Afshar Malik (b. 1955, Bahawalpur) has had a long and illustrious career in the arts. He has been teaching at the National College of Arts, Lahore since 1983, taking only a two year gap in 1986 to pursue a Higher Diploma from the Slade School of Fine Arts, London. While his contribution and up keep of the Cowasjee Printmaking Studio at the National College of Arts is most well known, a cursory glance at his professional trajectory reveals that his involvement with it is not singular or exclusively definitive of his practice. Having trifled with murals, ceramics, set designing, illustration, filmmaking and other occupations, one expects his portfolio to be similarly divergent and abuzz.
Following are selective snippets from a conversation that took place over a representative selection of works picked from a much larger portfolio by the artist himself. The interview is structured loosely with no premeditated questions because with Malik, who is typically subtle and evasive behind a veneer of good humor, the directness of the question is indirectly proportional to the directness of the answer. This impression is further strengthened during the course of the conversation when Malik most often uses the third person pronoun ‘aap’ when in actuality he is talking about himself. This seems to suggest that he is wary of explaining himself, and is not easily going to betray his convictions thereby making them permanent through this error of free expression. The subsequent transcript is translated where required and the sequencing is edited by the author for the sake of coherence.
The portfolio is viewed as images alit in the neon glow of a computer screen. It can be divided into some broad, fluid and sometimes overlapping categories, a few of which are particularly noteworthy:
- Detailed line etchings which are balanced remarkably between control and whimsical spontaneity. These images are expansive and seem to be propelled by a desire to assimilate all stories and transform them into the minimum number – a single one.
- Ink drawings whereby through the use and erasure of fluid blacks, Malik creates otherworldly images that sometimes despite being recognizable are not so easily accessible.
- Acrylic and mixed media paintings, the content of which is often poetic and emotional without being pleading. It is to the credit of the painter that he doesn’t spell out an expected reaction like cued laughter in comedy sitcoms.
- Ongoing work that plies soft wire into artless flowing forms. This activity seemingly begins to automate one’s hand and therefore the making of these works is similar to the making of the line etchings.
A recurring characteristic of Malik’s work is his shifting medium. For him each choice is akin to a single unit of breath in the elastic of which is encased a resolved body of work. He picks up a technique, grapples with it, explores its possibilities and transitions away from it when he is out of breath. This preoccupation with the physical methods of art making has resulted in the fact that his intention is never eager to overtake his processes. It has also resulted in a dreamy escapism which allows him to sidestep the burdens of purely articulating intention. He works with care but not fear.
In a similar vein, Malik’s emphasis on the physicality of the act serves to dampen the sting of the narrative and makes it effortlessly understated. Very often, his techniques are acts of forgetting or forgoing a self-consciousness. However, his presence in the act fails to escape his notice. He observes himself immersed.
AM: In 1978, I graduated from NCA.
ML: With a major in painting?
AM: Yes, and did a few electives in sculpture and some printmaking as well.
Not many jobs were available and there was plenty of time to work. So, in the next few years, I worked industriously and produced a large quantity. In 83, I joined the NCA and was still working intensively in drawing, but I was not looking for a show. I wasn’t interested.
ML: So one can assume that you weren’t offering any short term or immediate comments, and perhaps those works assume a cohesive body in retrospect?
AM: Not a body, but a reference. I’ve still kept them. It’s a private portfolio, (consisting of) live drawings and portraits. They are very striking, emotional images, very special to me.
ML: But they are not premeditated at all?
AM: No. Except that when you sit down to draw, when you are working everyday for a certain number of hours and finishing something, it becomes intended. This exercise has been quite beneficial: quick drawings and mixed media. A few of these images are from that series. These are very innocent and emotional drawings…Back then there was a lot of courage to do self portraits: to bring the self in (to the image) physically and make it stand in a context, object or narrative. Now doing the same seems very direct.
Then I went to London. These are some litho(graph)s I did there. This is more of a sophisticated medium.
ML: You mentioned that you had done printmaking before going for a Higher Diploma to London.
AM: Only a little bit, a few plates. In my second year at the NCA we did a few lithographs on stone with an Ustad jee and after that Colin David made us do a few etchings at Punjab University and that’s all. There was no printmaking going on at that time. Printmaking started when Anwar (Saeed) and Najji (Nazish Ata Ullah) returned from their studies.
When I returned from London, I started doing some oil paintings. I believe I have periods in my work: for a year or two I stick to one medium after which it gets exhausted and the narrative too, starts getting repetitious or both of them start becoming so clever that it gets a bit acrobatic. Had I continued working with line etchings for another twenty years, I would certainly be known as Afshar Malik Line Etching and that is my own loss. In any case, I do understand how long the duration of these phases should be that you end up with a satisfying portfolio. I have a certain appetite for these (changes) and it’s playful for me. I’m basically not a vocalist but an instrumentalist but through my instruments I’m trying to do a vocal thing. These techniques are close to playing instruments: you have to learn them to be able to play them.
This is an image from a series of line etchings. I got serious about one work. I wanted to sit down for a few years pick up a technique that slowed me down, perhaps because I didn’t fully know how to execute it. This technique was a bit like spontaneous embroidery, an association I have returned to with my current practice. I was working with a needle on a hard ground moving one dot and one line at a time and gradually the shimmering silver of the plate underneath was emerging which looked quite precious.
ML: This also requires one to be stationary since one cannot lug around a sensitive hard ground plate for fear of damage.
