His reputation of being intellectual artist does him, a disservice even while evolving a serious image. Zahoor ul Akhlaq ( 1941-1999) is one of the few Pakistani painters who have continuously played and experimented with their art; coming up with a diverse and dynamic repertoire. His art defies explanation though and moves gracefully over boundaries created by terms such as postmodernism and deconstructionist.
Here he talks, among other issues, about bis personal perception, his work, the various influences on his art, the art scene in Pakistan and the collection of his works exhibited in 1998 at the Gallery of National Collage of Arts, Lahore.
On his initial impressions
My early art education in Karachi was very basic. It was like going to study at the level of primary school. But there were things on and around the school that fascinated me and I used to take interest in them. I think, art education cannot be achieved only within the school boundary. I used to observe life while going to and retuning from the school. I was fond of new ways and new streets. I observed jugglers, peddlers, and people selling medicines. I saw so much on those streets: people working till late hours, busy in welding, doing carpentry jobs and so on. It was in a way very fascinating. And this observation became part of my expression.
Then there were people making commercials like Mustafa Muhammad. Their ads and posters attracted me. l met them and tried to study the techniques they used. Then, there came a time when I decided to come to Mayo School of Arts. But when I came to Lahore this School was devoted and renamed as National College of Arts (NCA). I was lucky to get admission into the first batch of NCA.
On his art education under the guidance of Prof. Sponenburg
Sponenburg is probably more than eighty years old now. He is an almost forgotten figure but his contribution towards structuring this college is huge. He crafted the college, gave it his energy, attention, experience, depth and intensity. Last year when he came to attend the Convocation, it was touching to see him so attached and emotional about every nook and comer of the college. He remembered everything. I being one student from the first batch of the Collage got an opportunity to complete first three years of my study when Sponenburg was the Principal. He taught us history of Art and Architecture along with his high responsibility of administrative work.
Shakir Ali as an art – teacher
After Prof. Sponenberg, came Shakir Ali. When I joined NCA, he was the first tutor of drawing and painting. In Karachi, I used to go to the exhibitions. It was in 1955 or 56 when by chance I went to Frere Hall where an exhibition of Shakir Ali’s works was going on. I saw his paintings and asked him some rather stupid questions. But he tried to answer my queries. Later on when I came to NCA, he was a teacher here.
Shakir Ali was very well-institutionalized into academic aspects. He made us aware about the very basic things. Drawings, drawings and drawings, he stressed on the need of this basic skill before going on to do paintings. Even after college hours we had to do drawings for another two or three hours daily. My class fellows Muhammad Javed, MehmoodAlam and Dilawar Ali were also very hard working. We contributed money to pay the model for our drawings. For two years, we drew everyday as Shakir Ali had advised us. I think that exercise gave me a very sound ground. It was because of that riaz ( constant practice), that I was always good in capturing whatever was needed on the surface of my canvas. I always go back to the basics and set out on a new journey.
Shakir Ali would not direct or dictate you. He allowed you to do what you wanted to do. And maybe, if he liked a thing he would make a comment. Sometimes ifhe didn’t like a thing he would just ignore it, and ifhe stayed behind
and looked at your work, that was a compliment.
Influence of Shakir Ali’s works on his art
I was very much influenced by his work during my college days. After getting my degree from NCA, I wanted to go back to Karachi. He said that I should continue working here. In those days NCA was also looking for new teachers. So many of us from the first successful batch got jobs in different fields like design, ceramics and architecture; I was in fine arts.
I was living at Shakir Ali’s house, which he got as a Principal. It was a great experience for me, because we shared the studio in a sense that when he was not working, I was working there. lt was a wonderful time. I was with him when he learnt driving and bought a car. Then he got married. Those were days full of findings. Findings in the sense that exploring things, meeting people, having a get together, organizing exhibitions and things like that, I think Shakir Ali was a very reserved person. But he also liked being with people and his students; this way he’d overcome his loneliness. We could all sit around him and talk about aspects of Greek art, something on Gothic art and many other related things. Then he would also come out with his own views on art, it was a wonderful time. He would raise some problem and see our response. Then we would all talk about it.
I was really under a spell from his concepts about art and his vision. Looking at my work people started to say that these looked like Shakir Ali’s. Those who said this, I knew them very well. For me, he was a teacher as well as a very dear friend. But it was just a gradual change. When I did my thesis, it was very much like under Shakir Ali’s influence. Gradually, when I started to teach I experimented a great deal with forms and paintings as such.
I’m talking about 1960 to 1962. In those days, there were hardly any exposures. Not many books to buy and see; to find out what was going on in the world. Change is an inner need. You can’t just evolve a form for the sake of evolving a form. So I continued working and looking into new things.
