Muhammad Asif, born in Lahore in 1945, is a prominent painter and sculptor. He studied art at National College of Arts, 1963-67. Then, in 1968, he was appointed as a Lecturer in his Alma mater’s faculty of Fine Art. By the time of his retirement in 2005, Muhammad Asif was promoted to the position of full Professor. He remained Head of Fine Art Department for quite a long time. His major contributions are in the forms of portraiture and still life. He is considered a perfectionist in both forms. In portraiture, he impresses one by his technique and treatment, use of colours on canvas and study of his model’s characteristics. Presently, Asif is a leading exponent of the school of realist painters of still life in Pakistani art. In this form, he explores, focuses and highlights aspects of our social and cultural life in a poetic manner of symbolism.
On his experiences as a student in the National College of Arts
After passing my Higher Secondary School Examination from Lahore Board, I went to a typing school that would ensure a clerical job. But it was Bashir Mirza’s very sudden interruption, which changed my mind. He was my next street neighbour in the walled city and gave me the idea of joining the NCA. I took my drawings to Shakir Ali, who was the Principal at that time. After seeing my work, Shakir Ali admitted me to this prestigious institution in 1963.
NCA was a whole new world for me. Its environment was completely different than other educational institutions, which could move one to think artistically. Then there were expert art teachers like Jamila Zaidi, Taufiq Aijaz, Iqbal Hassan and Zahoor ul Akhlaq who could read one’s creative talents and train accordingly. We were lucky to sit in Khalid Iqbal and Colin David’s classes too. They were considered rebels of the Department of Fine Art, University of the Punjab. Thus, getting training from this academy was an honour, which enabled me to see variations of modernism and pre-modernism. Although my main interest was in the form of painting but I did specialization in Miniature. Ustaad Haji Muhammad Sharif and Ustaad Sheikh Shujjah Ullah trained me in mastering this traditional form of art. But I worked in my specialized field once in a blue moon only.
Career as a teacher
In 1967, after graduating from NCA, I was offered a rupees six hundred job by a private sector enterprise. On the other hand Prof. Shakir Ali and Prof. Khalid Iqbal wanted to see me working as an artist. They advised me to join National Collage of Art’s faculty of Fine Art. I obeyed them because I too wanted to become part of the artistic environment of this college and concentrate on my creative work which I learned during my study here. Interestingly, salary, which I received for the first time from NCA was half of six hundred rupees.
Being the youngest teacher at NCA, I became popular among the students because, they could talk with me and exchange ideas about art. I enjoyed such an interaction. I was following the traditional method of teaching. Therefore, rather than calling me Sir, my students used to call me as Ustaad Jee. I think, it was an honor for me. In 1976, on the occasion of the Centenary of this historical institution, the government, acknowledging my services in the field of art education, awarded me its associate ship.
On his first solo exhibition
Although I had displayed my works in different group-shows including the Artisans At Work held in 1968, which was inaugurated by the President, Muhammad Ayub Khan. My first solo was held in 1974. Rather than inviting some politician, I requested the renowned scholar Dr Nazir Ahmed, the Principal of Government College Lahore now known as Government Collage University to inaugurate the Exhibition. I remember that my artist community and art lovers appreciated both my realistic and semi-abstract works.
On his contribution in Portraiture
Still life was already there in my early semi-abstract works, which I displayed in 1974. But in the coming years, I created only a few such expressionistic paintings. However from ’74 to ’83, I concentrated mostly on portraiture both for private and public collections.
In fact, portraiture had always been my favourite form of art. It fascinated me a lot. Besides paintings, I also worked on a project of making large-scale sculptures of animals. In Pakistan, this happened for the first time. These sculptures were displayed outside Lahore Zoo, on the Shahra-e-Quaid-e-Azam.
On what portraiture means to him
When I turned to portrait-making I found Saeed Akhtar was already working in this form very seriously. He was my senior in the college. Our common interest was in the form of portraiture. In those days we did a few joint ventures too. I remember, we enjoyed a lot while working together. For him, I was a ‘ slow pnintcr ‘. But, he always appreciated my colourful palette and perfectionist ll’cult1H.:nt of art. Today, Saeed Akhtar is our leading portrait painter. What he has achieved is the outcome of his serious contributions in this form.
