The large, wall high, wooden stacked bookshelves with glass doors and the high-rise windows of this two storied studio in a close knit residential setting at Waris road enjoys an airy mood. One can’t afford to miss observing a lifetime of collected books; fiction predominantly, immediately upon entering the sitting area on the first floor. I’ve been honored to visit Anwar Saeed’s studio. And I can’t seem to get my eyes of the assortment of books. I inquire about them without any delays and it’s just the beginning of a conversation; a storyteller who unfolds his words like the pages of a book…
Saeed talks about his books like people he has known and gives accounts of them. He explains how it started from the writings of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Sadat Hassan Manto as initially he was more comfortable in reading Urdu and he had to teach himself the art of being an avid reader. It took some years starting from his under grad years at the National College of Arts, Lahore. The desire to learn made him go and search for books at Anarkali bazaar and some of his most prized books were bought from the old book vendors over there. Among them are Neville Tuli’s Book on Indian paintings (as finding books on Indian art was distinct specially some decades back). His favorites also include a book on Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, where he talks about his childhood, Constantine P. Cavafy’s poems, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee’s and other colors by Orhan Pamuk which is a collection of essays on his life, his city, his work, and the example of other writers and his Nobel Lecture; My Father's Suitcase. Reading had enlightened him and given him reasoning’s in several ways. Along with books like Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński which is an analysis of the decline and fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran which was very relevant to political upheavals of the eighties. He also found manuscripts of Sadeqain’s work with erotic Urdu poetry at Anarkali bazaar many years back.
The sitting area (with the bookshelf) divides the first floor plan with a room on each side. The one on the right i.e. located on the front elevation is his work station. Saeed comments that the space is bigger for the needs of one person. He moved here a few years back and the structure of the space was already present. He added eleven new windows and consequently no lights are needed in the morning. He shares a real anecdote from Orhan Pamuk’s writings on the importance of a secluded work space. Where Pamuk who had gotten married very early pretended going to his work area from one room to the other (in the limited space of his home) and then enclosed himself to write as if it wasn’t a part of his home!
Saeed tried living and working at his family house (at Waris road located very near his studio) but found it impracticable. He has preferred to live independently for the major part of his career. He explains how mixed family settings can be uncomfortable for an artist as when his brother got married and they were living together in their Shahdere home he felt the routine of an artist to intrude with the normal family life, working at night hours, listening to music etc. Saeed lived and worked in Islamabad as an illustrator for a newspaper at the beginning stage of his career. As a teenager he used to observe and draw and enjoyed a creative reputation amongst his friends. They lived in Anarkali in a big hindu house amidst eight families. And when by coincidence some NCA student asked him to help with a drawing assignment it was the first time he received worthy appreciation of his skills and that pushed him to take it further. He got admitted in NCA although his family thought that he was appearing for his FSC and managed to give his FSC papers during the course with the help of mam Salima Hashmi.
Zia’s regime was the time of Political kalashankof culture. ‘The habits of being’; in Bhutto’s time where a night life and socialite culture was at its peak was suddenly struck by a regime of confinement and despair. Where Couples used to be asked to show their nikah namah’s after the evening and the only mode of sharing any crucial information was talking between the lines. That is when myth and mythology became the core of Saeed’s visual language. The Islamabad raid on his first solo show at Rohtas 2 in 1984 was a confirmation of the bigotry in that time. The work according to Saeed had divisions inspired by Zahoor ul Akhlaq. It was a composite of window-type spaces in mixed media. “We were young and passionate and Nusrat Jawaid called me in the morning and said; have you read it?” Naeem Pasha (one of the founders of the gallery) was working for The Muslim at that time and they warned him in time. A peon managed to hide the more dissenting works at a (Lakreun ka taal ) under piles of wood before the ISI raided the gallery. It was a time when even a printed Quranic verse managed to discredit a newspaper as it was judged that the meaning was aimed at the regime. Any act oblivious to the watchful eye of the state resulted in brutal punishment (Koray perna). “The Reality was political so I started making a non-reality that reflected the inner world.” Motifs from varied mythologies overlapped to form mysterious connections and newer meanings.
Saeed shares how Abduallah Hussain writer of the highly recommended book Udaas Naslain has very profoundly commented that good art is meant to affect the heart, mind and the libido. This constant oppression abruptly ended and the next regime brought something new. The affair with myth and mythology found a new turn. And Body and its needs, the psychological aspect and the agent sitting inside us became a primary concern. This was a deeper dialogue where the question; how an entity that we own and which is not harmful to society as long as it minds its own business can be monitored by other astringent outside and inside forces? “Pleasure is the only truth. And drawing the figure/body and conveying the experiences attached to it was important”
Currently Saeed hopes and is progressing on bringing his work closer to reality. The latest works can be seen as bold conversations; nudity, explicitness, an eerie bodily tension in-between single figures and couples. He also got a wry comment when someone told him “They seem to be painted with great pleasure and love” the comment can be looked upon as a success of his efforts of sharing pleasure. “I’m slowly and steadily trying to overcome the former darkness and distance from reality. I can get sick of myself” And that urge to play another role can make him portray endless possibilities of the human being, on a stage, to acquire wings and make the mode of application as erotic as the content in terms of playing hide and seek with the viewer.
