Remembering an extraordinary artist

Marjorie Husain on Mansur Salim (1958 - 2015) and his work

Remembering an extraordinary artist
Recently a selection from the work of the unique and outstanding artist Mansur Salim, who passed away two years ago, was shown by his wife and son at the Koel Gallery Karachi. There, friends and art enthusiasts attended to view the work and remember the artist. In the exhibition one discovered Salim’s signature work with boundaries separating reality, imagination and things remembered. All appear to be in transition painted in an artistic language of diverse symbols that offer some clues to the artist’s inner journey. One remembers the artist speaking of his imagery, the `flashes’ of visions that he described as `signs for future scientists to unravel.’ Perhaps they were a subconscious message of things past and things to come. In his work, Salim created a dialogue for the observer involving past history and the uncertainty of notions passed down to us. And perhaps most critically, he raises doubts on past events as a fixed narrative.

As S. Ali Imam used to say, Mansur Salim was an extremely interesting artist: `an artist’s artist’. As a jurist of the artist’s thesis work along with Bashir Mirza in 1983, one recalls BM’s excitement on finding the audacious innovations of the young artist that were truly original. Salim had actually been painting, taking photographs and showing his work in exhibitions since the 1970s but it was not until 1981 that he was persuaded by art students from the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, and Karachi School of Art, to join them. He later wrote “In the late 70’s some art students from KSA and CIAC came to my house and told me they have taken my address from the back of my canvas at BM’s and Indus Galleries.” At that time Salim had already turned down admission to the National College of Art, Lahore, and was planning to study Islamic history. The art students developed a friendship with Mansur Salim and persuaded him that – as a student – he would have the freedom to continue with his own experiments. Reassured, that year Salim joined the CIAC. There he was encouraged to follow his inclinations and was mentored by, amongst others, S. Ali Imam and Sadequain.

Oil on Canvas - 26 x 31.5 inches

Salim was mentored by, amongst others, S. Ali Imam and Sadequain

In 1982, a national Exhibition took place in which Mansur Salim participated. On that occasion, Quddus Mirza wrote: “The most striking entry from the catalogue of the 4th National Exhibition was a small image by someone called S. Mansur. This a postcard-like piece, had sections for name, address with postal stamp mark, but the striking addition in that untitled work was the artist’s large signature scrawled diagonally across the surface. In a catalogue filled with paintings of landscape, calligraphy, crumbling houses and crouching old men, this image stood out and caught my attention… Surreal subjects that include landscapes on a fictional planet, a space loaded with magical symbolism, layered with nostalgic memories, art-historical references, vernacular mythology and mathematical riddles. Disrupting notions of time and the context of place, this work is named after the ill-fated lovers in the Punjabi tale, while the faces strongly resemble film stars from the 1970s.” (Quddus Mirza, 1982)

The artist’s thesis work in 1983 was extraordinary and one still recalls Bashir Mirza’s delight on the occasion. After graduating, standing First Class First from the Sindh Board of Technical Education, Salim set off for the interior of Sindh. He piled a donkey cart with his materials and various objects and on arrival, he arranged them at different angles, photographing them at various times of day. This proved to be of great interest to the local people who thought he was producing a film for the cinema.

Oil on Canvas - 37 x 24 inches

Oil on Canvas - 20 x 30 inches

Salim’s aesthetic direction set the pattern for future times when he placed objects in natural settings, creating an ambience of time suspended. He was even then deeply into installations, happenings and conceptual art.

Persuaded by S. Ali Imam, Salim created paintings for the Indus Gallery. Ali Imam was delighted by the great demand for the artist’s detailed architectural pieces. Every brick was delineated in a style that confronted reality with hints of surrealism. In spite of the success in terms of the work, Mansur Salim soon tired of the demands of the art market and returned totally to a conceptual language that few understood. Those who understood considered him to be the most innovative and promising artist of his generation.

Oil on Canvas - 29 x 25 inches

Oil on Canvas - 37 x 25 inches

In spite of success, Mansur Salim soon tired of the art market's demands, returning to a conceptual language that few understood

Salim continued to study, joining the Karachi University where he took a Master’s Degree in General History, with specialisation in Archaeology, graduating in First Class First position. He joined the Faculty of the University as a Lecturer and participated in a Field Archeology course in 1987. In 1988 he participated in archaeological excavations expedited by Berkeley University, USA, that took place at Harrapa. Throughout the years he continued to study and research Islamic art and history, spending time in the Middle East and studying Arabic in order to read in the original text. As a teacher Salim was inspirational; he was for several years a lecturer at Karachi University. He also demonstrated and lectured at the CIAC.

Salim’s art was increasingly interesting throughout his life. He spoke of receiving `flashes’, visions of imagery that entered his mind and left in seconds. These flashes entered his paintings, and as mentioned earlier, he saw them as “signs for future scientists to unravel.”

Oil on Canvas - 22 x 16 inches

Oil on Canvas - 22 x 15 inches

Oil on Canvas - 43 x 25 inches

Mansur Salim

Sadly, while still actively teaching, painting and lecturing, he was diagnosed as suffering from a debilitating illness that curbed his activities and was incurable. He was no longer able to travel to set up his installations.

In 2014, Salim expressed himself as follows:

“Gravity” is a symbol of reality that exists. Similarly “E=mc2” is a combination of symbols trying to express some reality. In similar fashion, my depiction of flashes (kashf) should be conceived as equations in the language that nature uses. If “E” stands for “energy” and “=” stands for “equal to” and “m” for “mass” and so on, than in my flashes some wood or earth texture juxtaposed with some toy or any object could be some explanation of some phenomena in a language that nature is accustomed to. Perhaps fate had dropped flashes in my lap and I am depicting these flashes for the world to know how to derive knowledge out of these flashes. May be from Archetypal plane I am receiving flashes and transforming these into the phenomenal plane, but for more perfect transformation, sponsorship is required – like flashes roughly depicted demand super realistic treatment or animations at some points, or arrangements in 3 dimensions or performing activities etc. at some other points, because each of my works, either illustrated or arranged for photo, is a part of animation and is just one shot from one angle of a bigger reality: therefore I am not a surrealist.

Mansur Salim died 2015.