Mona Naqsh took her formal training from her father Jamil Naqsh, the legendary artist of Pakistan, who now lives in London. Mona’s career began to shape in an artistic environment, where painters, writers, poets and collectors would frequently visit. She has created a niche for herself as an artist who has taken flowers as her subject, she has been painting flowers for twenty seven years. Her most recent exhibition, Reincarnation of Soul, was held at Koel Gallery, Karachi, from 24 November to 4 December 2015.
Varda Nisar: Let’s begin with your choice of your subject. Why flowers?
Mona Naqsh: It communicates joy, it brings happiness, it brings a smile to your face. I don’t want to paint depression because we have done enough destruction to our society. When you open TV, there is depressing news, every channel, when you open the news channel again depression. You start your day with depression and then you again hang something depressing. I don’t want to paint depression and people hang that (on their walls). What impact would it have on your personality?
VN: I went through your catalogue and it mentioned that flowers are something that has always interested you. You even studied the Buddhist flower and the lotus flower.
MN: Yes of course, Varda, when you start your subject, of course your approach at that time is different. When I started painting flower, my approach was (focusing on) the petal, the texture, the background, you know the basic things. But once you get the hold of these things, you look beyond to the subject, you go into the depth. You go into the under layers and the beauty of the subject.
My father always said the subject is not important. Then I always questioned that. But now I know the subject is not important. You need to dig out the reality, the beauty, the philosophy behind your subject. When I was reading Buddha, in his last sermon, he didn’t say a word to his disciple. It was called a Silent sermon, he just held a lotus flower and only one of his disciple smiled (because) he understood the meaning behind that.
The current exhibition is about hope and regeneration. If you see the first painting, it’s the name of the god written and the meaning is Paida karne wala, zinda karne wala (the one to give birth, the one to give life). There is a series of painting in which there is a flower the first day and after third day, you see how it changes and then in the end, there is a dead flower but even in that dead flower, there is a hope.
VN: You mention also in the catalogue that there is this theme of worship and creativity and how they go side by side. How do you feel as a creator who is again putting on canvas this idea of constant regeneration?
MN: Regarding that, I realized that after performing Hajj, which I didn’t mention in particular in the article. You need absolute confinement from the outside world, disconnect yourself, and then you get connected with God. The same applies in creativity. My studio is very peaceful, it’s very neat, and it’s very clean. Everything is in order, disciplined, organized, and I am absolutely involved when I paint. Anybody who is creating something gets completely involved. At times, you solve the problem of your painting with a single line; there is a single line that helps in solving the problem of the whole painting. And of course, when you find that line, to us ka liye to khamoshe chahiye. To shor mein woh line kaha dikhe ge (for that you need the quiet. You can’t find that line in chaos). That’s why worship and creativity are well connected with each other.
VN: Your work is very different as compared to your father’s. I am sure this comparison must have happened a million times. But both of you have been able to find very different subjects. While your father’s earlier subjects were very controversial, figurative, out there, your work is completely opposite Its very feminine, peaceful, tranquil.
MN: Regarding my father’s work, women and pigeons both are the symbols of love and happiness. And so are flowers, it is another subject but the meaning is the same.
VN: Do you think with your body of work there is a chance that people sometimes dismiss you as a not very contemporary artist, or not a very serious artist, considering the subject matter and if taken on a very superficial level, at a first glance, where your philosophy is not taken into account?
MN: If you study the masters, every master paints flowers in search of beauty and every master says this is the thing which I have done and always wanted to do. There is a whole school in it. This requires discipline which is demanded by miniature, there is finesse, colors, everything is there. But yes, if you compare my work with today’s’ contemporary art, of course it is absolutely different. But it is the history that decides. What is your achievement? When I show my work to someone, immediately there is a smile that comes on their face. When they leave the place, they call me that your picture is still in our mind. That’s the achievement. That’s my hard work.
VN: So you are okay with that tension that is out there in the art world?
MN: There are always going to be people in every time and era to question that art is not for beauty or beauty’s sake. And the contemporary work or conceptual work that is always there. But the example I always give is that there is Frere Hall, and then a hotel across it, which one do you see? For how long can you see that and enjoy the modern? Hard work can be seen, it’s in the atmosphere.
In my work, there is modern touch as well, I treat my medium like water color, there are drawings also, there is color handling, there is maturity, it’s a vast body of work.
VN: Your work has always been admired and you hold your own position in the art world. But how do you handle the critics of your work? Is fighting this distinction something that you are okay with now? How do you deal with that?
