The word ‘Internet’ is perhaps not imaginative enough to encompass all that it has come to mean. An exponential increase in information and the diffusion of responsibility in both its generation and dissemination has enabled user dependant projects like Wikipedia to take off – for better and for worse. Couple this system of instant gratification with multi-tabbed browsing and you have an explosive mix at your hands: complete assimilation is almost rendered meaningless as we are challenged by sheer number in this library of Babel. Restlessness bubbles forth and permeates our bones as we attempt to cope. Moreover, as the art world is increasingly integrated into global economy and institutional control (academic and otherwise) is growing, artists have had to respond to this with short snappy little statements that shoulder the impossible burden of summing ‘it’ up. In light of these developments, an artist monograph such as ‘Ijaz Ul Hassan – Five Decades of Painting’ has special significance. Written and compiled by Musarrat Hasan, it is a collection of around 256 images of paintings and photographs from the life of the artist accompanying which is text that primarily highlights the context under which work was produced. As a tangible bound documentation of the working life of an artist, it condenses time and we are forced to pause and consider that this is what art practice will eventually amount to after all – “five decades of painting”. Not awards, or criticism or sales or institutions but only whatever lies beneath the skin of an artist. The book inextricably ties the life of the artist and his work, thereby highlighting that often art is a by-product of a life lived as opposed to the fruition of it. This is particularly the case with Ijaz Ul Hassan since a considerable amount of his work is devoted to causes he believes in: he uses art as means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Similarly, the book is also an important milestone in specifically the Pakistani socio-economic context. On the one hand, we face global challenges such as those underlined previously and on the other our unique space time continuum as a third world country in the 21st century continues to challenge our chronological profile. We are stretched at both ends and the tension manifests itself in the disproportionate amount of art related activity in urban centres as opposed to the rest of Pakistan. Direct art viewership is extremely restricted. Moreover, in the absence of any significant governmental support or institutional funding, most collections are private and therefore, not open to public view. The autobiography of an artwork would be an extremely dull read: it travels through a very introverted circle and spends a lot of time in storage. By writing this book, Musarat Hasan attempts a more even distribution of Ijaz Ul Hassan’s work, an idea that is very relevant within the artist’s use of a very direct and accessible idiom.
The text of the book itself uses simple language and sentence structures while refraining from the use of esoteric technical jargon. For the most part, it is explanatory as opposed to critical and is illustrated extensively by accompanying work. This leaves room for the reader to draw his/her own conclusions since the author is not being didactic. However, it maybe noted that the subjectivity involved in the writing of the book, particularly since the author is married to the artist means that the resultant text is very close to a first hand account. Complimenting this, on the other hand, is an appendix where other chosen writings upon the artist are reproduced, hence providing a comprehensive though open ended case.
The division of chapters facilitates the transition of different epochs in the artist’s career and the juxtaposition of the introverted and extroverted styles of painting enables a broader understanding of the artist’s core concerns and his unchanging priorities. It serves to bridge the gap between his politically charged work and his more subtle representations and interpretations of nature. Particularly, it explains how the latter has its seeds in the former. Moreover, the sheer number of images that the book contains helps to reinforce Ijaz Ul Hassan’s use of the indirect metaphor: one cannot simply dismiss them as ineffectual landscapes. This additionally cautions us against academically conditioned responses to the vernacular.
This book is important not just by virtue of its content but also because documentative efforts like this in the discourse of art are needed in Pakistan or our collective memories will suffer tragic amnesia. In due time, monographs like these should be a useful stepping stone for further more penetrative scholarship.
However, the only damper in one’s reading experience of this volume is a technical one: about one-third of the way into it, accompanying images have consistently mislabelled page number information in the text which makes for a lot of unnecessary flitting about. Similarly, space allocation for the images is simplistic and one is left with the lingering impression that the manuscript could take a better formal shape in terms of visual design.
Ijaz Ul Hassan: Five Decades of Painting. Musarrat Hasan. 298 pages. Lahore Art Gallery.