“Painters, people and philosophers”.
Ever wander the streets at night? Think hard about things while trying to feel good about them? Forgive me for being straight forward but intelligence finds its ruin in feeling. And one ought to never try to much to feel good.
I am a painter. I draw too. And I love it. I think about myself at the age of 55 and ascribe other qualities and skills to my name. An animator, an actor, a writer, a philanthropist! Maybe a sculptor and print maker too. But for now let’s put aside the Michelangelo and think about the David. Painting! And drawing.
I use ball point pens to draw. There’s something about it’s first glance by the viewer and then realizing it’s ball point pen! The same thing they used to sign cheques and receipts has been used by the artist to draw for 8 hours. It’s magic I tell you!
Oil painting is a little more complicated. I’m down for using anything I find off the shelf in an art store. But since the last 4 years these are the two mediums I’ve been using.
Oil painting is slower. Messier. It involves bristle hair brushes and a large pallet. White cotton rags and choice of canvases. I only work on the scale of 1:1.6 which is the golden ratio. Compositions resolve on this scale much more easily than on a circular or square format. So that means 3 by 5 feet or 21/2 by 4 feet and so on. Sometimes 61/2 by 4 feet. And one day hopefully 6 by 10 feet.
Oh yes! I have plans. I’m going to leave this city very soon and go back to Lahore Pakistan. I’m going to book a solo show at the Alhamra art gallery on the Mall road and paint dozens of large 1:1.6 ratio canvases. Why do I feel I’m confident to do it?
We sat in the presentation space in Parsons on a Friday evening. I knew I had a presence about me. Beer and wine were served and I wanted attention. I said “guys, I do what I know all too well and never experiment. I think the faculty is going to penalize me for it”.
It was obvious what I meant. My diamond shoes are too large and my wallet is too small for my 100$ bills.
But sure enough I got some respect when a colleague said it was a point of envy that you feel you’ve got things figured out.
What is this cement like content I boost?
2- Commuting traffic and people.
The relationship we have to a sense of time alters in every space and activity. People on the subway or the bus pass time. People in a political rally or a religious congregation revel in it. Savor it. These are the two opposite spectrums of my practice.
1- I’ve chosen crowds of the Shia minority from Lahore Pakistan. Almost everyone wears black. Almost everyone is cramped for space. They pact together tight on the main road of Krishna agar. Women children men and a slight hint of the city. A closed shop of a tree. Hands, limbs, hair, shoulders and faces punctuate a photograph of the crowd or Jaloos. There is almost no real demarcation of a horizon line. A very clear sense of light, features and distancing perspective. Such are my photographs.
The Shia minority is an extremely oppressed and persecuted religious sect of Pakistan. I am one of them.
This is a true account shared to me by a friend. Please know there is violence about to ensue;
Three armed gunmen enter the mosque on a Friday. The have machine guns and grenades. They open fire on the frantic crowd. People run and take cover behind pillars. People take cover behind each other. A very fat person saved my life by rolling on top of me. He screamed with pain as bullets hit him in his back.
Of the three gunmen one was bald the most hysterical. He screamed the loudest and he sprayed bullets in every direction. He reached inside his belt for a grenade. He unpinned the grenade but was unable to remove it from his jacket. He desperately tried to tug it out. But he couldn’t. He blew up and parts of his remains flew up on to the tree. I went deaf and thought I would never be able to hear again.
People urged the only security guard to do something. But the poor man was paralyzed with fear as he hid behind the pillar. Someone took his gun and fired back at the gunmen. They hit one in his chest and he fell on the floor.
That evening I went home. My mother was surprised to see me. She told me I should go to the hospital and donate blood. I went to the hospital. I wandered around the building and it’s rooms for a while. I tried to find my friend. The doctor told me I wasn’t ready to donate blood. I couldn’t find my friend. I went back home.
This is an actual account narrated to me by my friend from Quetta. And there are many more.
Here is one from my own experience;
I went to the market to get a hair cut. I sat on the barbers chair and asked him what I’d like. He started trimming.
I lay on my bed in my apartment in Manhattan. I couldn’t sleep.
I heard a large boom.
I heard a large boom.