MN: I am a female artist. There are other responsibilities I have to look after. I have a family. I don’t want to disturb that part. If I don’t accept that responsibility, then that irritation can be seen in my work. Then I have to manage how I work, how I exhibit. If I don’t manage that, everything gets disturbed. After every two years, I do my solo show. I don’t exhibit in a group show, rarely (I do so). This is the way I want to work, how I have to handle things. Whatever is happening, if my hard work is seen even after two years, then I have achieved what I want to. I have no issues.
VN: Do you think your life would have been different if you had not chosen the family path? Do you think your work would have been different?
MN: Of course. Maybe I could have explored more. Maybe I could have travelled more. But when you have a family, you have to accept the responsibility. The beauty that is there, the love that is there, that softness, develops your personality more. That can be seen in your work. Your painting is a mirror of your soul. There is so much disturbance out there; I don’t want to be selfish. If you are disconnected, then who is there to enjoy it with? When you have left everything behind, who would you enjoy that with? But then everyday is not the same. Things change, kids grow up, they understand that ama has work. I have two daughters and they understand my work. This is my training. My father trained me as well that way.
VN: Has there been a great mentoring relationship between you and your father?
MN: Yes. Well our relationship as a teacher, aba taught us through question. His studio was not permitted to us to visit frequently. We didn’t use to see him for weeks. But once his paintings used to come to the second floor for framing, then we used to see the textures, and the colors, and then we used to try to copy it. When we used to go to the galleries, aba used to ask us different questions, then we realized this is how we have to see the paintings. We learned with the questions, through observations. That’s how we were trained. Whenever we used to go to the studios, aba always used to ask us, “Has that gamla been watered?” and then you are thinking, and if we didn’t know the answer, then we would be scolded (laughs). So responsibility, the training has happened as such. Aba ka sath there is still a different relationship as compared to what kids have today. Even today if he calls us, we stand up from the sofa. There has always been a respect; he has a personality, a great aura. He tried to teach us a lot, observation was a big part of it.
VN: Your daughter is also becoming an artist right?
MN: I have two daughters. My younger daughter paints, though she wants to be a doctor. But I always want her to an artist.
VN: Is there an increased pressure then? Firstly, for you and now your daughter?
MN: No, no pressure. When I was young, I always tried to copy the masters. At that time, we had a limited amount of pocket money to buy colors. And as soon as aba was away we used to get hold of his color palate. And it was not a pressurized decision. But it was in college that I started taking it seriously. Till metric, I was just copying. But at that time, you don’t understand the seriousness of that profession. That this has to be done, you can’t leave it in the middle. At times, I used to start crying in the middle, because you used to get disconnected with friends, as you are working. But it was never a pressure. I always wanted to paint.
VN: so when did the flowers start?
MN: Still life I used to paint. Then abu used to bring bougainvillea, he arranged it and asked me to paint. There were so many of them, the three dimensional effect, then the stems going in the water, the crystal, and though it is looking white, but there are colors in it too. Then the background, the colors, but then I made it. And I said that I would never make it again. But aba said you would do this forever. But I enjoyed it. We even used to steal flowers then (to paint).
VN: Do you think with every exhibition, this topic has evolved for you in a certain way for you?
VN: How so?
MN: In the treatment. At times you are working carefully but with the passage of time, the color treatment, just like that (snaps her fingers) you find something new. The hard work becomes easy. It’s self-discovery. Like the drawings, I did them when we were on vacation; I painted flowers at the airport, in the plane, at a guest’s house. The moment should not pass away now. But this series, I loved a lot. I painted each flower ten times. There are other things also; the treatment of calligraphy with the meaning and the flower was also very new.
VN: There is a lot of softness, smoothness in your work, like something is floating in the air. But it seems like every flower has a story behind it.
MN: Varda, it’s not a story. I don’t believe in stories. I believe in substance. If there is substance, then the story will come out on its own.
VN: Isn’t that contradictory, that the subject doesn’t matter?
MN: Because you have to go beyond. Like God’s work. My work is based on religious philosophy. Now there are 99 names, I have taken 2. In that, the relation has been established. It already exists and I have painted that. There is no story there. For me this is all experience. There is a life cycle told by God. It’s not a story. It’s a fact. That fact I have brought out in flowers, my subject. This is a fact, a reality.
VN: Just one last thing it seems very anticlimactic that despite all your travels to other places of worships as well, you found God in one place only. That seems very pre- determined. Why did your connection not take place in some other place?
MN: The point here is the connection that I am looking at is with connectivity. The atmosphere that is there, I want that in creativity as well. That environment can be found and accepted in worship but when you are creating something and looking for just that, then the peace that is needed cannot be found. From guests, to phone, etc. They would accept to be silent if you are worshipping but not if you are working. That is my point.
VN: It has been lovely talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.
MN: It was lovely meeting you too. You’re welcome.
Images courtesy Koel Gallery.
Varda Nisar is a researcher, curator, and director of the Karachi Children’s Art Fest.