I wrote somewhere that topics are not important and topics are not to be related to or narrated in paintings. But topics are just a kind of token to realize or identify one from the other, like you say landscape-IV or landscape-V, or Shabana.
Experiments in calligraphy
My problem is it that I’ve seen and studied the art of calligraphy very closely. It attracts me aesthetically. But the kind of calligraphy, which everyone seems keen to put into his or her paintings here, makes me doubtful about its future. Spreading of colours on some surface does not make a piece of calligraphy. It’s a serious art and you cannot do justice to it without knowing its principles. You should not deform a powerful tradition so carelessly. Only after understanding this art would you be able to use it properly according to its set traditional concepts and techniques.
So far as I’m concerned, I’ve used calligraphy in a different manner. My interest in calligraphy is not that I make a kataba. I use it because it’s part of me. I can’t deny it. I own it. You can’t borrow it. I’ve great regard for calligraphy. In my paintings I’ve just used the space division of the calligraphy. I love its linear rhythm. Its aesthetic structure is most important for me. Then its manifestation, its fineness and its complex resolutions of space attract me. I’m just fascinated with the space and rhythm and its linear movement.
Scholarship for higher studies in art
Getting the British Council scholarship was a very thrilling turn in my career. I studied at Homsey College of Art and Royal College of Art, London for four year from 1966 to 1969 and also did work there, picked up some techniques. In addition, I had access to great art. There I was able to see paintings, which I had only seen in books or slides. It was really a different experience. I still go there to see my favourite paintings, because, every time you look at a painting, you do so from a different view and perspective! I did a Jot of work there, which was accepted and appreciated.
This way my scholarship continued. My tutors were satisfied with my work. It was a very positive experience.
I spent large part of my time looking at miniatures in British Museum in the special area, which you can have an access to only through an assurance that you are a student of art and you are doing research on the subject. I also went to USA on Fulbright Scholarship where I worked at the Institute of Sacred Music, Religion and Art, Yale University.
It was wonderful to see works in your hands, which are otherwise safely guarded. I learnt a great deal. I’ve travelled a lot in different countries at different times. I don’t think that being in another place alters my way of looking or my approach. As a person, it was like having an experience of another space, another environment, interacting with different people and cultures and their way of looking at things. Of course it was wonderful!
Difference in eastern and western aesthetics
I’ve all the necessary skills to use and am able to execute things in a western manner. But somehow my interest in the East remains very strong. My interest is not in the surface of the visual patterns; their technique, execution or creations do not attract me. For instance, in Mughal art, I do not see only the kings, the princes and the princesses or their luxurious lives. What I’m interested in is how painters created space for a certain scene, and related and narrated things. I think its space structure attracts me.
Philosophy of his colours
With colours I don’t have any problem. Cool colours and warm colours is an outdated theory. Let’s say that really all this doesn’t touch me. There can be many interpretations of colour.
Heavy use of the colour black
Black often has the connotation of mourning. I think colour is a matter of your association.
Along with socio-cultural environment, one’s personal priorities are also involved in developing an association with colour. The beauty of black attracts me, I can see things in it.
I love it; therefore I use it in my paintings. I’m not afraid of colours.
However, I use only those colours, which can express what I want to paint. I want to see how colour, surface and space coordinate with one another.
Using geometrical patterns
In fact geometrical patterns attract me aesthetically.
Figurative images, particularly female form, in his paintings
The female form is a cycle oflife, basically. I don’t use it as the expression of body or flesh. I take it for what it represents: the cycle oflife, say, a regeneration of life.
Sculpture in Pakistan
It’s somewhat difficult to address the question that is there sculpture in Pakistan or not? It may be presumptuous to address the question in an affirmative way. But the fact remains that we don’t acknowledge the aspirations of common men for their need to express an experience in three-dimensional forms in their day-to-day life. We’re ignoring the facts, which are three-dimensional.
We are oblivious of the fact that the most popular or common expressions of religion entwined with cultural tradition are the Alam and Tazia. The symbols of religious sentiments have a form as an expression of peoples’ beliefs and their need to show their feelings in a concrete manner. I consider that the expressions or the statements made by the people are three-dimensional.
Present state of modern art in Pakistan
What’s known as modern art in Pakistan is, I think a thing of the past. The present practitioners of that genre are a little late because the party is over. However, a breed of people–not on the invitation list of pseudo-modernists-will pave the path.
His Paintings exhibition (retrospective 1961-98)
Retrospective for me is a means to trace my footsteps back and map how far I am from the point of departure. I am not afraid of looking back. But I feel very strongly about accountability, which is carried out by an inner discipline rather than outer forces. Since charity begins at home, ‘Retrospect is an exercise in casting a stone at one’s own self.
By: ZAHOOR UL AKHLAQUE