The barber turned to new Chanel on the tv and there were reports of a suicide bombing on a Shia mosque in township.
I realized it was the 4th of July and there were fire works cracking in the distance.
Art can be a very bipolar endeavor. When I decided to become a painter in Lahore I was drawn to the idea of how pigment on a paper could look like a face or an apple. Later I started drawing and painting load bearing vehicles photographed from the back. They spoke to a sense of economic productivity and commerce. And finally I started photographing and painting the Shia Jaloos.
I acted in theater.
I studied art history.
My sincerest fascination came in realizing the power of a scene and situation.
In lust for life Michelangelo sits in a tavern and draws a drunkard. He explains how the man could be a model for his Moses or Samson.
While doing a dramatic reading of the play in theater it was a distant phenomena when the actor looks and dresses like his character. Before that comes his inner identification with the theme and manner of the play. Someone in lion kings rehearsal needs to feel like simba or scar or Mufassa. And as soon as someone does the reader and the play begins to come to life.
That is a similar aspiration for me while painting the crowd. Someone needs to see a mother and child or a college boy or a raving jester in the crowd for the painting or drawing to come to life. It is a rendition of the grand narrative again. New mythology and greater David and hero’s to be found in the fickle moments of communion in the great Shia crowd.
I did not like Lucian Freud when I first saw him. In his defense I saw tiny printouts of his painting in the portfolio of a high school senior. But I researched him and my eyes couldn’t stop feasting on the paint and the application. Nudes who could be Roman emperors. Woman and their bare naked bodies on worn out couches. Stressed limbs and hair. Paint becoming flesh.
Lucian Freud was the grandson of signing Freud but that’s where the party ends. He was a very private man and kept the reporters and journalists away from his work space. A painter without concept maybe? He loved doing what he did. And his art is about his notorious pursuit to one up anyone in history or now. His painting is about him and his studio and the people who were close to him. Nothing more. Did he choose what he made or did it choose him?
Bacon was also a British painter is felt strongly about. There is a inherent violence in his work. A figure squats and a portrait is not a face but a head. Color only making sense as it edges to another. Powerful juxtaposition of a contrasting phenomenon to be apprehended by the senses. He was initially an interior designer before turning to painting. Heralded as the greatest painter by many during his life time, did he choose his subject? Did he feel it was a conceptual decision for him to paint was he did?
I think I’m trying to make fun of a decadence and privilege in art making.
Salman Toor paints queer parties in interior spaces of New York.
Waqas khan makes marks on paper for months.
Imran Qureshi makes petals.
Does the art made caused by the artist?
Jeff Koons makes kitch.
Frida Kahlo made self portraits.
Vincent painted wheat fields.
Nietzsche explained that art was the proper task of life. But what compels the painter to choose what he does? Did the painter even choose it?
Of all the philosopher of the west and east someone who always has the most penetrating insight that speaks to me is Nietzsche.
“A politician divides mankind into two classes. Tools and enemies”.-Nietszche.
The then president of Pakistan, Zia Ul Haq, when to China in the 80s. He saw the Chinese president arrive at parliament for their meeting on a bicycle. Zia was extremely impressed.
Zia came back to Islamabad and made the executive decision of doing the same. He shall cycle to work every morning. The 15 minute journey began taking 45. The security in charge for Zia saw a threat in the president being out in the open peddling for his commute. He ordered traffic for his route be stopped. And a helicopter began following him during. A month later he begged Zia to use his bullet proof BMW.
Even to this day Pakistan has not rid itself by any stretch of the imagination of the effects and seeds of Zia. Shamefully many Pakistanis still think a leader in office similar to Zia would do the country good. When the taliban in 2021 took over Afghanistan a poll was conducted in Pakistan where 50% showed a similar government should exist in Pakistan too.
But coming back to Nietszche.
Nietszche explained the concept of the eternal recurrence. Every moment is somehow connected to any other moment in a difference space. Same time, different place. And what we choose to do and how we act and behave shall reverberate through millennia and always be the concrete of instance.
Many religions talk about consequence. The judgment day or the reincarnation. What we sow in the now is what we shall reap in the afterlife.
