Distance does not diffuse, but provides another perspective – often fresh, unusual and extraordinary – to view familiar reality. Literature is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Due to political pressures, personal preferences or some other reasons, many writers lived outside of their countries, yet their work is deeply grounded in their places of origin. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, while living in Europe and Mexico, recreated his homeland in fiction. James Joyce spent most of his life in Paris writing about Dublin. Faiz Ahmed Faiz composed some of the best modern Urdu poetry during his years of exile in Beirut. Adonis, perhaps the greatest living Arab poet, has been residing outside of Syria. Gao Xingjian, the first writer of Chinese language who received the Nobel in literature has his home in France; like Milan Kundera and Ismail Kadare, who left Czechoslovakia and Albania for France – even though their books are linked to the regions that they abandoned.
Being away from one’s normal surroundings adds a new dimension to what is created. But even if a creative person does not move physically, the act of writing or making art is a temporary journey, which takes an individual to another hemisphere, and in that brief span they encounter new people, arrive at different locations and have unusual experiences. A shift from one’s self, or from one’s location, is necessary to realise reality in an objective manner.
Something like that happened at LUMS, where the walls of a big space in a business school were filled with works of Pakistani art. Normally paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures are seen at galleries or in private houses, but having them displayed at a university – one that is well known for teaching business and the humanities, for that matter – was an uncommon sight/site. Amna Naqvi and Ali Naqvi (founders of AAN Foundation) in collaboration with Dr S. Sohail H. Naqvi (the Vice Chancellor of LUMS) made it possible for a few important works from their impressive collections to be placed for public viewing, and at a place, where some of our future leaders – in several fields of life – are studying. Both Amna Naqvi and Ali Naqvi have been buying works of Pakistani and international artists, including Ai Weiwei, Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and many others along with modern masters of Pakistani art such as Sadequain, Ahmed Pervaiz, Gulgee and Jamil Naqsh.
George Steiner, writing about a British art historian who was once the keeper of the Queen’s art collection was discovered to be spying for Soviet Union, comments that the academician who had to spend hours waiting for the consent of the private owners and then more time in accessing their collections – naturally turned sympathetic towards a Communist state, where everyone can enter St. Petersburg’s Hermitage and other museums and see large collection of art. Usually collectors are extremely possessive about their pieces, often refusing to part with them even for a few months. Thus, great works of art most of the time end up in lockers, storage spaces and exclusive living rooms.
But both Amna Naqvi and Ali Naqvi, through their AAN Foundation, have lent artwork to LUMS (their alma mater), where these would be on display for a year. In a country where one is deprived of state art museums, this endeavour is commendable as it brought art to a community that hardly frequents exhibitions. The presence of art pieces at a venue where students can look at them, become familiar with them, and start appreciating them – and above all, understanding them – would be highly useful in a culture that needs diversity, acceptance and tolerance for other points of view.
Art not only provides diverse – often disagreeable – positions and practices; in its structure, it is a blend and a manifestation of contradictions. Put works of art from one period or place next to each other and these would be as far apart as the languages heard at a busy international airport, like that in Dubai. However differently human beings might speak, the desire to communicate and the compulsion to express themselves is common among all those who appear to be different in age, origin, ideas and class.
The same could be witnessed on the 11th of November 2017, during the opening reception at LUMS. Here a viewer spotted incredible drawings of Sadequain, and the work of a now almost forgotten artist Mansour Aye, which confirmed the painter’s command over the craft of image-making. His use of colour and geometric forms to build human figures seem unique. Works by Jamil Naqsh, probably the unmatched painter of his generation, suffice to show how an artist deals with the sensitivity of surface through the moving and manoeuvring line, which along with describing contours, creates and completes the form. His work from AAN collection in the present display represents the artist’s interest in the texture and tactile quality of an image.
The painting of Gulgee indicates the artist’s urge to combine the convention of calligraphy with the aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism. At first sight, that would appear as an impossible task, because if Abstract Expressionism was about spontaneity, loosely applied marks and quick gestures, calligraphy involves constraint, calculation and control. In calligraphy, a hand can repeat a letter in the same, perfect shape – a practice in direct contrast to Abstract Expressionism, which is organic and cannot be reproduced. However, Gulgee found the common thread, in the aspect of the Sublime: both in Abstract Expressionism and calligraphy.
Naiza Khan’s work, based upon her visual research on Manora in Karachi, negotiates with the concepts and constructs of history and representation: a photograph of a man who is taking a picture with the help of an old-fashioned camera next to a view that looks odd due to its scattered items – objects which are huge, but look as if they are parts of a Lego set. The work comments upon various aspects of our culture that link with colonialism, heritage, industrialisation and globalisation. Similar concerns can be seen in the work of Faiza Butt, an artist employing the language of popular culture and media in order to comment upon the currents of contemporary realities: cultural and political.
These realities, cultural and political, are addressed in a different manner by a number of other artists at LUMS. For example, in the mixed media painting by Muhammad Zeeshan, one glimpses the artist’s critique of history as a vehicle to continue and consolidate the institution of power. Imran Qureshi approaches the aspect of power in a different scheme, by creating surfaces laden with layers of red paint, which in their appearance give the strong sensation of blood. The artist’s subtle way is one of converting paint into a substance that invokes multiple references to violence, terror, extremism – hence misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Imran Qureshi’s work denotes how the world is split into different hemispheres, and how that divide has infiltrated into one’s personality too.
As for the art of Aisha Khalid, the artist produces paintings exploring another dimension of sacred geometry, and like being in the presence of a sacred entity, by being in front of her work one experiences a sensation of the Sublime and a feeling of transcendence. Perfectly placed shapes within her work lead a viewer away from their usual existence into a different world.
All in all, the displays of art are an experience that can be expanded and identified with by the students of LUMS, who, finding these art works at their place of studies, may move away from their routine existence – and enter into another world, following the AAN Foundation.
Published in The Friday Times.