So far as my point of view about portraiture is concerned, I consider it a peculiar and challenging form of art in its own domain. One has to do a lot of homework for becoming a perfect practitioner. Its requirements are many, particularly with reference to technique and treatment. It demands a direct interaction between the artist and the model. Because a portrait is essentially a product of an acute interaction. Therefore, I may say the mood of either personality also plays its role. However, a portrait painter has to be more active in studying ‘black and white’ characteristics. For me, portraiture is not merely a matter of ‘resemblance’. I think, true portraiture comes into being when it’s created from an intimate distance because the sitter’s whispers too help in featuring his hidden expressions. Works made from camera cannot be equal to the life-oriented art. Therefore, I am not talking about photograph-oriented reproductions. Because I know, in the history of art, only originally created works are mentioned.
On his first one-man show of still life paintings in 1983
When, like a bolt from the blue, Martial Law was imposed in 1977, I was fully involved in portrait-making. I remember people were not ready to accept a new phase of dictatorial rule. For them, it was again an unwanted solution of a political crisis. Also, they had to face strict censorship on freedom of expression. Everybody felt concerned about what was going on. On the whole, pessimism prevailed.
But, one who is equipped with a creative mind comes forward to break the silence. Even in suffocation, he succeeds in finding spaces to breathe freely and express his impressions about the prevailing order of the day and its setbacks. This happens because of his sensitiveness. In such depressing conditions he becomes more conscious of himself and what’s happening all around him in society. Even conunon objects of utility which normally have no significant meanings other than their use, come under his observation. He studies their role in his life. And in this way these ordinary objects like kitchen-ware turn into objects of some significant meaning for an artist. Now they help him in adopting a mode of expression. And it’s the point from where still life painting begins in my case.
The ’77 political fallout affected me too. I felt as if I was turned into a robot–an object of utility whose button was in other’s control. And it was the same feeling, which led me to start work on still-life paintings. In 1983 I had enough works in this genre to display in my first exclusive one-man show, which was held at Alhamra Art Gallery. It was also the first of its kind in the history of Pakistani Art.
On how his still life mirrors life
Think of the days when every citizen of Pakistan was forced to keep his mouth shut. Helplessly, he had to obey all that was being ordered. On the other hand, I wanted to record my protest. And, to do so, I adopted the idiom of symbolic expressionism and painted what was happening all around me. The Eclipse series is the outcome of that dark and depressing period. In this series, life is shown, as it existed under repression.
There was total eclipse at that time! Things were losing their identity.
Then, in the darkest environment of my paintings ‘red’ appeared as a symbol of hope and struggle. The bull and scarecrow represented the down-trodden working class of this land and its increased exploitation. All were waiting for the dawn. Similarly, every object, which became part of my dramatic compositions in still life had its own story. Either it was a bottle of Pepsi, a glass of water, or bread, an egg, apple, knife, newspaper, bowl or a vase. They were all symbols of one’s feelings-the dominant sense was of being isolated. I painted them in realistic idiom because I wanted to see them attract and impress viewers aesthetically. It happened as I had wished. I remember my works were appreciated and considered thought provoking.
In 1997 I held my solo exhibition of still life under the title of Vision of Truth. It was in continuity of my last exhibition because silence and isolation were again dominating. However, its frame of reference was somewhat different. In these paintings, besides symbolically commenting on socio-political changes, I concentrated much on things which were taken as part of our culture but very rapidly vanished from the scene and found in antique shops. I painted them to pay tribute to the skillful hands, which had crafted them.
On his present interests
Nowadays [ paint portraits of my fellow artists and think about new still life and how to depict it.
Although Prof. Muhammad Asif has retired from the service of the National Collage of Art, but he is actively engaged in producing art work. He says that retirement of an artist provides him an incentive to paint more frequently.