some and not others. In an interview with Amra Ali, a writer for Dawn, she explains that she saw potential in referring to cultural objects to symbolize regional identity. These symbols included masks, puppets, or amulets.
Another Pakistani artist who depicts the realities of Pakistan is Iqbal Hussain. He is famous for his controversial choice of women as his muses. Hussain is amongst the few artists who portray social taboos and his work offers insight into stark realities from a deeply personal perspective. His favourite haunt was ‘Cucoo’s Den’ where he could often be found painting the shifting colours of the Badshahi mosque through the seasons.
The art scene in Pakistan has a great deal to offer with brilliant artists all around. The artists mentioned above are amongst some of the noteworthy ones, but this is not where the list ends. There are countless others that work persistently to document their experiences through artistic expression. These artworks have the ability to transcend time and space and are a source of national pride. They carry with them legends, folklore, myths, and our rich heritage as they continue to adorn walls that extend from East to West and beyond.
By Vanya Naqvi of the LOTP Team
- The Sadequain Foundation
- Clifton Art Gallery
- Vasl Artists' Association
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