Stories on Canvas

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar on what drives R.M. Naeem’s art output

Stories on Canvas
While most of us are reluctant to explore our many different sides, R.M. Naeem tries his best to explore them all. Foremost, he is a visual artist – combined with traits of the old-school teacher and mentor to students and aspiring artists. At fifty, he is now an emerging model too!

Moving to Lahore from interior Sindh to study fine arts was an earth-shattering experience for a young Naeem, who now has his studio and residence in one of Lahore’s elite neighborhoods and moves effortlessly amongst very different social strata.

'Submission 1'

From the secure environs of Mirpur Khas. he was thrown into Lahore’s urban sprawl. And within that sprawl, more specifically, he found himself at the National College of Arts (NCA) – which is considered an island of diversity but not without its own conundrums. Economic compulsions pushed the young Naeem to child labour, though he calls it an opportunity. Oiling the dirt-ridden rust-clad tractor trolleys was one of the first jobs. Moving jobs, he worked at the shop of a board painter and this was where he found his calling. An old calendar of portraits by legendary painter Saeed Akhtar, which he found somewhere nearby was the first Fine Arts course book. He copied those paintings in whatever spare time a child in such a situation could avail.

With some stroke of luck – nothing less than a movie moment – he found an advertisement about NCA admissions at a nearby shop. Lo and behold! He went to Lahore and got admission in NCA after an attempt.
The storytelling aspect in Naeem’s work hints at the impact of medieval religious paintings on the artist

Once he was in, another set of struggles awaited – this time with the school environment and all the shades of fellow students. But his resolve was strong. Returning to a world of dusty, rusty tractor trolleys was not an option. What he learned well at the board painter’s atelier was calligraphy and sketching huge figures. This skill would place him ahead of many others in the Arts College. In time, he gained the confidence needed and emerged as a bright and creative contemporary visual artist.

What I remember most about Naeem from our college days is his extreme hard work. It was as if he did not want to waste a moment of his college training. Once, his calligraphic skills in particular were a saviour for me. At the very last evening of my architectural thesis submission, the archaic printer gave up and Naeem – always in the fine arts studio with his skills – was the solution. He produced a flawless thesis title page with his calligraphy!

'Behind the Veil'

Naeem’s graphite drawing was superb and that skill shows itself throughout his oeuvre. Some of his works though, done in acrylic paint, have the quality and feel of graphite, at times deceiving the viewer. Naeem is a realist and sure of what he wants to translate on to the canvas. Nothing is left to uncertainty.

The composition of Naeem’s paintings have strong design and architectural elements. The composition tells a clear story. The characters and objects exist in or next to defined spaces. A window or a part of a painting in his compositions depicts imagination or an ideal state of life. It is usually a serene landscape, a toddler-like angelic figure like the Western classic paintings or doll-like limbs. These are clear metaphors, for example this window is like the subconscious.

All these parts of Naeem’s paintings are like chapters of a book conveying a full story via paintings. The eye travels incrementally to each part through architectural spaces. The spread of figures, colour scheme and sharp geometric lines or shapes at times do not permit the eye to comfortably skim through some of Naeem ’s compositions. The composition then appears overloaded and one needs time to connect with all these “chapters” of Naeem’s composition.

'Super Woman'

The storytelling aspect in Naeem’s work hints at the impact of medieval religious paintings on the artist. Bursts of intense illumination, a dark colour scheme and stoic expressions of contemporary figures remind the viewer of medieval works. The chapters or parts in his paintings are also like a diptych or triptych.

His paintings often strive to convey two sides of truth – showing that one never knows the full picture from a single point of observation. Beyond the sensuous elements in Naeem’s work, the overall impact is intense and makes one uncomfortable. And the pleasing aesthetics relay a curt message.

“Revisit”, his latest body of work, is a step back to look at paintings he could not finish or themes that he felt he could not fully address. In fact, “Revisit” consolidates Naeem’s design, composition and subject matter. For me it has connected Naeem with his most prized possession – that connection with other human beings that he deeply cherishes.

Naeem opens his studio to fresh graduates and struggling artists. He provides a pro bono space for them to find their bearings in the uncertain art market. Artist Ali Kazim told me that after graduation Naeem’s studio was his mainstay in Lahore. This was so until Kazim found his own well-deserved breakthrough. Others include Irfan Hassan, Irfan Gul and Mohammed Zeeshan.

Naeem is proud of his own story. He narrates it to inspire others.

A skillful and creative artist, Naeem says that he is a Pakistani artist to the core, whose market is also mostly within the country. He does not play to the overseas art gallery market, which comes with its own set of expectations to focus on stereotypical oriental themes. Considering the potential fame and gains from this intellectual complicity – after all, a number of artists have in recent years consciously tread on that path – it is particularly remarkable that Naeem has so far resisted the temptation.

It has all paid up for him. Naeem, as we know, is one of the leading painters of the country and no fair conversation about Pakistani contemporary art is complete without mentioning him on the honour roll. He is an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and recognized as an Associate of NCA. His students adore him and look up to him as a mentor and guide to sail through the rough waters of art and the world in general.

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