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The Man Who Grew His Own Wing: Anwar Saeed

Sehr Jalil: Was observation the first alphabet of your ‘image-making’ or did imagination play a bigger role even in the beginning?   Anwar Saeed: It is somehow the urge of creating this other reality which relies mainly on imagination. As a teenager I doodled different kinds of faces in my copies and that was all imagination/memory without reference – during the ‘seventy one’ war one of the earliest hints of this imaginative pursuit occurred when there was an allegoric reality of our missing bomber plane. I drew my own vision of it in the clouds. I copied Indian film stars like young Dilip Kumar through photographic reference and made him hold a bird in his hand, it was bemusing because that practice continued later as a visual artist. Our mode of art education is somehow impressionist and thereby institutes follow a structure of observational practice where we study the model or an object. That training may develop a vocabulary which exudes integrity of work. A fond memory of this amalgamation of training and observation is a train trip to Peshawar with a friend when I was a second year National College of Arts student – the license to observe captivates attention and open discovery, in a world with so many censorships you are allowed to ‘look’ freely and the subject consumes you; thus we achieved celebrity status in that train, observing, drawing and knowing the fellow passengers. The crux of this matter maybe a step higher than both the things that we are addressing; it is the inner-frame of the observer ; desire, emotion, attachment, intuition and human experience beyond definition…all may process the imagination to observe what it is seeing. Van Gogh observed and painted his own pair of worn-out shoes so dear to him, his past experience with them made it supersede all previous imagination and observation.   S.J:  I See your drawing as paintings and many a times your paintings as drawings, both being thorough entities, where do we draw the line as to what is what, is there any distinct line? And does one have a higher status than the other?   A.S: There’s absolute pleasure where distinctions become unimportant, such as works of art that are painting and drawing both. I’m not and have never been for purity-although we as Pakistani Muslims are forced to believe – the name Pakistan; Land of the pure is just one example – in actuality we are a counter culture living a multitude of experiences, purity is inadequate and obsolete.  Drawing and painting both are absolute and many a times my drawings have initiated an entire body of work in other mediums like painting or printmaking; that’s how thorough I consider it as a practice. In 1990 when I had a studio at upper mall I made two drawings of a man with a growing wing – a character born through the necessity and habit of alienation and aloofness from his own environment – a wing, an outlandish growth evolved as a critique or comment on how you can be seen as ‘the other’ in your own environment. That growing wing appeared in my drawings first.   S.J: Upon surveying your imagery I see the composition as a core of your narrative. How do you construct it, does it evolve or is it planned?   A.S; Yes it serves to excavate different volumes and tones of reality where multi figures, couples, objects all form a story dependent on their arrangement. Thankfully it is never the reality itself for who would be fascinated by what is already there! It celebrates the content and magnifies it. There has never been a particular formula;the process comprises extremes – deliberate removing and adding, hiding and confiding. Self-aesthetic critique is predominant and decisions about color as part of composition with all its depth, saturation and contrast all contribute to the making of meaning in a visual through composition. I’ve made images with minimalist compositions but I highly appreciate an origin from complexity.   S.J: There are couples, man-man, man-woman in a number of your works but despite seeing communion there’s an eerie sense of longing that is visible, kindly shed some light on that;   A.S: It is since times immemorial that the individual is left accountable for and alone in his pain and suffering. Every piece of art is a self-portrait probably that reflects in these communions. I remember a childhood incident where during our play in the park I couldn’t cope up with the demand of playing because I was suffering a severe headache, I contested with pain for a long time for the joy of playing but eventually I’d to retire. So even in very rare matters of immense love where you can share pain or empathize with someone mutually – body and soul are eventually alone in their sufferings. On the other hand people with different inner worlds may linger on superficial interests for some time but it doesn’t last long, humans can have ‘nice’ give and take relationships. The apparent seclusion and isolation in body language or facial structure probably takes birth from this riddle of human existence.   S.J: The visuals impart a sound of their own, a glorious silence like the sound of water in the mountains or musical notes,- share about the presence of music and literature in your imagery?   A.S: I’m humbled by the sensitivity of your observation yet it would be ostentatious of me to imply that my work beholds all of that. Never the less I can comment on it; the sound of nature is more of a feeling which walks through the soul, body and to the image.It raptures us into another realm; air, wind, water, birds, instruments all can carve another land of the subconscious, ‘a dangerous area inside the soul’ that ignites with the magnitude of desert, sea, mountains, space, volume so beautiful, mammoth and unnerving in horizon that one may lose the ‘self’ – it is the flip side of closure and confinement of daily life and it can be heaven or hell. This has been prevalent in my concerns. For instance a waterfall outside my room in the mountains may be soothing the first few days but it changes its effect later in time; a sound so large and deep that it leaves nothing to cling to or is never to depart, touches the frightening part of soul that we usually disguise, hide and splendidly ignore as a routine.   