The Sites of Myth

Noor Jehan Mecklai talks to artist Aqeel Solangi about his work, produced in a variety of mediums

The Sites of Myth
Aqeel Solangi’s career cannot but amaze one. A son of the soil, he was born in 1981 in Ranipur, Sindh, and began his career as a sign- and cinema-board painter in Khairpur (Mir’s). During his apprenticeship, he attended art courses at the renowned Mussarat Mirza Studio in Sukkur, and later entered the prestigious National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, graduating from there in 2005 with a Master’s degree. He is now an assistant professor of art at NCA Rawalpindi, from where some very good work is produced.

Seeing his earlier shows, such as ‘The Root, the Ground, the Air,’ , ‘Relocation Mapped,’ and his 2011 show, titled ‘Vus’at e Bahr o Bar,’ one knew that this was the work of an inspired young artist who is deeply connected to the spiritual, the elemental and the basic nature of the life force. One could see, in this and other exhibitions, that he had lived among the things he painted – elements of nature such as water, clouds, seeds, sky and so on. And his trademark in those years was the portrayal of sadabahar flowers inside the circle of eternity. This seldom appears in his present work, though the occasional appearance of this and similar images, in pieces somewhat reminiscent of his previous exhibitions, informs the viewer familiar with his work that though his style has changed remarkably, all this is still very much there within his consciousness. The postcard size paintings in ‘The Sites of Myth’ definitely bear this out, with their spirituality and air of mystery. No doubt both this mysterious quality and the quality and imagery of his work led to his selection by the National Council of the Arts in 2013 as one of the 5 artists to go from here to China for a two-week workshop, from which he produced ‘Tactile Journeys,’ a beautiful exhibition, rich in the use of Chinese cultural, historical and mythical symbols.

'An Anonymous Night' - 20 x 26 inches - Acrylic on canvas

Concerning the remarkable contrast between the previous work and today’s, which we see in ‘The Sites of Myth,’ Aqeel says, “I have moved on.  That was a journey of eight to ten years. Now I have to travel on my present road for perhaps four to five years. Then let’s see what happens. Maybe I have to amalgamate both styles. Whatever happens, it should come naturally.”

But what are the influences, the sources from which this change has come?  One was his time in London on a Charles Wallace Trust Art Bursary, at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in 2006. There his skills were honed and further advanced by the study of such things as sacred geometry, gilding, methods and materials, Persian miniature painting and icon painting. Another was undoubtedly his time in the UK in 2015-2016 at the Bath School of Art and Design, Bath Spa University, where he obtained his 2nd Master’s degree. “It was a life-changing experience,” he declared. “And the teaching staff included some of the world’s renowned teachers – Professor Dexter Dalwood, Professor Maria Lalic, Camilla Wilson and Roger Clarke.”

'The Sites of Myth, 25' - Acrylic on postcard

‘The Sites of Myth,’ displayed at Karachi’s Koel Gallery is the culmination of his year at Bath Spa University, this title being borrowed from an article ‘On the Art of Dexter Dawood,’ – one of his professors as aforementioned. Explains Aqeel: “The viewer’s understanding of socio-political, historical and geographical references related to the image has a bearing on the situation.” And no doubt artists have their own store of myths and fantasies within, fueling their imaginations and their paintbrushes. We see this in his untitled piece – acrylic on paper – which was the first work he produced during his time at that university, and is therefore highly reminiscent of his earlier work. Its melancholic air, something which he still delights in producing, is enhanced by the plain black background, and its sombre colours, while its symmetry is arresting. It is a combination of two different spaces, the clouds being from a faraway place, the plinth being taken from his photograph of the Parade Gardens in Bath. Therefore in combining diverse locations he has created a new space in which he says that both real and unreal can be experienced.

