A View From
by VEERA RUSTOMJI
Essentially, all artwork does not have a core statement and every exhibition does not primarily set out with a message to be spread. However, it is widely agreed that all great artists incorporate different inspirations to add a number of attributes to their pieces. For example Bashir Mirza's "The Sealed Lips" collection was an insight on how the artist felt about society never speaking its mind or how the elite were in constant denial of the truth. Pakistan's politics and the stark disparity between the rich and the poor has always been a source of inspiration for students, writers and undoubtedly artists.
With the number of protests and rallies swarming the nation, the art circles of Pakistan are reminded of Ijaz-ul-Hassan who underlines the social life and happenings in Pakistan through his images of gardens, laburnums and vines. As a political activist, Ijaz-ul-Hassan was a prominent participant of student politics and trade unions, his rebellious political activities often resulted in arrests and police investigations. In 1977, under Zia's Martial Law, when the country was under political oppression, he was among the first activists to be arrested and put under solitary confinement at the Lahore Fort. His politically flavoured art was strongly censored; moreover it was completely excluded from being exhibited publicly. However, his spirits were not dampened and he continued to resort to art in order to convey his feelings. Only this time he took care to resort to symbolism through his paintings instead of blatant communication to the viewers. Thus began his series of paintings titled 'View From The Window' which was made during 1985-1990. These paintings all hold the same motive – to present a window-view of the joyous world celebrating life in all its glory and brilliant colour, employing the use of various plants, while he sits imprisoned alone.
In his painting 'View Through The Door' (1985), Ijaz-ul-Hassan has presented a variety of plants, the most noticeable being the bougainvillea branches starting from the top-right of the painting. The radiant hues with which they have been painted, allow them to stand out prominently and the branch has been further brought out as the background has been painted in dark greens which enhance the colours of the branch. The painter has used complimentary colours such as maroon and light pink of the bougainvillea flowers against the green leaves, thus bringing the viewer to see each leaf and flower clearly. A dark less prominent tree makes its way from the bottom left of the painting which provides an eerie and mysteriously dark background for the main bougainvillea branch. One can also see the play of shadows of different shapes of the vines and branches in, among and on the leaves of the tree. These shadows break the monotony of the cluster and introduce some form of detail. The magical feeling of the foliage is confined by the three vertical bars of the window which are placed slightly left of centre. One can only imagine that Ijaz-ul-Hassan must have derived inspiration from his own days behind bars as the multifaceted beauty of the branches and trees are given a restricted feeling with the introduction of bars and the window frame. Therefore not only do the window bars and border contribute greatly to the perspective of the painting and perhaps provides the finishing touches, it also brings out the central theme of the painting.
The theme of restricted freedom and imprisonment may not be directly relatable for everyone, but Ijaz-ul-Hassan's pieces of art can be identified with the feeling of being cut off from something desirable. It is an experience most human beings can relate to, hence his work does not necessarily pertain to political statements but also branches off into social and personal issues.
"Cages" (2002) is another piece of art which projects the artist's state of mind. At first glance, the viewer will notice the dark menacing presence of the large leaves which cover almost the whole painting. The artist has managed to convey a sense of dread and fear through the composition (as the leaves seem to 'demand' almost all of the space) and the repetitive use of sinister, dark hues. The artist has cleverly painted the trunk and vines in shades of purple, thus amplifying the leaves. The same use of green and blue with which the leaves have been painted, have been used to paint a caged-parrot and while despite being the main focus of the picture, Ijaz-ul-Hassan has interestingly placed the caged-parrot at the bottom of the painting. The parrot cage and the window bar are perhaps the only forms of perspective that are present in "Cages".
Ijaz-ul-Hassan has been inspired by the artist, Shakir Ali's "parrot", and thus incorporated it in his own work and used it to his advantage to convey his own message. The most obvious idea being presented here is the entrapment of the parrot, while its cage is being hung in the garden. It is in its natural environment; however it is still imprisoned and limited to its cage. Perhaps he used the parrot as a symbol of himself, to suggest how he felt at his time of imprisonment. The title however is not 'a cage' but rather 'cages' which suggests there is more than one. The viewer can sense that the second cage the artist is referring to is his own indoors as he has shown that he is inside by painting the window or door bar. Indeed, his education and status as a talented artist and writer lead him to fall under the 'elite' Pakistani society or the "bourgeois romantics" as he calls them. One feels that he is imprisoned in his elite lifestyle, and clearly does not wish to embrace it. He is indeed a Marxist in his ideas and reasoning, therefore, in his earlier works, he shows the misery of the poor and oppressed in his paintings such as 'Letter from Palestine', 'Untitled Triptych' etc.
According to Quddus Mirza, renowned art critic, the usage of the parrot is in fact a comment on the social situation in Pakistan. In an interview with Quddus Mirza, he revealed that the parrot represents today's bourgeoisie who sit contented in their natural surroundings (the parrot among the trees and plants). However, they have little knowledge of the wider society, such as the suffering of the poor. In a way their 'golden cage' prevents them from gaining knowledge of the wider society that they live in. Furthermore, he feels that the large menacing leaves represent the different evils that exist in our society such as greed, corruption, inequality etc. The leaves/evils of society are strategically focused around the birdcage in anger and hatred. However, the bird does not seem to notice at all. Quddus Mirza then goes on to quote Ijaz-ul-Hassan;
"Common people bear suffering with courage and dignity. The bourgeoisie romantics make aesthetic capital of poverty and human misery. Delineating wretchedness often separates it from the cause.''
Evidently the artist's main motive behind painting trees is to depict their constant and irrepressible rejuvenation. He views trees as symbols of life, struggle and growth, and believes that through their continuous rebirth, each tree acquires an identity of its own. His lilies and vines speak of the various ideas and emotions ranging from joy to pain and all his paintings that flaunt foliage have these common elements to them. It is not only interesting but extremely inspiring for the viewers of his paintings to understand how vocal his art can be and how so many of us could benefit from projecting our views in subtle yet powerful ways.