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Book Review: Shahid Rassam

“During Akbar’s period art was appreciated a lot, but now it is the age of Akbar Naqvi, he admires art and critiques it too. His criticism, whether positive or negative, opens up new ways for each artist. Perhaps he also likes the name Shahid: so the book on Shahid Rassam after writing one on Shahid Sajjad. In the last phase of my life, I am thinking that I should also change my name into ‘Shahid Anwar Maqsood’.”

 

In his typical witty tone, Anwar Maqsood commented upon the choice of Akbar Noqvi for writing a monograph on Shahid Rassam, a less known painter, who remains an outsider in the mainstream of Pakistani art. Yet the illustrious author of Image and Identity penned a big volume devoted to the art of Rassam. One can speculate about his intention and derive – especially since he has not been writing much, to take up this project and contribute an extensive study in order to understand and contextualize Shahid Rassam’s art.

 

There could be other motives (apart from mentioned by Anwar Maqsood in his comment) but anyone who is familiar with the ritual of writing on art, is aware that a critic, while commenting upon other individuals, actually is revealing his/her ideas and opinions. Others merely provide pretext to reflect and express one’s point of view and position in connection to art (as was stated by another critic, Quddus Mirza, at a recent panel discussion in Lahore, in which the writer pointed out this aspect by quoting a Punjabi saying, to the effect of ‘lamenting on lovers by mentioning brothers’).

 

So for an ordinary reader or an art student the most important feature of the book is not its subject, the obscure painter, but its author, the eminent critic. In a way this situation can be read as a triumph of word on image, even though the two can not be separated since words are written in shapes, invoke visuals in our heads and images are translated in language, talked about and remembered in words.

 

The work of Shahid Rassam is also a blend between words and images. Most of his paintings are based upon narratives, which can be explained easily through language. But the connection between word and image does not stop here since the artist has created a series of works by combining portions of newspaper and other such material. So when we look at his work, we do no not limits it into a visual substance only, but ‘read’ in a literal sense. Ogre like figures holding hand grenade, masks of religious personalities with broken face, and balancing on playing cards suggest how the world is seen, realized and referred to with each ‘meaningful’ detail. In that way the work of Rassam is more about words than what could be seen without the connection of definition or description.

 

Thus the choice of Akbar Naqvi to write on Rassam becomes a natural one, because like his previous book, Naqvi builds his themes employing references from literature, while incorporating the history of European art as well. For example passages such as “If one were to look for an Urdu translation of stories which were Surrealist in the Arabic Muslim culture and tradition, it was available as Tilisme Hoshtuba, mind boggling magic” in the present publication demonstrate the author’s command and wide interest in various cultural histories. Naqvi draws this parallel between literature and art while discussing the work of Rassam, often quoting verses of Urdu poets. The text confirms the mastery of grand old man of art in terms of forging connections between different disciplines and languages.

 

Naqvi while describing individual canvases provides a background of the piece, but more than that, offers a context to comprehend an entire culture that produced that kind of sensibility. His text is a proof of the author’s immense and incredible knowledge of art history, both of past and presence. Thus a reader stumbles upon references of classical Urdu poets, modern English writers, European thinkers and painters from the past while spotting portraits and compositions made by Rassam.

 

However, Akbar Naqvi, while reflecting and reiterating the importance of the art of Shahid Rassam comments upon other artists and practices. “The Pakistan YBA has got hold of a beachhead in the National College of Arts (NCA) and the arts faculty of Beaconhouse. The so-called artists are so bold, but they have made art dumb and deaf in the name of conceptual art.” Compared to what Naqvi determines as conceptual art, the reproduction of Shahid Rassam’s work can be qualified as literal art, because the artist approached his concerns in direct and illustrative manner. One fails to find a question in his work, because the mixing of elements suffices a story that can be easily understood – or if not, can be identified. Akbar Naqvi quotes Isaiah Berlin who: “..wrote of two types of imagination. He took up the narrative of Aesop’s Fable, and wrote about the fox and the hedgehog, both nocturnal feeders, as emblems of two types of imagination..”.

 

But it appears that Akbar Naqvi through his text on Shahid Rassam supports – rather admits one kind of imagination that belongs to the threshold of art and does not have the capacity and courage to go beyond the confines of art or its audience, time and region. Yet the words of Akbar Naqvi are precious, because no matter what the subject is or what the public is, it is his lucid prose that captivates a reader and captures him/her with its great insight, precision and pleasure of the text.

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