New York: It’s been a quiet month in the New York art world. With half the community decamping to Art Basel and the rest distracted by the blessed warm weather (we had a tough winter here!); interesting shows have been relatively thin on the ground. Not for South Asian art, thankfully. AICON Gallery is showing a mini retrospective of the Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain (1930-1987) and I was excited to see it not only for the quality of art but also the rarity of having access to such a body of work.
Occupying the entire expansive space of AICON’s Lower East Side gallery, this exhibit shows the gamut of Sadequain’s oeuvre. One of Pakistan’s most celebrated modernist artists, Sadequain was born in 1930 in Amroha, east of Delhi, in a family of calligraphers. He subsequently moved to Pakistan after his graduation from Agra University in 1948. He shot to fame at the young age of 31, when his work won recognition at the 1961 Paris Biennale.
A self-taught artist, he is most commonly identified with the development of a uniquely idiomatic calligraphic aesthetic. However, his visual language is in fact one of the most variegated and complex of the South Asian modernists working post 1947. He simultaneously worked through a variety of calligraphic, narrative, abstract registers, with artistic influences that ranged from multiple mediums; poetry, Western and South Asian historical artistic traditions. His compatriot, collaborator and famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz stated about his work, “In spite of his considerable pre-occupation with the solution of technical formal problems, Sadequain has never been purely a formal painter. Recordist, abstractionist, social critic, emotional visionary, within a few short years, Sadequain has sped from one role or compulsion to another with equal impetuosity.”
Three Standing Figures, 1966, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York
Sadequain’s engagement with language was seminal to his work and this is visible in this exhibition. Comprising twenty seven paintings and three drawings, the show is dominated by a collection of paintings from the 1960s, when Sadequain lived and worked in Paris. Titled The Lost Exhibition, this set of eight paintings are dancing figures of calligraphy; lyrical despite their scale. These works are considered examples of what the artist called “Calligraphic Cubism”. Employing the scratched surface technique on the background, the texture produces volume and three- dimensionality. Seemingly caught in action, the elongated movement of the script along the vertical axis make these works appear monumental in viewing. Sadequain described himself as a figurative painter and the dramatic execution of the Arabic Kufic script in these works, the ensuing conversations that are taking place on the canvas, did bring home that idea to me. These are the strongest works in the exhibit and definitely worth a dekko.
Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery
Some of Sadequain’s formally figurative works are also part of this exhibition and these underline the remarkable range of his visual vernacular. Line, form, perspective – I was hard won to find a singly unifying element among these paintings. One of the more striking of these was Man With Dagger, showing a man holding a dagger in one hand and a head that resembles his own in the other, accompanied by a smaller figure of a woman holding a leaf. These muscular renderings, so different from The Lost Exhibition, are echoed in another set of calligraphic paintings in the exhibition, Untitled (Abstract Formation I and II). Interestingly, the image of a severed head is repeated in one of the works on paper, Untitled, Headless Self-Portrait. It clearly shows the headless artist in a studio, with a work of calligraphy in the background.
Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York
Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York
In 1962, an edition of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro rightly noted, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.” He shifted the paradigms of calligraphy, especially in his realization of its abstracted and stylized forms. This post cannot effectively capture the entire spectrum of his languages and so I would strongly recommend a trip down to the gallery to see them yourself if you’re in New York.
You can learn more about Sadequain at the Sadequain Foundation website (co sponsor of this exhibition) and from this article by art historian Iftikhar Dadi.
New Delhi: From March 20-25, 2013, the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University will be hosting a series of public lectures by well-known US based artist, curator and academic, Prof. Iftikhar Dadi. This lecture series is part of the School’s Distinguished Visiting Professor programme supported by the Getty Foundation. Dadi is an associate professor in Cornell’s Department of History of Art, and is chair of the Department of Art. He received his Ph.D. in history of art from Cornell. He is also artist and art historian broadly interested in the relation between art practice in the contexts of modernity, globalization, urbanization, mediatization, and postcolonialism. He has many scholarly works to his credit, the most recent being, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia, a book tracing the emergence of the modern and contemporary art of Muslim South Asia in relation to the region’s intellectual, cultural, and political history. Read more here.
