“Never for a moment did I think that I could not paint,” says Ijaz-ul-Hassan
Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter who has always worked against the grain, generating massive controversies in the process. As a critic pointed out, “Ijaz-ul-Hassan has dared to go where no one with his sophistication has gone before.” His outstanding talent as an artist has, however, secured him a place at the forefront of Pakistani painting for nearly half a century.
Ijaz-ul-Hassan was born in 1940. His early education culminated in a period of tenure at Aitchison College followed by a stint at Saint Martin’s School of Art, London. As a mature student, Hassan enrolled at Government College, Lahore, reading English Literature, before transferring in 1964 to St John’s College, Cambridge.
Now known simply as Mian – even to family and friends – he is an internationally acclaimed artist working at the height of his powers to give visual embodiment to a lifetime’s observations and perceptions about the human condition. The interview below is the result of a sporadic interaction I have maintained with him over the years, which warmed up into a period of considerable activity when sections of our dialogue were scheduled to be published in ANP (Art Now Pakistan). He has lived in Lahore for years, single-mindedly painting in his studio, and grappling with what may be called his ‘old age’ style. He now has grey hair and he looks like an Old Testament prophet. Periodically he releases a stream of paintings like sparks, and then retires into political activism. Excerpts:
AA: You are neither a ‘genre’ painter nor a ‘painter’s painter’, as they say, whether by choice or by irony of fate. What is your stance towards making art?
MIH: Whether it is non-figurative work done in 1960s or figurative work of later years; whether it is leaves and tendrils and lilies or something which is brutal in terms of its subject matter, I have consciously avoided marketing poverty and selling events. At the same time, I don’t impose a will because each subject has its own identity. Now when I have a large body of work – I’ve been painting for twenty-six years – I still don’t impose a signature or style on my work. I neither determine the choice of subject nor let the subject determine me. I do, however, allow the subject to evolve its own form. The subject and I work together, and arrive at a consensus. I don’t like to wrest a subject ever. In this sense, each painting is a unique experience.
People often accuse potters of making the same pots repetitively whereas each pot is a unique pot. Potters are limited because they work on utilitarian forms whereas painters have a relatively greater freedom of dealing with imagination, ideas and aesthetics, which are far more subjective. Moods and feelings, sentiments and emotions, and states of mind are best expressed through work, and cannot be clearly defined by words. Work emphasises particular moments, whether they are momentary feelings or moments of intellectual concern.
I’ve only been able to paint what has moved me, what has, somehow, gripped my soul and my imagination. I don’t paint the servitude and wretchedness of people; instead, I paint their inherent strength – the invincibility of common resolve and individual endeavour. Look at the agonised form of ‘keekar’ (acacia) tree that I paint! Nobody pampers the acacia; no one waters it. Look at its remarkable resilience. Where there’s a branch today, there’d be a multitude tomorrow. To me, acacia is a symbol of the agony and the ecstasy of the common man.
Likewise, if you look at my portrait of a man with rivulets of blood flowing down his face, the blood is translucent like spring water. The idea is not to make your liver turn in revulsion to blood; or to make your blood curdle. It appears that the face is bejewelled, yet it’s a symbol of state terrorism.
AA: Would your symbolic approach to the natural form of acacia liken you to Sadequain who saw ‘political metaphor’ in the cactus form?
MIH: I have never forced images upon any subject; instead, they evolve from it. One has the luxury of describing one’s feelings in words in literature but in painting, one has to assemble them in such a manner that in one go, they are all transmitted. In other words, a painter’s task is much more complicated than a writer’s. I have made paintings like ‘Lilies in Rain’, ‘Lilies at Night’ where lily stood for a fragile being striving to survive in a hostile environment or for an endangered creature afraid of darkness, and so on.
Then I began to see ‘rain’ as a blessing, especially after seeing an earlier copy of an illustrated Qur’an. Few people would know that some early manuscripts of the Holy Qur’an were illustrated with Byzantine imagery. One of the symbols employed was that of rain – rainwater falling in droplets over the script suggesting the descent of sura upon earth from the skies, in the religious context; rain in the arid desert of Arabia, fertilising not just the soil but the minds of the Quresh.