Although different in subject matter, ‘An Anonymous Night’ (50 x 66 cm), based on a photograph taken much earlier in Dubai, and composed according to the collage technique adopted at Bath Spa University, is hardly more than a step away from his previous concerns. The colour harmony and use of light are commendable and the balance of the floral and candle combination draw one’s eye irresistibly, while the addition of candles adds a nocturnal and somehow mythical ambience to the piece. “The overall setting became a believable place, but who knows its existence out of this painting?” remarks the artist. “The myth began as soon as the painting was finished.” What is more, the lighted candle, apart from being a beautiful decorative object, is a very powerful symbol, firstly as a single fragment of the universe’s store of light, secondly as an image of the life of a human being, then as an important element in the rituals of many faiths. The 4th century African spiritual writer Lactantius commented sardonically that so many kindle lights to God as if He was in darkness, and suggested that if they contemplated the sun in heaven, they would see that God had no need of their candles!
"For me, collages are like choreographing a story on a surface"

The stability embodied in the above picture is not found in its opposite, ‘An Anonymous Day.’ Perched on the edge of a pier, though the column-beam combination is considered the most ancient and durable form of construction, both structure and therefore its shadow, table and setting, chair and dog could all be swept out into the sea beyond by a sudden powerful squall – not to mention a tidal wave, if the broad expanse of water is the sea. Everything is placed in perfect order, and the colour combination employing various shades of blue and a mellow, faun-coloured base is easy on the eye, but nonetheless there is an air of impermanence about it, and its peaceful atmosphere could be short-lived.  “I developed this work from a digital collage prior to the painting, from ‘Techo-Bloc,’ an exterior design/landscape magazine,” explains Aqeel. “For me, collages are like choreographing a story on a surface, and they are like built narratives, constructions of the imagination derived from multiple sources and analogies.”

As to the piece entitled ‘Khewra,’ the artist, who went through a stage of painting tunnels and mines, visited the Khewra Salt Range late in 2016 in search of something unusual, and was fascinated by the tunnels and the salt glowing through the colourful artificial light. It was a mesmerising experience, and he has enhanced his composition with the best use of the lighting effects. In a way, the tunnel shown here reminds one of the underground caves near Matangi in the Waikato region of New Zealand, though the light in those caves is produced entirely by glow worms, observed silently from small boats, and unlike the setup in the Khewra caves, there are no human interventions. Meanwhile, the huge, overpowering arch in this composition embraces a number of things, and the grandeur of nature renders the solitary human figure , with her melancholic gaze, somewhat insignificant – though the light falling upon her draws one’s attention. To the right we see falling water, something which fascinates Solangi, and appears in several of his exhibits. This piece also is based on a collage. Perhaps one could describe it as photo realism, though there is certainly a painterly touch to it.

'The Sites of Myth, 30' - Acrylic on postcard

'The Sites of Myth, 27' - Acrylic on postcard

His fascination with water is apparent in ‘The Reader,’ for example, with its reclining figure of a girl, placidly reading in the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral while water falls all around her. One wonders about the significance of this water, since it appears so often, but it arises from the artist’s fascination with water. This piece was inspired in part by Henry Moore’s sculptures. Another example is ‘The Blue Tent II,’ where a modern blue tent and its occupant sit facing an ancient amphitheatre, while here and there, from the beautifully and variously coloured sky, water falls in straight lines rather than as rain. Then if you want a real surprise, look at ‘The Naked Marathon,’ the very first work he completed after his sojourn in Bath. Here, the clouds and the visual device of the falling water are distinctly yellow, while the larger-than-life trees – rather like the pohutukawa trees found in the South Pacific – in comparison to their base are enhanced by a sky-blue surround. This painterly piece features a group of naked, running male bathers (back view!) beside a dark expanse of water, and heading along a road whose direction is not clear, towards an unknown destination – typical behaviour of human beings who know the present but head towards the unknown future. “In a way,” muses Aqeel, “this work addresses the human condition – the urge to know the unknown, the longing to be somewhere else.”

Concerning technique, I asked him, “Are all your pieces done with meticulous care – like those of a miniaturist?’

“In fact,” he explained, “I would say it works both ways. Sometimes technique situates the work and sometimes the work dictates the technique. In my earlier work, I was focusing on the precise finish of the work, but now it’s a combination of both, spontaneous and meticulous application of paint. Previously I was taking images from various sources and combining them in a preliminary sketch or else directly in the painting. But now I am doing this with more clarity, making collages first, then painting from them. And along with these concerns, I would say that inspiration is essential to creative fields, while discipline helps to organise thoughts.”