Interest in Pakistani Art is on the rise, and this lecture series is a stellar opportunity to learn more about the genre as Prof. Dadi is indeed an authority on the subject. Here is a schedule for the talks and a brief extract for ease of reference:
MODERNISM IN MUSLIM SOUTH ASIA: ART IN PAKISTAN five lectures by Iftikhar Dadi
Venue: School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU
Modernism in South Asian Muslim Art 20/3/2013, 4:30 pm
On historical and methodological parameters for modern art associated with “Pakistan” and the emergence of artistic subjectivity with reference to the frameworks of nationalism, modernism, and tradition.
Chughtai: Mughal Aesthetic in the Age of Print 21/3/2013, 4:30 pm : On the works and writings of Chughtai and his critics, and Chughtai’s nostalgia for an earlier Islamicate and Persianate cosmopolitanism that deemphasizes identification with modern nationalism.
Three Mid-century Modernists 22/3/2013, 4:30 pm
On three pioneering modernists in Pakistan, Zainul Abedin, Zubeida Agha, and Shakir Ali, who are foundational in shaping a fully modernist artistic subjectivity for themselves, and by their institutional labor, for subsequent artists.
Sadequain and Calligraphy 23/3/2013 4:30 pm
This talk explores the career of Sadequain, whose later work relays tropes of subjectivity in Urdu poetry into the visual. It traces his reformulation of calligraphy as a visual “tradition” open to the modern, in parallel with calligraphic abstraction by West Asian and North African artists.
Ethnicity in Urdu Cinema 25/3/2013, 4:30 pm
On the question of ethnicity in Pakistani Urdu cinema across 1971, by comparative analysis of the social film Arman (1966), and the comedy Anari (1975).
Guest blogger, Ali Adil Khan reflects on geniuses of Pakistani modern and contemporary art
Toronto: Over the last few years, I have often pondered on who could be considered young geniuses amongst the modern and contemporary artists of Pakistan. I have thought long and hard, and researched and discussed my reasoning with fellow art critics and collectors.
Finally, I have settled on a list. My assessment is in no way conclusive and the list is not meant to be exclusive. The result is simply my conclusion based on my definition of a genius in art practice as “someone who invents a new way of looking at or creating art, one who is ahead of their time, creates a following and movement, and is admired by fellow artists, locally and internationally.”
As geniuses are revealed at a young age, among important artists there are young geniuses who tend to be conceptual thinkers and often create iconic individual works. Then there are old masters who make equally important contributions to art forms and movements and produce their greatest work when they are older. Think of Picasso as a young genius and Cezanne as an old master. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he painted at 26, appears in more than 90 percent of art history textbooks published in the past 30 years. Similarly, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” which he finished at 27, appears in more than 70 percent. For old masters, on the other hand, discoveries evolve over years instead of exploding onto the scene in a single masterpiece. Thus no single painting by Cézanne or his friend Claude Monet appears in even half of art history textbooks. Yet no one would question their place among the greats.
Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Zainul Abedin, Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander and Hamra Abbas proved their geniuses at a young age. Shakir Ali, Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and Colin David are old masters. The differences between these artists’ creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations – think of Picasso’s cubism – and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error.
Even before Pakistan came into existence, Chughtai had already proven his mantel and established himself internationally as the pre-eminent artist of the subcontinent.
Below is my list of the young geniuses of modern art in the history of Pakistan.
Chughtai (1897-1975) fused miniature paintings from India with a Persian style of painting, and romanticised it to invent a personal style that was later known as Chughtai art or the Lahore School of Painting. As they say, “It takes a diamond to recognise a diamond,” and Dr Mohammad Iqbal acknowledged Chughtai’s genius in the foreword he wrote for the Muraqqa-e-Chughtai, a compilation of Chughtai’s drawings and paintings on Dewan-e-Ghalib in 1928. Iqbal wrote: “He [Chughtai] is only twenty-nine yet. What his art will become when he reaches the mature age of forty, the future alone will disclose. Meanwhile all those who are interested in his work will keenly watch his forward movement.”
Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) played a pioneering role in the modern art movement of Pakistan. Although now legitimately claimed by Bangladesh as Shilpacharya, or father of modern art, Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the first art institute in Dhaka and charting a trajectory for a future generation of artists. His dedication and contribution in establishing and nurturing the art institute and the Dhaka Artists Group is of major importance. His genius as an artist was revealed through his drawings of the 1943 famine in Bengal when he sketched over 2,000 drawings using the barest economy of line with Indian ink and brush on ordinary pieces of brown wrapping paper. His images were so powerful and moving that even if seen today, as I did recently at the National Museum of Bangladesh, they remind us of his extraordinary ability to generate an enormous emotional response.
Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi Untitled (Acrobats) Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)
Sadequain (1930-1987) undoubtedly is the greatest contemporary artist that South Asia has produced. His genius was exposed early on in his career when he was declared Laureate Biennale de Paris when he participated in the 1961 Paris Biennale at the age of 31. Sadequain is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of calligraphy in South Asia and the Middle East. He was able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time and was able to evolve a unique art form based on the cactus and the Urdu letter alif. Dr Akbar Naqvi writes in his book Image and Identity, “In November 1968, which was Ramadan, his calligraphy of Quranic verses was exhibited in a celebrated exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council. For the first time art touched the underprivileged people of the city, who came in droves to see the exhibition and made Sadequain an Awami [national] painter overnight. Art had broken the class barrier and bridged Lalu Khet with KDA Scheme-1.” Naqvi further says, “As early as 1961, he [Sadequain] invented the style, either in Paris or in Karachi, which was a distinguished contribution to Cubism. Sadequain’s style was, if we must have a name, Calligraphic Cubism.” Furthermore, Sadequain’s phenomenal murals in Pakistan, India and parts of Europe defy Michelangelo. While Sadequain’s figurative work had strong social commentary and criticisms, his paintings also looked into the future.
Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Farman Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)
Gulgee (1926-2007) invented abstract calligraphy based on action painting popularised by Jackson Pollock in the USA in the 1950s. Gulgee was completely self-taught and began painting while studying engineering at Columbia and Harvard Universities in the US. Early on in his artistic career, he focused on portraiture and excelled in it. He was commissioned to paint the portrait of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1959), Prince Karim Aga Khan (1961), Zhou Enlai (1964), Queen Farah Diba of Iran (1965) and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan (1968). He then turned to making portraits from marble mosaic and semi-precious stones, a technique that he developed in Kabul using Lapis Lazuli. In the late 60s and early 70s, he reinvented himself by working in abstract styles using broad brush and bold colours and incorporating local materials such as coloured beads, small pieces of mirrors, and gold and silver leaf. During this period, Gulgee produced some of the most spectacular works of modern art ever seen in Pakistan. In the late 70s and early 80s, Gulgee started experimenting again, this time combining action painting with calligraphy. By this time, he had already mastered all major styles of calligraphy, and completely modernized it to invent a distinct and unique style, never seen before in and outside of Pakistan. He was very prolific in the 90s and until his tragic death in 2007. He leaves behind a large body of paintings and sculptures for future generations to decipher.
Lot 33: Rashid Rana, Ommatidia II (Salman Khan), 2004 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)
Rashid Rana (b. 1968) is one of the most sought after contemporary artist from South Asia. His recent exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris and major collections at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi are a testament to his genius. His creations in C-print + DIASEC, such as the “Red Carpet” exhibited at the Asia Society in 2009 and “Desperately Seeking Paradise” first exhibited at Art Dubai in 2008 are masterpieces that have no equal.
Lot 30 – Shazia Sikander, Let It Ride # 3, 1987 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)
Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) at age 36 was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship (also generally referred to as the genius award) which provides unrestricted use of US$500,000 to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Shahzia was the first to breakaway from the miniature tradition, and has been instrumental in the rediscovery, re-infusion, and re-contextualisation of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which has helped establish an art form that is now known and recognised as contemporary miniature, or neo-miniature. She has now entered the mainstream of contemporary art internationally and is a recognised superstar.
