On entering Afshaar’s Malik studio in Lahore, I was shown into a very crowded room. Dozens of complete strangers stared at me with mild interest from
On entering Afshaar’s Malik studio in Lahore, I was shown into a very crowded room. Dozens of complete strangers stared at me with mild interest from one wall. They stared at everything, actually. I found it a little unnerving but Afshaar Malik went around abstractedly, moving objects, clearing away stray furniture, making small talk and not caring one bit about those watchers on the wall. ‘Oh, that?’ he said, finally noticing my mixture of mistrust and fascination, ‘that is a 1936 photograph that I got enlarged and printed.’ The grainy, black and white photograph showed neat rows of figures posing self-consciously for the camera, the ones in the centre wearing garlands. It really is a very odd choice of wallpaper, I thought (it took me some time to warm up to that scratchy, monochromatic image of mostly mustached men). But on being told why he had chosen this specific image to deck his wall, I was won over.
Predating the Partition, the photograph had Sikh and Muslim sitters and even an Englishman. It was a motley of identities, something that made it relevant to the present age of interconnectedness. ‘It was a festive occasion, getting a photograph taken back then,’ explained Malik. ‘This particular one,’ he said, ‘was taken to commemorate one of the sitters’ farewell’ (now, the word ‘farewell’ is resolutely linked to melancholy in my head and I instantly turned back to the picture to locate signs of sadness in it – and, indeed, how very poignant the garlands seemed to look all of a sudden, how brittle the flowers). ‘When you enlarge a small picture, you turn it into a reality,’ he added, pondering over the picture too.
He had plans for this magnified photograph. It helped create an ambience. It also served as a backdrop to the sofas and chairs where his visitors sat and interacted. He was considering affixing a camera to the wall opposite so that intermittent pictures of his guests could be taken as they sat and talked in front of the image, slowly becoming impervious to its many (at first) intrusive gazes. ‘They look almost like an audience. When you work in their presence, does it make you feel like you’re performing?’ I asked. ‘You could say that,’ he answered. ‘Sometimes, on looking up from my work, I see them staring at me and it jars for a moment. But if it were just a solitary gaze, it would be more disconcerting. There are so many now that, for me, it becomes almost relaxing to work in front of them.’
The weight of the wallpaper on one side of the room was mitigated by fragile wire sculptures hanging from a window on the other. Made of pliable, light wire, these ranged from primitive, toy-like forms to markedly abstract ones. Two more lay half-finished on the desk below. Malik picked one up and began bending it, creating loops along its length. ‘This is a lot like spontaneous drawing,’ he remarked, explaining how he had taken up drawing with wire last year and how, for someone like him, it was gratifying to have an activity that engaged both hands. ‘This makes me want to take up the tabla again,’ he said, smiling. Again? Yes, it turns out he has played the classical instrument and enjoyed it.
Musical instruments also feature in some of the embossed drawings he is currently working on. He creates these by putting one of his wire compositions between two sheets of card and running them through the press. The result is a set of embossed, mirror images. He calls them ‘liquid drawings’ because of the automatism through which they come about. The first example he showed was a convolution of shapes and scribbles, a Miró drained of colour and left in the sun. ‘If I were to tell you what it was, only then would you be able to see it,’ said Malik, creating quite a bit of suspense. ‘What is it?’ I asked, not wasting a second. He pointed out a man with a crown, holding a microphone. ‘He’s singing, and if you observe the lower end of the drawing, you’ll see that he’s sitting on a harmonium.’
A second drawing he showed had more recognizable figures. A man and a woman sat on either end, separated by a commotion of tangled lines. They were regally attired, the man especially, sporting tassels and buttons and a swirling turban. ‘He’s a soldier,’ I was told. But he had a face as distinctly non-human as the woman’s. The third drawing featured a ‘conference’ (as Malik put it) of many such hybrid characters, whose costumes and postures were inspired by miniature paintings of nobles and courtiers. Malik seemed to have liberated them from the geometry of the miniaturized court, however, and they floated now like pleased swamis on air.
On remembering another piece he had been working on, Malik walked over to a pedestal and pulled the cover off of a cuboid formed with lots of interloped wire. ‘These wire structures that you see,’ he said, indicating the squiggles inside the wire cloud, ‘are hundreds of bicycles, tricycles and cannons.’ They were then linked to create the light, springy block. Himself visibly intrigued by its structure, Malik picked the block up and put it on different surfaces. He poked and probed it, wondering aloud what he should do with it next. ‘When lit from behind, it creates a shadow on the wall opposite,’ he said, then verbalizing the possibility of taking his 2D wire drawings and joining them all to create a kind of linear fabric or curtain for an installation. ‘This is an excellent way of passing time,’ he admitted, nodding at his wire creations, ‘I’m not doing something too serious when I’m working on these. You can’t do something serious all the time.’
We reminisced about the witty critiques he used to conduct on some of the students’ works when I was studying at NCA, Lahore, where he still teaches (and has a devoted fan following). He stressed that it was very important for a fine arts teacher who was also a practitioner to keep his own practice from impinging upon his students’. When asked about his impressive body of work which remains something of a mystery to many of them, he said that his work was a way for him to look at, and document, change informally. It was a ‘never ending story’, it was continuously informed by change. He felt that changes in your life provided a structure for your work. These could be anything – decisions, travels, losses, acquisitions.
On the significance of travel he was unequivocal. ‘Travel. Travel to the north and work there, or let the change of location translate into new work.’ For the past sixteen years, he has been going to hill stations every summer to work and this, he said, is an exercise in disorientation and re-orientation that every artist should undertake.
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