Asma Mundrawala: Let’s begin by talking about your imagery. Who are these people in your paintings?
Moeen Faruqi: They are you, me and everyone around us. They are the post-partition generation and beyond. They represent my generation. When I started painting in the Eighties, I was preoccupied with this post-partition generation. I painted a portrait of a middle-aged couple, a man in a Sherwani and a woman in a Sari. They could represent my parents or those of anyone from my generation at that time. While they dominate the painting, they look quite lost; a sentiment I saw in my own parents, especially my father. They were struggling to make sense of their lives in an alien land. I felt that I shared that sense of alienation even though I was born here.
AM: I suppose you inherited that sense of alienation.
MF: Yes. Absolutely. It was a sense of alienation that many people experienced for different reasons. I also realised that this alienation was experienced by people living in large cities in any part of the world. And so my work began to engage with the urban experience. When I started painting, culture in the visual arts was largely being represented by folk iconography. This in itself was far too distant for me and I chose instead to represent my culture by painting these people set within their urban environs. There were observations that the people in the paintings appeared too western, but for me they were closer to reality than the folk images and were true representations of the culture I was living in.
AM: And so began these series of very urban narratives.
MF: Yes. They were all fabrications and invented situations, representing moments, incidents, lives and provoking viewers to reflect on our own lives. The people in my paintings were neither sad nor happy but rather carried a disturbed numbness about them.
AM: That sense of stillness and disquiet lives through in the work even now. The figures in the paintings encounter the viewer directly with their gaze. While this creates a relationship with the viewer, it is one that disturbs and unsettles.
MF: It is my effort to evoke a certain emotion in the work and it is a true test for me to see whether the work ultimately reflects the sentiment I intend for it to portray. If a painting provokes discomfort, this also suggests that a relationship is established between the viewer and the painting and that it is being acknowledged. The entire point is that the work has successfully been able to communicate with the viewer and that is what is essential.
AM: Who is your audience and how important is it for you that the narrative is perceived in the same way as you intend it to be?
MF: It isn’t important for it to be perceived in the same manner. There is an inherent narrative element in the work and I enjoy the variety of responses that a single narrative yields. It is the strength of the work that it leaves itself open to interpretation.
As far as audience is concerned, I think it is everybody. But I find that younger people tend to relate to the work more so now. When I was in my Thirties, I was speaking for my generation and people of my age group responded to the work. I find that happening now as young people relate to my work. I do think though that the audience is not related to age specifically. Those who will see a glimpse of their own lives in the work will naturally respond to it.
AM: Your titles often reference songs and music titles. Does music and literature inform your work?
MF: Very much so. Music is very close to my heart, specifically Jazz and Indian classical music. I’m in awe of good literature. I see a close relationship between poetry and painting, especially in the processes I employ to write verse and paint. Just like I break the order of words in poetry to construct it, I change the order of things previously closer to reality in a painting and reinvent it. This gives me license to play with the sense of disbelief. By changing expressions, enhancing and distorting colours, vantage points, perspective, I recreate the image as I want it to be seen.
AM: In your early works what was very noticeable in your paintings was the unusual vantage point that led the viewer into the work. It was almost a bird’s eye view into the scene. This has changed over the years and we see a very formal and structured approach in the way you construct the paintings now.
MF: Unholy Night is a good example of the approach I took on in the earlier works. I’m fond of it, with its very theatrical set up. Yet I often want to break that and you find this in Endgame with its broken perspective, jigsaw-like quality and the contrast of scale in the figures.
AM: Who are your influences historically?
MF: I remember completely relating to the German Expressionists when I started painting. Their work really moved me and communicated with me. I also related a lot to Souza’s work. I met him a few times when he came to Karachi and he also showed an appreciation for my work.
AM: Over the years your relationship with painting has remained the constant unifying thread, where you may have explored different mediums within painting but have chosen to remain with painting as your medium of expression.
MF: I feel I still have so much to say and learn in painting itself that my priority is to simply pursue “pure painting”. I love that phrase and I love being a “pure painter”. I did venture towards other approaches; printmaking through a workshop and then my painted sculptures. But my main aim is to address the medium of painting itself.
AM: It’s quite evident that your relationship with the medium has evolved over the years.
MF: I think I have learned over the years. And things have gradually evolved. On a purely technical basis, my skill has improved. I’m spending more time on my paintings, making fewer works that demand a greater sense of detail. My colour palette has changed. This happens with time as you gather the courage for example to use pure colours directly from the tube. Strange as it may seem, it takes years of practice to arrive at a point when you know whether a painting works or not once it is complete. Ultimately the visual appeal must be there.
AM: Certainly the use of colour is very unusual. The coloured light falling on the characters lends a very theatrical appeal to the work.
MF: I think my work has really moved on in terms of colour. It used to be very monochromatic. With time I realised that you can manipulate everything. It’s fascinating how everything is within your touch. Change the colour of hair to blue, throw a green light on a face. It’s like the magic realism of painting. Of course it’s very contrived, made very purposefully to create a particular sentiment and evoke a certain response from the viewer.
AM: So in that respect you are a formalist who places a lot of emphasis on the visual and technical aspect of the work.