I don’t invent or discover symbols in nature; I just underline them. Having said that, I don’t make use of symbols; I employ metaphors.
Wild berry has also been a recurrent presence in my work, its five branches bearing resemblance to a stretched limb. Munnoo Bhai once remarked, “It looks like the hand of Christ.” Behind the berry bush is a modern glasshouse. I felt motivated to put it there not necessarily to convince people into reading metaphors into it!
About 30-40 years ago, when I saw a ‘jamini’ tree in my lawn for the first time, I planted a climber around it. And one day, as I watched it grow, I discovered caterpillars as thick as my index finger crawling atop its leaves. There were fresh leaves too that resembled human hands. I was looking out a glass window worrying the leaves may soon be eaten. While I wanted to save them, I felt I couldn’t because I was confined to a self-inflicted cage – intensified by the memory of interrogation in Lahore Fort, of how the view through the window emerged in my work. That’s how the first picture of the series, ‘View Through the Glass Cage’ happened. ‘Cages’ are subjective, and even though you may say it’s easy to break a glass cage, one may lack the will or one has been taught to fear the freedom of stepping out of a glass cage.
The climber kept growing, and I kept painting it. It endorsed the concept of the union of lovers – in Indian miniatures, a vine entwining a tree trunk signifies unity among lovers! Following that, I did a whole series of paintings based on Iqbal’s couplet: Pewasta reh shajar se umeed-e-bahar rakh.
AA: What encouraged you to become a painter?
MIH: Never for a moment have I thought I could ever not paint! I never really compartmentalised my life with the result that it remained without a purpose for a long time. I enjoyed the company of great teachers at the art school – Moeen Najmi, Sardar Mohammad, Khalid Iqbal, etc. I have never pretended to be an academic although I spent a good chunk of my life in the academia. (Academics have no sense of reality). I sincerely believe that art colleges kill more artists than they can produce!
People who fail to find a job elsewhere end up becoming teachers. They are not good role models and they don’t inspire you. You become a poet when you are inspired, not when you have learnt the grammar or expanded your vocabulary. Likewise, painting is not about acquiring skill. Even tarts have skill. They know how to pamper men into believing they are special. The artist has to look for the means to deluge the cataclysm that wells up in him. Take the example of a deaf boy and a mute girl in love with each other. Do you think they cannot convey or communicate their feelings in the absence of a language? Love is the basic emotion here without which language would be no help. Your emotions, ideas and thoughts, your concerns will determine who you are, and enable you to find the right technique, words or subject matter to express yourself.
The principle of conformity in an art college is more like a parade ground. Do you know which art school Picasso and Dali went to? Their academic qualification has never been quoted as the reason behind their success. Or, for that matter, which school did Keats go to? For all I know, Shakespeare studied neither at Cambridge nor at Oxford. The 19th-century painter would go to the gallery and get the stimulation.
AA: Are you a proverbial son-of-the-soil painter?
MIH: Whether you have to lift 5 kilos of weight or 100 kilos, your feet should be firmly planted on the ground, and the ground is where you are. The world doesn’t begin beyond the horizon line; it begins under your feet! It’s a question of ownership. If you cannot own what belongs to you, you can’t stretch yourself beyond. A lot of our problems are borne out of our colonial past. For example, our well-educated lot can’t read Shah Hussain in its mother tongue – the Punjabi vernacular. It thinks it’s a great curiosity. On the other hand, it’s become increasingly fashionable to attribute everything to colonisation.
I regard myself as a modern person – not in the sense of serving a cliché! At the turn of the last century, a lot of painting in Europe has been very incestuous and carnivorous in that it lived off the previous movements. It doesn’t go back to life to reinvent it; instead, it reacts to and negates what preceded it. It becomes an academic, aesthetic and cerebral exercise, which places it in a highly urbanised milieu.
Tradition is something you learn from and forget about. I am the inheritor of a tradition who will create a future. One should not live in the past; one should be connected with the next moment. One must, however, live one’s life with full awareness of where he’s coming from. I believe that a painter or a poet can’t be more than what he essentially is. After what has happened in the country, how many painters and writers have ever passed a resolution? Punjab Artists’ Association, let alone any five leading artists of the country, has not passed a resolution on any national issue in the last twenty-five years. Unlike the west where most information is either quoted or reported, we can witness directly what’s going on around.
AA: How would you respond to the allegation that landscape painting is retrogressive?
MIH: The Urdu-medium artist who hails from a lower middle-class background and cannot articulate his work in English will be known as ‘retrogressive.’ He ends up imitating the environment he sees. The English-medium artist, on the other hand, who travels abroad and is well-exposed to new art forms, ends up imitating the western trends. Likewise, the Punjabi poet is ‘ill-educated’ compared to the Urdu poet who is sophisticated and cultured, even though the former may recall Waris Shah backwards! It’s a class phenomenon.
Secondly, our streets and by-lanes had never been painted before by anyone. Landscape painting was a way of reclaiming your own environment, and to come to terms with yourself. Why is Khalid Iqbal a modern landscapist? There is a hint of metaphysics in those strips that lie between the rural and urban divide. Like Mondrian, he builds his pictures stroke-by-stroke, tone after tone. When he paints water, it is brackish and muddy but when Allah Bux paints water, it appears a fairy would emerge out of its depths. It’s your vision and not your style that brands you modern!
People in Holland got to see their landscape for the first time in painting only after the arrival of Impressionism there. It is not quite necessary that one may also perceive what exists. Sometimes it is overstretched, sugarcoated and repetitive. Pakistani painting commands a great breadth, and is moving at its own momentum. It is not being sponsored by the state or by any multi-national. The private entrepreneur has not even sponsored a fountain to be installed in a public square.
Would you charge sheet the beautician who emasculates a female, for being retrogressive? There are many beauticians, and one painter who beautifies nature. It’s probably easier for people to relate to what’s happening in New York than here!
AA: Could you shed some light on the representation of women in your work?
MIH: There are two women in ‘Thah’. The one at the back is in woodcut, while the other one in the foreground is a painted figure of female film actor Firdous. I was trying to make a comment on the viewer by presenting two angles of view from two different societies: the consumer’s view and the creator/observer’s view. In ‘Rifle Butt’, the bikini-clad and the sari-clad woman become a butt to the gun because she is not constraining in any way. This beautiful, innocent, harmless sculpture of a woman becomes a butt to the gun that triggers off in another direction, in another part of the globe. The Vietnamese woman is the only one in bxw; the rest of the world is coloured. With the barrel of the gun resting on her head, she is the only one aware of the moment but there is no anguish or despair on her face. The button on her shirt is more powerful than the navel-button of the society woman. The painting is about two separate worlds and their attitudes. I was only enhancing people’s awareness to investigate, to let these women know that this is how the society looks at you: you are a viewer’s victim, and this is exactly what’s expected of you! The weeping child is seeking your sympathy and love. Consciously, I did not set out to convey a message; I just shared my perception.
On another note, ‘Khooni Chowk’ is about an incident with an intervention from Pablo Neruda. Yahya Amjad had translated his poem as: ‘Yeh ghaddar auj-e-taraqqi pe pohanchay / Shaheedon ki laashon ka zeena bana kar / Isi chowk mein in ghaddaron ko la kar saza do, saza do’. It was one of the earlier paintings in which the pattern was very strong. The other paintings of that time are less political and represent the popular culture when I was assimilating a lot of posters, hoardings and media film advertisements printed in litho pasted on the walls all around the city, into my work.
The period following that featured the Bangladesh triptych. The painting was divided into sunset, night and morning. Hunger was the message.
And then there is the figure of a siren. It’s related to the colonial/imperial culture’s attitude towards women. In a capitalist society, the status of a woman with all her liberties is that of a whore. Obviously, that’s the attitude adopted by the general public. By remaining silent you become, however inadvertently, a butt to the rifle, which will be fired on the innocent.