Upon reaching Royal College of Art’s, London in 1984 the First month was shocking. It is reputed as an elitist college since eons and understanding these people, their parties and communal crying sessions took some time. British council had donated a printmaking press and Anwar Saeed was sent to RCA while Nazish Ataullah (artist) was sent to Slade School of fine art, London to acquire the training for this new machine that no one knew how to operate. Prior to the machinery only linocut, wood cut and relief printing was practiced at NCA. Newer techniques such as etching and Lithography were exciting parts of the learning. Friendship with Israelis came along naturally as similar accents and pronouncing each other’s names right nurtured familiarity. Exposure to contemporary forms of art in all genres from theatre to film invigorated a sharper viewing sensibility. “Satyajit Ray’s films made me understand the dimensions of self-censorship and how it can be changed”. Etchings and finding color within black, exploration of darker surfaces began upon the return from London. Reaction from turpentine directed a change in medium. Pen/ ink Collages on ply (that led to using acrylic paint later on) and pastels and Collage experiments were made. Salima Hashmi (Artist and Saeed’s teacher at the time) was the torchbearer of collage/mixed media in Pakistani art and there were no reasons for Saeed not to try it! “I saw a collage and thought that I can do great at this”. His collages were not photographic and mainly text. An interest in counter culture – universal languages had risen and Saeed began to document sleeping people; how vulnerable everybody is while sleeping, it is a parallel world of being bekhabar (unaware).
The computer placed alongside the corner window in the room on the left of the sitting area contains an entire ‘era’ of work which as Saeed informs is just a twenty percent documentation of his portfolio. Folders of drawings, photography and much more have never been documented. We move through exotic and erotic imagery with hypnotic narratives. The work love is a lung fish is titled after observing the fish in Africa on his visit to Zimbabwe, Victoria Lake, where the peculiar fish can survive and breathe without water because of a fatty hole in its head. There are Men with wings or a man with a growing wing to show the presence of an alien, a kind of being who gets the “you are an outsider” gaze from everyone around him. Playfully arranged insignificant witnesses add a dark humor to the works which behold a sensitive and crucial dialogue of color. To explain this almost spiritual sensibility in color Saeed quotes Rufino Tamayo (artist) “ I am a colorist parallel to a fauvist” where the relationship of colors and objects is at the forefront. There has never been a compromise on content but he confesses getting a bit decorative (in terms of color) just during a phase when selling had become critical. A plethora of blues/cobalt blue / lemon yellow, browns and high-contrasts dominates a majority of the works. Motives taken from history such as the Gandhara friezes and staunch Dravidian bodies with bigger heads and smaller torsos proclaim a sense of belongingness and time.
As Words and images proceed in an informal order on the computer screen, Saeed’s narration of titles is worthy of forming its own diction, imaginary poems can be constructed with titles like Homage to the sacredness of the straight, a song for the space between the fish and the moon, Gipsy and the lion, Man playing chess with an imagery opponent, Do you mean what you say?, Offerings of denial, Merciful goddess of night, We sing and recite poems keeping heaven awake (namely a few), many a times titles borrowed from fiction are amusingly tweaked. “The title is the final layer of a work”. Milan Kundera’s unbearable lightness of the being has contributed to Saeed’s habits of being. You’ll forget love like any other disaster comes from ‘My love Hiroshima mon amour’a film that is the documentation of an intensely personal conversation between a French-Japanese couple about memory and forgetfulness. Saeed reacalls a scene from the film where a girl goes into to the coarse route of a dense forest, gets out of her car and falls as if she is dead for a few moments but gets back in the car after pretending a death. We as people may die every day, pretending and deceiving maybe the optimum of survival…
Our society - culture - history is already submerged in multiple conflicts. Hidden content i.e. visually referring the night is a time of the unconscious and subconscious. It is the search of a psychological space and this quest for creating a certain drama can be traced back to performance arts such as Kathakali, Bharat Natayam and Puppetry. The repeated use of the image of Buraq (flying horse with a human face) is almost like the hidden cameras that are placed everywhere on roads and buildings. Being watched secretly creates a discomfort and tension of guilt; coming from religion and culture. "I don’t like attention, I prefer talking in whispers, I don’t want to be famous by showing who I am, I am a thief. The French novelist Jean Genet is very near to my heart. I went to Paris in 1986 and he had died two weeks before that. Early in his life he was a thief and disguised himself in the mornings. He shares his experiences of moving in silence…”
When asked about the constant appearance of communions and interplay of objects and beings in his work …Saeed enlightens “Desire is a prayer, what-is-not, is shown that-it-is. People want what they don’t have. And too much of anything makes it worthless. I can do something only when I’m just searching. Just like the exhausting chemistry in a love affair, till when something starts and finds its greatest force. When a body of work is over I feel I don’t know anything…”
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