AM: Yes, I used to come straight to the studio from college and there I had set up a drafting table where I kept the plates underneath a towel. I had a special seat made out of wood which was a bit higher than ordinary and I had to step up to sit on it. It was like driving a car; you had to stay upright and alert. Taking cues from the activity I was involved in, I was very cautious and worked carefully even if that meant covering a very small area in one day. This is the kind of story that you write slowly and deliberately. If for moment, it ceases to make sense, you stop and return to it later. In the meantime, I used to start another plate. But this didn’t happen often with me. On the contrary, when I started working, I would have one story in mind but newer things would keep occurring which I kept incorporating and the technique eventually helped make a link. This technique: the trees, the plants, the dots and the line, Madyha, it was as if I had these lying with me in little containers, as if I was stitching on colored beads. Char piyaliaN moteoN ki aur aath kisam ke dhaage.
It was all very vague and had a poetic symbolism that arose spontaneously but I was working with a lot of conviction. I was aware of the underlying narrative that was automatically emerging and I was steering it.
These here are purer paintings. The technique is immensely involved in constructing the context of this piece. Due to the surprise in the technique, you get boggled at first when you look at this. The contrast and the happenings, it’s like you grabbed some unusual and disparate things and tied them together into a strange but convincing assembly. It started out raw at first and then with many additions and subtractions, the image emerged from the flurry of physical activity. There are a few collages on this that I pasted at the beginning but are no longer visible.
What do you get out of it?
ML: Ye tou kaafi lambi kahani hai. I’m rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude for a book club these days and this man is reminding me immensely of the early Jose Arcadio Buendia who is so mesmerized by the inventions that Melquiades brings to the village that he is almost vulnerable, all the more so because in a second reading you are now aware that this will result in his undoing.
AM: Yes, he looks like that. The man is so fragile that it’s very disturbing actually. The way he is delicately holding a steering wheel and in the other one a cigarette. And of course, it is contorted because you can’t sit like that, with your hand stretched back over the headrest. However, his portrait is very Christ like with a pale halo behind him. So, irony and pain… I mean, for this painting it is very rare that I receive a response or not many articulate it. Sometimes, I pursue this expectation of not getting a response. Some work is arising from this need. It is only now occurring to me what the need is to pull such stunning antics: you create an image that is attractive to look at but is also disturbing, loud, challenging and tempting.
ML: How important is an audience for you?
AM: Mera zyada ishara is towards your immediate viewer. They are people from my family, a few friends, some closer students and that is all. Actually, you are working for them; they are in your mind. So, they are the right and the practical viewers. What I mean by the lack of a response is that one can question something or get intrigued by it instead of being surprised by the technique all the time. “It’s a very stunning image” or “This is very interesting” but actually there is a tragedy in the image. No doubt this is a very self portrait. If you are genuinely feeling the irony of your very self, it will seep into your work. Sometimes you pacify it and at others you create a racket about it. Painting is a very good medium for such subjectivity. Although this (lack of response) is not an issue per se. Silence over your work is also a readable response. Also, finally the taqdeer of your image that it is going to be put up somewhere and occupy a space means that perhaps it will continue to elicit articulated response despite your absence.
ML: Tell me a bit about your experiences as an art educator. Has it influenced you?
A lot. The way I have cherished the processes of making art, I understand how the context of the college has helped immensely where every year students are struggling, concentrating and are so engaged. And apart from that, educating itself has helped me because sometimes when I’m suggesting something to a student I’m very glad that I’m also thinking of it for the first time. I’m not applying a formula. At other times, looking at images and hearing the students out, you have to decide to step back. I think my own practice has helped me understand why images are made haltingly, what kinds of problems the students may be facing. Usually the problem is extrinsic of the image: the lack of studio, a space, time to work and many distractions. Therefore, I try to counsel students.
I feel blessed to have been a teacher. I try not to mould each student into an image of The Artist but I hope to further and deepen the intrigue a student already possesses.
ML: Tell me more about the establishment of the Cowasjee Printmaking Studio.
AM: I think the story of the printmaking studio has been written a number of times. Right now I want to explore fresher perspectives, things I haven’t thought of before. Printmaking is a manual process that uses chemicals – chemistry and with these processes image is indirect which is challenging, playful and sometimes fruitful without too much effort. On the other hand, sometimes a lot of effort can result in ruin so it is risky as well. The practice of printmaking and ceramics, they are almost the same. I also had a ceramic workshop and for six to seven years, I worked like a very content and disciplined ceramist. I remember one thing that I was drenched in sweat from head to toe but I used to enjoy it a lot, particularly in the summers because the clay dries soon and you can move faster.
Both are dictated by scientific principles. You cannot deny that a salt is a salt and you have to know about all of these chemicals, the heating processes, the resulting reactions. On the other hand, I feel like paintings and drawings are more alert activities. You have to keep your eyes open, you can’t dream while painting but you can dream when bending a wire or even in printmaking because they are indirect. You are absorbed in the beauty of the system and the medium and time passes. The image therefore, happens on its own.
Though, I feel like I am physically not a painter, it is not in my psyche. I did a few paintings, but it pulled me down. It was overly subjective. I’m closer to these other mediums where, for example, I’m drawing a horse by bending a wire and somewhere along the way it becomes an elephant and later the elephant is hinting at something else so I’ll go all the way. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of direct painting as wanting to teach you something. A canvas in not a blackboard. If, on the other hand I infuse it with my madness, my instinctive humor or other such small things then it can reach somewhere, it can communicate. I’m not worried if the result is aesthetically pleasing or popular. (Pauses) Bohat baRi baRi bataiN ker gaya huN meiN.
Madyha Leghari is a visual artist, writer and a graduate in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts, She lives in Lahore