MF: Absolutely. It has to work visually. But it’s not only about technique naturally, and personal expression is vital to the work. You can have a very academic, formally competent portrait that has no appeal because it lacks heart. This is where the innovation and creativity of the artist comes in. You have to play with that and not just present your subject in an academic fashion. Your contribution to the work as an artist and your signature has to be alive in the work. I feel that you need to put your heart on the line. You have to expose yourself if you want to make anything, whether it’s writing, music, acting, painting, or whatever it is that you are engaged with. You can’t be afraid of being vulnerable. I think this is evident in my work or in the work of artists such as Anwer Saeed, who is very much present in his work. He is courageous and allows himself to expose his inner self. The self-confessional narration is present in his work. Perhaps some people are not comfortable to live with such honest works, but the autobiographical quality is the very essence of it. It’s impossible to stay aloof and then expect something expressive to emerge. Sure, something or the other will emerge, but it will lack spirit.
AM: How do you situate yourself in the contemporary art practice of Pakistan and how do you see the role of painting within it?
MF: Sometimes I don’t feel part of the mainstream. There are so many streams and means of expression within the visual arts, and yet I feel as if I’m on my own. As a painter, sometimes one does feel left out, isolated, even passé. I love the richness and diversity that we see around us. People are making films, installations; they all add to the abundance of the landscape. I love the fact that so many artists are working at so many different things. It spreads from one end of the spectrum to another.
As far as painting is concerned, we see a lot of young artists who are just practicing painting. But I do not share their concerns. Their work is a very different genre of art. Their approach is photo realistic but it also has a certain oriental touch to it. I have a phrase for it … I call it Contemporary Orientalism. I often question the presence of the artist in these works. Often in these technically competent, beautifully made works, there is no heart.
AM: There is, of course, Anwer Saeed in Lahore, who maintains his relationship with painting.
MF: Certainly. Anwer is a good friend and a great influence on my work. I love his devotion to painting and his figurative and narrative style. I also like Iqbal Hussain’s early work in particular. Then there was Asim Butt, who was very devoted to his medium and it was heartening for me to see someone like him dedicated to painting and sharing similar formal concerns. I thought he had so much promise and his untimely death was a great loss to me as a friend and as an artist.
You see painting has a visceral appeal that newer forms of art do not possess. Painting has a very different relationship with viewers and collectors. Comparatively it is less academic in that it does not require explanations. It has a very direct appeal for the viewer. This is what I really love about painting. It does not need an intermediary. Whereas the new forms within visual art require an intermediary either in the form of some text or a statement. They have a completely different set of demands.
AM: Let’s talk about your newest works, the Karachi Series.
MF: This is the beginning of what I hope will be an extensive series. I enjoyed making these immensely. These were freer works and making multiple images did not confine me to one theatrical window and its demands. Instead these were several windows that could be assembled in any arrangement, exactly in the manner of putting together broken arrangements of words in a poem. The process was more playful and emotionally less demanding compared to the larger, single-framed theatrically set works.
AM: In terms of content and narrative how are these works different from your other works?
MF: For one, there are several narratives going on simultaneously. It isn’t a single story line. This is a kaleidoscopic view into multiple lives. In many ways the figures in these paintings are completely disconnected with each other. Yet they are physically connected. However what attracts me most about these is their visual appeal, which is very important for me. I truly believe that the message should not be greater than the medium. This is the same for literature and poetry in particular. And this is what I fault much of contemporary art with, where the message is larger than the medium and you always need an intermediary. You are not looking at the medium and the visual appeal does not hold greater emphasis. For me, the visual appeal is the essence of the argument and holds prime importance in a work of art.
AM: How do feel about showing outside of Pakistan, sometimes at the cost of not being seen here?
MF: Yes I showed recently in Singapore. I do feel a sense of loss when the work does not get seen here though. For many reasons I find that people here relate to the work more. This is perhaps because I’m a Pakistani. One works so hard to put a body of work together and it is important that people who follow your work or share your concerns get to see it. Although my work has an international appeal and has an audience in other parts of the world, I am primarily interested in showing it here.
AM: Does your work raise a different set of questions when it is received abroad? Does the exotic appeal of being from another country come in the way of how it is perceived?
MF: No, my work is very neutral in that sense. It could be from anywhere in the world. In any case I do not aim to confine myself to Pakistan and its borders. I prefer the work to have a global appeal. I’m against lending exoticism to art. It’s very easy to take that route and if it’s forced upon a work, it is quite evident. But that is completely contrary to my concerns. My life and outlook is very urban and my work reflects it. It has a universal appeal about it and so I’ve never had issues about it being received differently in other parts of the world.
In that year
they left the old house
taking the odour of clothes
We replaced the trees and crows,
and planted fresh birth sounds
and sleep sounds.
We changed nameplates.
We changed the street.
Even now when the pot boils
on the old stove
making tinny sounds,
it is the noise of the morning women
restless, and the men demanding bread.
There is cement on sandstone,
concrete on the ground
where the sleeping desert
But from the cracks in the wall
the house speaks.
There is breath
coming from the black loam
around the rose bush.
The ants speak.
The wind that slaps the west wall
I can smell the master’s dream
in his old white vest,
soiled and tattered,
holding the bricks of the wall.
Shadows of bones
walk in the night.
The house bares its soul
with each monsoon drop
on the windowsill.
First published in Verse, Scotland
Asma Mundrawala is Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Art, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She is a visual artist and theatre practitioner with a DPhil from the University of Sussex, UK. Asma lives and works in Karachi.