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In the Forest of Earthly Passions.

Dressed like an old Englishman – trousers pulled high up to the waist and fastened with suspenders, a tweedy jacket for the Islamabad winter, and round toed shoes – Tassaduq Sohail is in full form, with his impish grin, sarcastic laughter and sentences that tumble out quickly as if he has no time to waste saying what needs to be said. True to his tone today, the exhibition’s name is “Encrypted Satires”.
The exhibition is at Gallery 6, and it’s his first big show since ArtChowk in Karachi, before 2010. He had been ill and, he says, anger bristling through his words, people thought he was no longer able to paint. But he’s back, and he’s here to stay, and he has several girlfriends too. All at the ripe old age of 84. Unlike the new breed of artists, he never documented his work and had no records, and his experiences during the late nineties have taught him to be streetwise. So now, he has a manager.
When I ask about his career as an artist in London, where he lived for forty years from the early nineteen sixties, he says, “I never earned much money, but I didn’t need much either. Some wine, cheese, bread – and the company of women.” Female friends provided inspiration as well as modelling for him. The statement brings to mind the image of the poet in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, ”A Book of Verses underneath the Bough/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou/ Beside me Singing in the Wilderness.” He enjoyed the freedom of the West, but as time went by, he began to discern gaps in the state system. What brought him back to the home country was the realization that aging alone in the West, without family connections, could be lonely. It could also prove dangerous if one fell seriously ill. So he returned in the nineteen nineties, and soon thereafter the prices of his work, which hitherto sold for very little locally, suddenly escalated. He now has so much work that it’s difficult to complete commissions. And while it’s clear that he has a healthy disdain for materialism, he enjoys the financial success that living in Pakistan has brought him.
We go downstairs to the gallery, where he gestures towards a large canvas of two nudes painted in thick, deft streaks of green and brown. They are like metamorphosed trees, knotted, with sly mouths, and their hair is composed of swirling snakes. “Karachi’s Medusas,” he announces mischievously with a flourish. Almost instantly, he becomes serious and clarifies, “I learned painting because of woman. Because woman is God’s masterpiece. Mullahs want to cover her up, but she should not be hidden.”
Between this and a Medusa who stands with her back to the viewer, her full head of red-tongued snakes bristling sideways and downwards, is a rendition of The Last Supper. It isn’t the first time he’s painted Christ’s Last Supper, he says. In this version, which is like a naïve painting, the apostles are local fishermen—it was the poor fisher folk, he says, who followed Jesus. The apostles’ faces are worn, grey-patched, humble, watchful; Jesus is large, white-faced, serene. This painting is a commission for a collector living abroad, and is executed in bright, clear colours, in the manner of the works displayed at his Nomad Gallery exhibition in 2003.
The bulk of the works in this exhibition are large scale. His last show in Islamabad, at Nomad Gallery, also featured paintings of similar sizes, very different at that time from the characteristic small, jewel-toned paintings that people were accustomed to. At Gallery 6, the largest panel measures 24 by 48 inches. But unlike the works at Nomad, these are executed using the palette knife technique, to which he has returned after more than a decade. Many of them are divided on a grid, so that they present a narrative sequence. In several panels, some sections of the grid are painted in light, bright pastels while others feature muddied brown, dun and green. Other paintings are in vibrant hues: yellows, reds, greens, offset by shades of brown. In one big panel depicting women in many roles, again a commission, a small section in the grid shows a group of bearded men clad in red, standing facing the viewer; one has folded his hands in front of him. They stand in judgment on women, unable to reconcile themselves to their freedom or power.
Another series of panels using the grid are sets of portraits. The faces express a range of emotions – from contemplation and tenderness, to longing, lust, contempt, bestiality, violence. The largest among these features sets of couples, whose faces run the gamut of emotions, each presenting a different face – perhaps only one pair is in harmony. Along one side of this panel are male faces, two of which are shown with the female torso. The bottommost face in this row is stretched abnormally wide, contorted so that it resembles a split persona.
Although the large panels form the bulk of the exhibition, there are some smaller works in his trademark style which he calls the creative forest; “God created a jungle-like world.” These use the technique of fritting using glass, creating rippled patterns in vivid colours from which the artist draws out forms with his brush: the female nude, parrots, peacocks, beasts, waterfalls, fish. They give the paintings the effect of reverie, and appear as if the forms were waiting to be discovered amidst the foliage. He admits that in the past, he titled the paintings with a line of text to tease the viewer’s imagination, but pressed for time, he has currently abandoned the practice. But, he enacts a dialogue for a beautiful painting of a woman facing a waterfall and surrounded by trees with parrots. “Parrots represent love. Here, one parrot is asking the other, ‘What’s she doing?’ And the other answers, ‘She’s bathing in preparation for someone, for someone she loves.’” It’s a reminder that Tassaduq was once a writer of short stories.
It’s clear that Tassaduq paints what is inside his head. He does this unthinkingly. He paints his very personal inner world, in which animals enunciate what humans can’t or don’t, in the wee hours of the morning – what he calls, in one of his lapses from native to English idiom, ”the witching hour”. These are the hours when human beings are said to be endowed with extra powers of creativity and observation. It is this heightened sense that enables him to envision man’s innermost thoughts and their inextricable connection to the physical world: in other words, the subconscious, with its attendant passions. And while he dismisses formal religion, his work brims with reverence and references to good and evil in the garden of humanity. His paintings are full of clever inference, from the way he uses the palette knife – twisted, straight, knotted; to the manipulation of frotted colours which make the creative forest, and the use of colour, sometimes soft or at times, as in the portraits, so bright that they impart a harsh, almost garish quality. It’s a powerful cocktail.

Encrypted Satires ran from 2-14 February 2013 at Gallery 6, Islamabad.
Ilona Yusuf is

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