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For our valued readers who may not know, MAG has been producing weekly issues for the past 42 years and has always been a supporter of the art community in Pakistan. A few weeks ago, ‘Father Figure’ opened at VM Art Gallery, an exhibition of artworks from a private collection; an artwork that was first exhibited in January 1984 and covered in this very publication. Here’s revisiting history, as I sit in one of the biggest art collector’s home in Karachi, with a direct view of an exquisite Iqbal Mehdi work talking about the his career, art collecting and art evolution over the years through the eyes of Wahab Jaffer.
A career of over 50 years – what has it been like?
It’s been a wonderful experience. I was lucky to be born at the time of the masters. Like Sadequain, Gulgee, Bashir Mirza, Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Pervaiz and so many more. They’d allow me in their studios and I had the opportunity to see them working. All except Jamil Naqsh. I watched all the others paint, but never Naqsh. Classroom art is okay but you have to see your masters working. It’s an indescribable feeling, even for the artist, you learn from the questions your students ask.
Can you even begin to describe your collection?
I still have about 300 paintings out of the 1000 that I once owned. The masters’ artworks I still have. I should say that at the outset Ali Imam, my teacher, is the one who got me into serious collecting. He also told me to not set very high prices. When a painting hangs in someone’s house, it’s a talking point. Something I practice to date.
What about your career as an artist? Who brought out the artist in you?
My mentor was Ahmed Pervaiz. The first time I met him in his studio, I requested him to make a canvas for me. He put his aluminium plate on the canvas and made a circle, he cut the neckpiece of the ajrak kurta he was wearing and pasted it on the canvas and started painting around it. That’s the painting he taught me with. It was later titled Lubna in Red Whispers.
How does inspiration to create find you?
I don’t know what inspires me, it’s just always there. Something inside that says go on working. Colours are one thing that themselves inspire me; mixing colours is a different feeling. Each day when you mix colours, you make something different. You can never go back to the same tone. I just go on as it comes.
Have you ever faced opposition in your choices?
I was forced to join the family business, even though I never enjoyed it. I always say this, “I’m grateful to Mr Bhutto.” He nationalised the industries, there was nothing to do in the office and started learning painting. Later there was encouragement from the family for my pursuit of art, because I was happy and doing well, not necessarily in financial terms.
How do you know when an artwork is finished?
That’s the most difficult thing as an artist, even Picasso has said that. If you don’t know when to finish the work, you’re liable to spoil it.
What is the one thing your studio is incomplete without?
An easel (laughs).
Has there ever been an artwork that has been difficult to part with?
Never unless my wife likes it [laughs].
Your career spans over 50 years. How has the art scene in Pakistan changed over the years?
It has evolved to a certain extent, there are too many galleries now, which means more interest. There is an art museum in Islamabad but there aren’t any annual or international exhibitions coming to the country.
What was it like in the days of the dictatorial regime for the art community that was choking?
I know a few artists who gave up painting. Bashir Mirza stopped painting for over 10 years saying there’s no point when I can’t express myself and so many artists went into calligraphy. But there was one artist by the name of (Abdul Rahim) Nagori, he continued to paint of problems at the ground level, in fact, he painted an exhibition against the dictatorial regime. It was not allowed to be exhibited in Rawalpindi, and then it came to Karachi and was exhibited at Indus Gallery by Ali Imam. The resistance attracted more attention by the masses.
Do you think the threat to freedom of expression pushes an artist into self-censorship?
The freedom to express exists, and they can’t take it away. Some artists can be intimidated but some can’t be. A true artist won’t bother with it.
Do you think the spirit of painting gives an artist the strength to defend their art?
Yes, it should. Some artists are frightened but others come out of it excited with more to show. If an artist is commercially-minded, he might back away and if he’s bent on being true to oneself and the happenings around them, then they carry on. It’s happen many times in history.
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