Hamra Abbas (b. 1976) left a lasting impression on me when I first saw her sculptures titled “Lessons on Love,” a set of life-size works based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra, and in particular, one that showed a man and a woman seated facing each other on a Howdah (an elephant or horse back mount), embraced in love and engaged in a hunting scene. This brilliant composition and a transformation of miniature into a life-size sculpture captured my attention, as I fully comprehended Hamra’s creative expression of a paradoxical relationship between sex and violence. Last year when I saw her masterpiece titled ‘Buraq’ at the “Hanging Fire” exhibition in New York, it further confirmed Hamra’s exceptional talent and genius. Hamra’s versatile practice straddles a wide range of media, as she questions widely accepted traditions and uses culturally loaded imagery and iconography in creating new platforms from which to view notions of culture, tradition and exchange. Hamra’s research on madrassahs [Islamic seminaries] after her return to Pakistan in 2007, resulted in creation of exceptional works: an installation titled ‘Read,’ which was exhibited first at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad and then at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the 99 faces of children in the madrassahs, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennale in 2009. Hamra is the recipient of the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize and currently doing a residency in New York.
Sadequain (1930-1987) was one of the country’s most prolific artists, and his career has served as inspiration for several artists. Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi, also known as Sadequain Naqqash or just Sadequain, is considered a master muralist and the father of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan. He shot to fame at the young age of 31, when his work won recognition at the 1961 Paris Biennale. The October 16, 1962, edition of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro noted, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.”
Two years later, Le Monde et La Vie, Paris, reported in April that, “The multiplicity of Sadequain’s gifts is reminiscent of Picasso.” In his lifetime, Sadequain is said to have painted more than 15,000 pieces including gigantic murals, intriguing canvases, innovative calligraphic works and exquisite drawings.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, Sadequain painted more that 45 murals, donating most to public institutions in Pakistan, India and other nations. Unfortunately, only a few survive. Our guest contributor, Ali Adil Khan, an avid collector of South Asian art and antiquities based in Toronto, encapsulates the artist’s achievements as the premier muralist of Pakistan:
Niilofur Farrukh’s review of public murals titled ‘Art without social barriers’ in the July 14, 2007 issue of Gallery prompted me to build on her thoughts, as she touched on Sadequain’s achievements as an artist and muralist par-excellence of Pakistan.
Her very detailed and articulate descriptions of the colossal mural in the turbine hall of Mangla Dam and the ceilings of Lahore Museum and Karachi’s Frere Hall reminded me of visiting those sites as a teenager some 25 years ago and wondering about the man behind such marvelous creations. While I never got to meet Sadequain in person (a great loss and regret on my part), my admiration for him and his work has never seized to end and multiplied many folds since.
Sadequain loved to work on a large scale and may well have painted more square feet than Michelangelo. I wanted to pickup from where Niilofur left off, provide the mammoth dimensions of Sadequain’s murals, and highlight the work that he has done and left outside of Pakistan. I have used as reference the excellent documentation of Sadequain’s work by S. Amjad Ali in his book titled Painters of Pakistan.
Sadequain Treasures in Time States Bank of Pakistan
In 1955, Sadequain painted his first mural in Jinnah Hospital, Karachi. However in my research, I failed to find the dimensions, title and condition of the mural. Working feverishly from August-October 1961, Sadequain completed a mural for State Bank of Pakistan spreading 8 feet x 60 feet titled ‘Treasures of Time’. This mural is Sadequain’s towering masterpiece of his ‘Blue and Ochre’ period. It celebrates the intellectual achievements of man, and highlights 46 major figures divided into five main sections. It is said that in between 1962-63 during his visits to Paris, he completed a mural for the PIA office there. Again, I was unable to find the dimensions, title, condition and whereabouts of that mural.
Sadequain Saga of Labor Mangla Dam, Karachi
One feature of Sadequain’s metamorphic skill, an aspect of the vitality of his art, was his unbelievable creative strength and energy. In 1967, Sadequain painted the 180 feet x 23 feet wall of the turbine hall of Mangla Dam in less than 3 months. Titled ‘Saga of Labour’, the artist illustrates the age of progress and industrialisation by beginning with a man using his muscles to break stones and concluding with man using his brain to mechanise, build and develop.