The 10th of muharram is the mythic date mentioned in Ahdith will be the day of judgement will befall on the world. It will be a Friday. And what do Shia Muslims do? The grieve the injustice of hussain and gather on the streets. They beat their chests and backs with their hands and chains. A great psychological demonstration to repent their sins and loss. It is labeled as worship. It’s a token of their submission to justice and rights.
But all need not be too serious.
During the height of unrest and tor oil I went to the market to get a haircut. My hair was long and shabby. I stepped into the barber shop and took a seat. Bollywood songs played on the TV in the top corner of the shop. I sat in front of a large mirror.
Suddenly a huge “BOOM” happened. It meant a blast occurred somewhere in the city. Threat and insecurity filled the air. The barber paused the cutting and changed the Chanel with the remote. He put on the news. And inevitably reports of a blast in the city started coming in. I felt very sad and heart broken. But I couldn’t escape my idiotic looking appearance in the mirror infront me. And that is how that particular tragedy took its face and identity. As me with half a haircut, heart broken and staring at myself feeling stupid.
To allow for a person to morn and grieve is a great privilege. Too popularly festivals are about joy and celebration. The bansant, Marti gra, holi. The spring time arriving or the days becoming longer again as for Christmas. But very few rituals anchor their essence to grief. Muharram is such a time for Shia Muslims. The 72 martyrs of Karbala and the women and children taken as hostages to Syria. Hussain and his sister Zainab fighting for the truth and loosing everything to the tyrant Yazid. But constantly the Shia Muslims hammer in the lesson that they did not loose at all. A history shall know the victors were the ones who incidentally oppressed.
Tragedy need not be always depicted in art as a sad face. Mark Rothko did it otherwise. Now crucifixes or epic scenes. But paintings showing the true color of emotion. Reds, blacks, blues and yellows softly edging to the corners of large canvases.
Jewish and immigrant, Rothko did not immediately shoot to fame in the start of his career. In fact he had to dig deep to be initially be influenced by expressionism and then finally break ties and expand the argument. Pure color was the solution. People often cried and broke down in-front of his paintings. He asked the lighting in the room to be kept pretentiously dim. As to allow for a solemn growth and connection between the viewer and the art. Once asked how long did it take for him to paint his paintings and he said “55 years”.
In the kirshan agar Jaloos the light is the typical subcontinental sun playing it’s part. Heightened chiaroscuro becomes visible in photography of the people and mourners.
All painting YouTube tutorial videos ask for the photographs of the subject be interesting for the viewer. Outdoor in the sun helps.
I often choose an elevated plain from which to photograph. This helps choosing frames with the maximum number of faces. Density and confined space is always a prevalent feature of the type of compositions I choose. May the viewer be struck by the first glance they lay on the final work. May the scale, skill and presence of the art work create a deep blow in the attention of the viewer.
I was on my way into the main procession on the 21st of Ramadan. The day Hazrat Ali died in Kufa some 1300 years ago. Fasting and determined to make my way through the traffic of the inner city, I parked my car far from the main road and walked towards the procession. There was a long line of Shia mourners waiting to join the Jaloos. Checking posts were made by the police. Frisking and metal detectors were at play. Scenes similar to an airport before boarding.
I stood in line for almost an hour. I was with my cousins. The line very slowly inched closer to the post. Then suddenly I heard a deafening boom from the main Jaloos. Everyone ran in the opposite direction. So did I. I never thought I’d be able to run as fast on the street. I could have matched any professional athlete in a marathon. Everyone else ran with me.
Then maybe some 500 yards later I became worried about my cousins who were with me. Police sirens and ambulances wizzed by me.
The next year I didn’t go. Maybe I was busy or maybe I was scared. But the Jaloos still happened. On the TV coverage I saw the same pact crowd of Shia mourners. And such may always remain the resolve and courage of these people.
The azan became different. The salat became different. Ethics and pillars of faith are different. Every step to differentiate themselves from the Sunni majority of the country are made by the clerics. All for the token of grief, loss and sadness, the public demonstration of it. Tears and drops of blood dripping down bloodied back and chests punctuate the concrete streets of the inner city. And resolve to forever return and repeat the same.