About the literature part of your question; my childhood circumstances brought reading books, radio and music as a refuge. There wasn’t much time to play.Once in school I wrote one page character sketches of some of my class fellows and the teacher encouraged me on writing and reading more- that was elevating. One of the first books I read was Rajinder Singh Bedi’s. The musical theatre of Tufail Niazi at mela Shahlimar, circus and stage settings experienced in those days left a lasting impression on my young mind; literary concepts and poetic sensibility somehow became a part of my art making as the things you love remain with you…   S.J: You’ve traveled boundlessly through the ‘body’ in your visual vocabulary, share the reason for your attachment to it and the adventures/consequences painting it, entails;   A.S: It is a dichotomy, we live in our body yet it is a taboo in society. It is condemned and considered the centre of all shame and guilt. Through man-kind’s history and the three Abrahamic faiths, the way man constructed it; Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have accused the body as the house of sin. Some customs even give it pain for otherworldly rewards. Consequently very few cultures or families celebrate bodily affection, it is discouraged and self-censorship of emotion and flesh is the standard of piety. The intention behind painting the body is thereby one of relief or disobedience in an environment which restrains. I believe all strong work of art rejoices an innate disobedience. Apart from this I’ve never liked empty landscapes as the body appears to create dialogue in image.   S.J: The myth, floating beings, celestial spaces, sacred scripts, are you trying to finish the separation between heaven and hell, the skies and our land?   A.S: I did not have any particular intention as such but I’m aware of it and this vocabulary may have to do with the fact that I was raised in a strict religious environment. At age seven I’d read the Holy Quran and was accustomed to regular prayers. Worldly religion has given deep despair to the individual and society. It imparts consistent guilt with a permanent surveillance, celestial beings, angels…all are watching us.I used the Buraq ( ethereal religious being with woman’s head, horse’s body and wings) and it was taken as a folk or kitsch decorative symbol although that wasn’t my real intention; it was more of a spy keeping an eye on us from above. So it is somewhat a theater in the sky; the soul and the body surrounded and engulfed in another dimension with sacred looking elements. For instance the body lies while the soul plays with a tiger atop of it or soul dives back into the body or the angels put it back. Yes, there is no separation; hell is also here in individual suffering.   S.J: It’s my personal observation that the color palette works like a ‘lens’ for you, the lens have changed from blues and greens, to yellows and coffee – sometimes bright designs, patterns/dots are born into these schemes but what decides the tone of this lens? Is it the time, situation, mood etc.?   A.S: the color journey has been inward and outward for me, from the desire to explore it in all purity and passion to sensitive usage, it changed for the visual.It began in 78 when I was a student, with a rather naïve experimentation of color. Later on it came into entirely black works, especially when I went to England I was doing collages and etchings in black ink and I thought I was near to Rufino Tamayo’s discipline who believed he was  a colorist(like fauvists) whereas his usage of color was minimal and careful . The night skies, moon, people sleeping in parks were my spaces of wonder. I photographed them and I’d a dark room in my studio, where I developed the images I drew later. From there the lens changed to blue which was more of a psychological, subconscious space, deep-down under water, like the hidden essence of night which brings out a new reality. The tonal density and possibility of these blue spaces is as infinite as the spaces of mind, between the conscious and sub conscious. From here on it came back to a bold, vibrant scheme but this time with a better understanding which instigated deeply spontaneous yet responsible usage of color.     S.J: What role does the medium and surface play for your vocabulary, does content decide form or is it vice versa?   A.S; It is parallel processing. New content can create new dialogue and a demand for newer mediums. The process is a journey of choice, of creating a complex reality and what to keep and what to exhaust.Content and medium both have their moments of invention; sometimes a concern can demand a medium while on the other hand a medium may trigger a new subject.In one of my series of small size works on paper I amalgamated famous images from art history; Joseph Beuys, Cezanne, Gibert and George in my work. There is an image of a man drinking on a terrace while he watches men bathing i.e Cezanne’s work I just added there as collage. The painting was called ‘the shadow between me and Cezanne’ as the man was confronted by his own shadow while he drank and watched. Medium thus can contribute lightness and playfulness while consolidating the seriousness of content.   S.J: Your visuals denote a predominant relationship with animals, kindly elaborate the reason for their presence;   A.S: It is born from this feeling of infinite absence in the human psyche but also from the idea of  exploration of humanistic attributes that are definitive in certain animals. For example the work titled ‘inheritance of tiredness’ is the image of an exhausted, frail horse, it is a comment on the fatigue and tiredness of our ancestors. Man hugging fish, different birds, tiger, lion, snake – all animals behold some kind of human instinct yet symbols are open to multi-fold interpretations.   S.J: Has your studio-work routine been the same through all these years of making work or does it change with time?   A.S: It has always changed drastically over time.Spaces and situations make their own story. My present studio has 26 windows and I choose to work in the natural light, through the day as it is the requirement of my person and state as per now. Back in time when I was in a one room studio, I worked on the floor or counter and when someone visited the entire setting had to be changed due to shortage of space. I’ve been through a number of studio spaces and their architectural quality played a crucial role for the nature of practice then. In one of my studios (upper Mall) I worked during nights till 3-4 am, slept a few hours and went to teach at NCA in the mornings.The studio can also set a mood for the time to work and a certain pace; one of the studio’s on Waris Road was truly eminent in its productivity.       S.J: Has travelling been crucial to your visual?   A.S: Majorly.The benevolence of nature keeps you grounded; it reminds us of our ephemeral value, nature challenges and we struggle to survive the grandeur.  A certain faraway destination can get one in tune with the inner self – as the haste of the city gets lost in oblivion and we forget count of time and date. Happiness is found. I’ve been blessed to have a travel companion like Afshar Malik, it’s a soul-nurturing, time tested friendship, where art happens. Our expeditions have many a times been the soil and seed for new ideas and thoughts –it has happened; some drawing or memory that I bring back from the mountains may create an entire body of work later.  

Sehr Jalil is currently a lecturer at NCA, Lahore – and a visual artist and writer

One Response to The Man Who Grew His Own Wing: Anwar Saeed

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