'The Blue Tent II' - 60 x 60 inches - Oil on canvas

“Critics - how do you feel about them?” was my next gambit.

“I once asked Noor Jehan Bilgrami if she’d ever been really annoyed by a critic’s comments. She laughed and said, ‘ I don’t take them seriously.’  Answer?   Well, I believe that the artist produces it, and the critic recognises it in its time, socio-political, cultural scenario, and places it in its right context. Artist and critic are two sides of the same coin. Both work for a serious cause that shapes the values of any society.”

Meanwhile, a captivating feature of this exhibition is Aqeel’s fairly large number of works produced on postcards, where he has covered much of the space with black or white acrylic paint. It seemed a strange idea at first. After all, why not create one’s own images, if distance is not a problem? He reminds us, however, that the  practice of using existing images isn’t new. After all, we see thousands of images daily, from mobile screens to brochures, billboards and so on, and they can be useful source material for our own visual creations. Postcards, he feels, carry a kind of nostalgic feeling, especially when they show a certain place. And in this digital age, where everything – even personal communication – is done electronically, the practice of collecting and sending postcards has all but vanished. As in some of his other exhibits, space between elements is a remarkable feature.  As a degree requirement at Bath University, he wrote an essay titled ‘Relocation of location: pursuit to parallel space.’ So he was tracing issues related to space and parallel space in his work at that time.
A captivating feature of this exhibition is Aqeel's fairly large number of works produced on postcards

As we know, he is fascinated by places and things with an air of mystery. Therefore some of his postcard works feature churches – or parts thereof – with their numinous quality. His rendition of the parish church in Leatherhead, which is at the edge of the built-up area of London, shows only the tower, topped by a handsome cross, and below it flower gardens. He has covered all other details with black acrylic paint to enhance the dignity of the church, and left the flowers as an offering to that holy place. Even more fascinating is ‘The Lantern, Ely Cathedral.’ This place of worship is an ornate medieval architectural wonder, and its most famous feature is the central octagonal tower with a lantern above, providing a spectacular internal space. The octagon is an image found in several faiths and rich in spiritual symbolism. Firstly it represents the balance between the material and the invisible, and amongst other things, the octagon and the star octagon have been used to represent rebirth and eternal life. The other feature of this work is the sanctuary ceiling, with its ancient finish and stained glass windows below it. The two contrasting features shown in this work are again separated by an area of black, enhancing the solid medieval beauty of the sanctuary and the light radiating from the lantern, with its more delicate appearance.

'Khewra' - 40 x 60 inches - Oil on canvas

'The Sites of Myth, 23' - Acrylic on postcard

Another interesting postcard alteration is his rendition of Glentanner Sheep Station near Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, in the Southern Alps. Aqeel has covered the mountains (including Mt. Cook!) and all else with black acrylic, carefully leaving the sheep in place, and painted a dramatic white line above them, representing the mountain range. It is altogether a fascinating piece, with its arresting combination of black and white. Then apart from all the immaculate work in the exhibition, we have a few pieces where the artist takes a holiday, producing some deliberately careless brushwork. One of these is on a postcard originally showing the audience at the Canterbury Cricket Festival, with a group of five men standing in front. He has changed the context of the standing figures entirely, and after his joyous application of the white acrylic paint over all else, they appear to be viewing an infinite space. At first, one tends to think that they may be facing a firing squad, but there isn’t the palpable tension here that you’d see in the case of an execution – as for example in Goya’s ‘The Third of May,’ or in Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian.’

A number of Aqeel’s regular viewers were at first disappointed, seeing this kind of exhibition from him, but gradually became more and more interested as understanding developed. This is the work of a much travelled, highly talented young artist. To quote Noor Jehan Bilgrami, who has hosted his Karachi shows at Koel, “It will be interesting to watch Aqeel Solangi’s flight (following his) return to home base, the environment where his Sufic search, his leaning towards eastern sensibilities and his poetic disposition (first inspired his work).”

Now he has encountered a breath of fresh air from his stimulating, exhilarating experience at Bath Spa University.