Sadequain Quest for Knowledge Punjab Public Library Image credit: The Sadequain Foundation
After the Mangla mural, in the same year Sadequain painted four murals in Lahore, two for the Punjab University Auditorium, one for the University Library and one for the Punjab Public Library titled ‘Quest for Knowledge’. Again, the dimensions and state of condition of the murals are not available.
In 1968, Sadequain continued to be prolific and held monthly shows in Karachi at the unfinished auditorium of the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. During this period he produced murals ranging from 18 feet x 6 feet to 28 feet x 4 feet on the 1965 war with titles such as ‘Shaheed’, ‘Confrontation’ and ‘Triumph’. Whereabouts of these is also not available.
Towards the end of 1970, it is documented that Sadequain painted a large mural that he donated to the Naval Headquarters in Karachi and was later shifted to the Pakistan embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. In April 1972, he painted the magnificent ‘Sura Yaseen’ from the Holy Quran on 240 feet long wooden panels and donated it to the Lahore Museum, where it is still displayed. In the first half of 1973, he completed the ceiling of the Lahore Museum titled ‘Evolution of Mankind’.
Sadequain Mural at Lahore Museum Image credit: The Sadequain Foundation
In 1976 Sadequain painted two large murals, each 56 feet x 12 feet, illustrating some verses of Iqbal for the Sports Complex site for the Asian Games in Islamabad. The mural depicted the struggle of the nations of Asia and Africa. In 1979, Sadequain painted a large calligraphic mural in Abu Dhabi. The dimensions and condition of the painting are unknown.
From November 1981 to December 1982 Sadequain visited India and during this time made huge murals, first at the Aligarh Muslim University in copper cut-outs and then calligraphic and figurative murals at the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad and later at the Banaras Hindu University. Finally he executed in very large size the 99 names of Allah in the Indian Institute of Islamic Research at New Delhi.
In early 1986, Sadequain began work on painting the gigantic 140 feet x 70 feet ceiling of Frere Hall. This huge mural was titled ‘Al-ardh-o-was-samawat’ (the Earth and the Heavens) and unfortunately was left incomplete due to Sadequain’s untimely death.
There must be many more unaccounted murals and large size paintings that Sadequain executed during his travels to Europe, North America and the Middle East. I am aware of a few such at the Pakistan High Commission in Ottawa that require preservation and restoration.
Sadequain is undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the last century that South Asia has produced and the world is now coming to recognise him. There is a dire need to take stock of Sadequain’s works in private, public and corporate collections, and in different locations of the Pakistan Foreign Office and retrieve, restore and preserve them for future generations.
Well-known private collectors of Sadequain’s works in Pakistan should seriously consider entrusting their collections (either on loan or as bequeaths) to the National Art Gallery and museums for restoration and safekeeping in the interest of preserving a national treasure. Examples of such generosity can be commonly seen in national art galleries and museums across Europe and North America, where large collections of national and international art and antiquities have been build from generous gifts and donations of private collectors.
An example of such is a recent teamwork between myself, an heir of a local collector and a Canadian museum, whereby a rare large 5 x 3 feet canvas by Sadequain from his Cobweb Series executed in 1968 was retrieved from a basement of a home and made available to be acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. In the end, it was a win-win for all as the masterpiece stayed in Canada and was exhibited in the spring of 2008 at the opening of ROM’s new Christopher Ondatjee South Asian Gallery to be cherished by the growing South Asian community of Toronto. This happened because of the generous donation of the current owner, Mustafa Siddiqui, son of the late Dr Iqbal Siddiqui, a renowned scientist who had acquired the work from Ali Imam’s Indus Gallery in the late ‘60s and brought it to Canada.
Ali Adil Khan isa prolific Toronto based collector and expert of South Asian art and antiquities. Adil has organized numerous exhibitions of South Asian Art in North America including “Image and Identity: Being Ethnic” and “Cosmic Energy and Tantric Enlightenment: Art of Youngo Verma” which has received widespread critical acclaim. He has contributed notable articles on South Asian art to leading dailies including The Dawn Online Edition and Newsline of Pakistan besides being invited to share his expertise at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Art Gallery of Mississauga and the 14th Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka, amongst others.