Beyond this world | Art & Culture
Only a great creative individual makes the ordinary, the mundane and the routine of our surroundings seem meaningful to us. Like Indian Urdu writer Zakia Mashhadi’s short stories, it could change a reader’s perception of the world, especially those they’ve never met, barely noticed, skipped his news in the newspaper or that he has changed channels to broadcast his stories, his miseries, his lives. . Mashhadi, in his realistic, honest, strong and seemingly simple fiction, dealt with anonymous, unrecognized and unrecorded people and places.
Musarrat Mirza’s art is similar. His images of earthen dwellings, humble dwellings, crowded settlements, unhewn walls, uneven elevations, unrefined finishes and rough surfaces, catch our eyes, before controlling our minds and conquering our hearts. . The houses rendered in his canvases are like structures lovingly forged by an enthusiastic sculptor, seen through the lens of faded light, dust storms, layers of atmosphere.
For convenience of classification, paintings produced by Mirza are generally included in the category of landscape, primarily based on the artist’s references to urban or pastoral settings. Mostly an in-between area, as you’re not sure if the clay-covered courtyards and rough cabins are from a village or a small-town neighborhood.
Mirza disagrees with the label. She specifies: “My concerns are completely different from those of a landscape designer.” However, the landscape context is crucial. This art form has had a special history and pompous popularity in Pakistan. The genre, handled by several artists, experienced a boom in the 80s, because it was considered apolitical because of its subject: the sky, the fields, the water, the trees and the distant hamlets. It was appreciated for its non-figurative elements in harmony with the codes, needs, requirements and restrictions of the state under the dictatorship. He thrived.
However, after Allah Bux there were other early exponents of the landscape, such as Khalid Iqbal, who with his spellbinding brushstrokes captured the soul of a place. They made fleeting light, fluttering foliage, swaying tree trunks, flowing water channels, growing fields, an occasional farmer, a few animals, and sparse, “permanent” clouds. – echoing Paul Cézanne – “in the art of museums”. Iqbal’s legacy was followed blindly, blatantly and blandly by a horde of enthusiasts, reproducing scenes of villages, alleys, sections of the old city and rural areas. To infinity; so that landscapes were available for a penny, prepared by every brush pusher.
A few of the works are outstanding renderings of nature, but compared to the canvases of Musarrat Mirza, almost the whole course of landscape painting in Pakistan is on a distinct level. From the delicate surfaces of Khalid Iqbal to the crude attempts of his disciples, the majority of painters approach their subject from an external position. In the case of Khalid Iqbal, this physical gap is an opportunity to seek the essence of his subject; but his imitators treat the landscape with distance; standing in a comfortable place, at a safe distance, to paint, transcribe and document.
On the other hand, the world of Musarrat Mirza is located in a neighborhood, in a village, in the middle of a group of earthen houses. She does not stand aside, to draw what unfolds before her eyes and her easel, or captures the depth of field. Examining her compositions, we realize that she was posted somewhere in the narrow alleys, the dark alleys, next to the niches, in the courtyards with (remembering as) the presence of a chair, charpoy, some household objects. What she paints is not the gaze of a stranger (pictorial, societal, historical), but of one who lives inside her subject.
Musarrat Mirza, as you can well imagine – at the age of 76, does not reside in a humble house in the interior of Sindh, but it is hardly necessary to do so. Creative people don’t need to be put in the cauldron of misery, discomfort, poverty; for like Pablo Neruda they are endowed with the faculty of transposing themselves to the situation of those they represent in their verses. Where an artist chooses to place himself in art and life is his prerogative. In this sense, the aesthetic position of Musarrat Mirza, of being next to an uneven plastered wall, in spaces connected to other buildings, thatched roofs, the haunting light of a waning day, windows with rays of the sun, stems from an ethical position; of a painter who prefers to be an intimate part of the community, even if you hardly see the presence of people, apart from one or two. (In this respect, his imagery could be related to that of Khalid Iqbal; perhaps the absence of human beings in their canvases is a way of transmuting any other element into Human).
If you’re not too far away (unlike colonial watercolorists documenting the native population, vernacular ways of life, indigenous structures, local terrain), you can rub shoulders with the thick earthen wall of a house in the middle of Sind . This sensation of touching a tactile surface, normal for the inhabitants of these interlocking residences, translates into the highly sensitive and sophisticated textures of Mirza. In a number of paintings, the imagery is a composite of sparse marks, subtle lines and selective but dramatic chromatic order, almost a piece of poetry (because, unlike prose with its explanation and justifications, poetry only suggests its content).
For those who have never set foot in Sukkur, Sindh, Pakistan or even South Asia, the paintings are significant. If these summarize an intimate experience, they also free from the limitation of a regional identification.
The careful renderings of the interiors, the expanse of the fields and the complexity of the living quarters are the work of Mirza. The artist mixes reality and poetry through the application of paint. Up close, all his marks are abstract, they do not define a body, a landscape element, a building segment, but once, like puzzle pieces, put together, they convey a strong feeling. She has barely painted mist, fog or other alluring situations/subjects that tend to sublimate a common sight into an embellished image (tired streets, familiar structures, typical city turn into attractive substance during fog, l ‘flood). Instead, it is Mirza’s way of painting, layer upon layer of delightful impasto, shades and tints arranged like the notes of a symphony that transforms known reality into extraordinary entities.
In this sense, his way of spreading paint is no different from the way humble houses are plastered with mud or lime. The majority of paintings are created with a palette knife; a painter’s tool no different in form and function from a mason’s trowel – thus achieving an affinity and harmony between the makers of elementary houses and the image maker of these basic structures. Rarely in our art has an artist’s tool been so prominent in their flow of thought, strategies and expression as Musarrat Mirza’s preference for the palette knife.
His retrospective Har Ja Tu: In the Realm of Light, (curated by Maha Malik, exhibited August 27-September 17 at Koel Gallery, Karachi) comprises 58 works from 1968-2021 and offers a unique opportunity to view the exquisite, incredible and relentless practice of ‘artist. It made me revisit a 30 x 60 inch canvas from 1969, of a Sindhi family on an ox cart. I first saw this painting on his easel in his studio – when I was eight years old. I still remember Mirza doing it with great intensity, dedication, seriousness – with a palette knife.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.