Naeem Pasha is a living treasure in the Pakistani art world; a Renaissance man who has successfully worked in the fields of architecture, art and poetry. I was lucky enough to sit down with him for the better part of an hour to discuss his navigation through these different fields of work and his views on Pakistani art.
Cosima Brand: Your mainstay work is architecture but you have interests and expertise in other fields as well: art, poetry. How do these fields complement each other? How have you managed to straddle different worlds?
Naeem Pasha: As you say I’m trained as an architect; that’s where my bread comes from. But since childhood I have liked to paint and draw. As a young child my mother would give me a pillow cover and say that the woman who will do cross stitching is coming and I want you to enlarge this flower and put it on this corner of the pillow; so I would enlarge it – this as an eight year old boy. So that is where art was from. I started painting in watercolor and oil by the time I was twelve and I would see these art magazines and I would get hold of one and without realizing I would copy a Rembrandt, exactly the size of the book; I didn’t think they could be any bigger. I always made it like that (the size of the magazine). And I thought Rembrandt was the easiest thing to copy, because of the light and shade; it was so clearly defined. But in reality it is not, right, the gradation is all there in fact. But anyway I thought that that was the easiest thing to do.
Poetry came much later, in 1965, 1966; I was just graduating in architecture, when I started writing my first poems. I had written one or two earlier but I thought that it was just a fluke that this rhyme came to me; but all poems come, without writing. So when it started flowing, I realized that I have something to say.
CB: Is that the same process that happens with your art as well? When you feel like you have something to say you paint, or is it more conceptual than that?
NP: Because I was doing architectural paintings in watercolors I already knew the composition of scenes and all that; the urge to paint was always there since childhood. And when I got into the National College of Art I saw all the raw art and I would go out into the Lawrence Gardens and draw trees and then we would get models for sculpture and drawing classes; when I graduated and I had my first apartment and I felt that my walls are bare and then I said “OK, let’s make some paintings to fit here.” That’s how I started painting. It was also my association, over a year and a half, with the National College of Art – before I went into engineering. That was very, very enriching; I learned a lot, and I found the passion and I thought a lot and I wanted to be somebody and do something.
CB: Is that the drive for architecture for you; to be somebody?
NP: To be able to say that there was a certain time at which I was present and as luck would have it, it got done by me. So if that happens, it will be great.
CB: I think it’s safe to say it has happened! I’m interested that you were saying in your first apartment that the walls were bare because through my research, I’ve seen you were quite harsh against painters who painted for the wall; in one comment you had mentioned your dislike for artists who painted for ‘ladywives’ to hang in their drawing room…
NP: Well everybody wants to have some sort of art of their own understanding; so that urge is natural. Some eyes are trained, some eyes are educated and some just have the desire to put something nice and then they end up matching the sofa and curtains with the autumn hues of a painting; I am against that. I think all colors are in nature so it doesn’t mean that you have one palette and you go just brown and shades of brown, or red and shades of red. There are these monochromatic themes that a lot of interior designers also get into and say, “These are my colors.” Ok fine, but don’t force them on the client; it is not their color. As a young man I was very, very rigid about it; I don’t want to move a wall an inch just because the client wants it and I would fight and fight and fight. My wife would say “why don’t you give them a little bit” and I would say “No, it’s my design.” But now I say: “Ok, you want to choose the doorknobs, go ahead. You want to put a window in a certain way, go ahead.”
CB: In the end, they have to live there! So there is a place then for this kind of art in your world? Maybe not in your gallery though…
NP: Yes. I think this insipid art should be discouraged. The reason I’m saying this is that people buy according to the background of their walls or sofas. Fine, have that piece, but we should educate their eyes and make their eyes look another way which I think we have done a lot in these 35 years of Rohtas; from soldier to bureaucrat to industrialist to agriculturalist all have come around to buying something from Rohtas that was not, you know, goats in the field or bearded men in crayons and all this. So they have walked away from that and bought something more abstract or that has a little more meaning in it; that it says something and not just mere composition. So I think that Rohtas Gallery has been very successful in educating and converting a lot of people from just having something to put on the wall. Have we converted everybody? No, it’s not possible. And that’s why when we were the only gallery and then another gallery came up and another gallery came up and somebody says, “Aren’t you threatened by them?” And I say they have their own sense of what art is and I have my own sense and that doesn’t match, and even if it does match their stable of artists and their area of reach and my area of reach are different, and there’s market for everybody…
CB: I want to ask you, in the past, in Zia’s time, you had trouble with the polity; so with this government, or the previous government, do you feel they are sympathetic to art? Apathetic towards it? It’s not in their view or there’s not much interaction anymore?
NP: I don’t think at that level there is any awareness of what art is or should be; they do talk about culture and cultural values but they are mostly talking about tribal values or their sense of what Islamic values are and they look at it that way and it is still considered frivolous. I remember when we won the design competition for the National Art Gallery it was supposed to be where the Prime Minister’s Secretariat is; Nawaz Sharif was then Prime Minister and he said, “I want my Secretariat there.” But everybody said with the art gallery there and the theatre there and all these people with different careers would be coming from Pindi and around and it’s a government area and it should not be allowed. And he chose to build his Secretariat there, which put us all over the place. We finally built where we built and right now their only sign of interest is that whatever kind of theatre or song and dance is on the auditorium side is constantly occupied, and the other side is getting totally neglected: When the tiles break because somebody dropped a hammer or something while putting up a painting, it is replaced by a different colored shade or size and it’s (the National Gallery) so patchy and getting so run down. I can’t take anybody over there anymore who’s asking me to do a building for them; I can’t show my showpiece because it’s so badly kept that they will say, “This is what you could provide?”
CB: So they’re basically neglecting the art side of things?
NP: That is because these bureaucrats don’t have any sense of what art and culture should be nor how much value you can get out of it internationally and they do not educate themselves to find out where art in Pakistan has gone from the 70s to now. Prior to the 70s it was still following western painters or their expression and way of painting because most of them were trained there; but here the transformation is totally, totally indigenous, even compared to anybody around: in India a lot of them are still painting in the European style and tradition, so are Sri Lankans, so are Nepalese, so are Bangladeshis, but not in Pakistan. Pakistan’s art is totally transformed and I used to say that it was thanks to Zia ul Haq, and my friends would fight me on that. But I say Fascism creates artistic expression. Under Hitler there were abandoned sewer lines where there were secret restaurants and hideouts and there would be people who would be making such caricatures about what’s happening up above, and masterpieces came out of that time because of the tyranny of the time. I think the blossoming of Pakistani art lies in the Zia era.
CB: Is that still continuing today amidst the turmoil we see here?
NP: Now I think the fire is lit so it has to keep going, it has to spread. I mean, Karachi is so fertile. There was a time when Karachi was the capital which bought art, it didn’t make art and all the galleries flourished; now not only Karachi buys art but she produces art and Karachi has changed its look on what art should be and art collectors have come out; people who specifically collect art. And Lahore because of the institutions, the National College was there and there was a major rivalry between Punjab University Fine Arts department and the NCA, and they were right across the street; it was always alive to a sense of art.
CB: Where do you think Pakistani art is headed?
NP: As I said, the fire is lit in every corner.
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan