Back to Basics

Noor Jehan Mecklai is pleased to see five artists exploring watercolour in a world of conceptual art

Back to Basics
How delightful it was to see the watercolour paintings displayed recently by Karachi’s Full Circle Gallery! And how refreshing, how good for the heart and soul it was to see once again works featuring the old, familiar subjects such as rivers, boats, flowers, mountains – rather than the conceptual art and so forth which has preoccupied the world of art for so long. Actually we are told that conceptual art, where the concept behind the work is more important than the finished piece or object, emerged in the 1960s and 70s; and since then it has monopolized attention in the world of visual arts. Artists today are looking for something new, even those who dedicate their talent to such ancient and honoured subjects as miniatures, sculpture, for example. Sometimes one feels that art today has lost its soul due to this desire to be different, though of course one should congratulate artists on their sense of adventure.

Of the 5 artists on show, Muntehaa Azad and Arif Ansari are young emerging artists, while Sadia Arif, Farooq Aftab and Anum Ashraf are names more familiar in the art world.

There is a serenity, a dignity, a sense of mystery emanating from trees, and in many cultures they have long been an important spiritual symbol. Anum, as a resident of the busy and overcrowded megalopolis of Karachi, finds both great personal solace and artistic inspiration in the world of nature, especially in the serenity of trees. She feels that this city is starved of greenery, though one must admit that a lot of effort is being put into changing this scenario. However, she presents her paintings as alternative paradises on paper for those who have little opportunity to enjoy nature’s gifts and considers her art as representative of her emotional spectrum. An IVS graduate, her work has been displayed at a number of international watercolour biennales, in places such as Indonesia, Albania, Thailand and Italy.

Farooq Aftab - Untitled - 19 x 30 inches

Anum’s aptly named triptych, “Euphoria,” exemplifies the symbolism of femininity often attributed to trees due to their long branches and flowing leaves. Certainly in this triptych the long, slender black branches with their variously coloured leaves embody this idea, while the softly coloured sky, with its hues of blue, pink and apricot draws the whole composition together.

With all sincerity, emerging artist Muntehaa Azad tells us, “My forte is painting dreamy and hazy lanscapes. Having moved from the hustle and bustle of an urban environment to the quiet and serene Himalayan foothills, all these watercolours are etched in my heart.” Surrounded by the serenity and beauty of Azad Kashmir, she has put her soul into this work, and captured with exquisite brushwork the natural beauty of the mountain valley with a skill possessed by few young artists. Some of her works are imaginary, some were painted from memory, and some on the spot.

Her piece titled “Cottage in Wilderness” brings to mind the poor woodcutters’ cottages in the Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. The detail in which it has been painted is impressive, while the surrounding dark trees form a symmetrical natural frame, and the birds pecking around nearby give a finishing homely touch to the picture. As a contrast, her study titled “Yesteryear,” displays Islamic architectural features, with impressive texture: a disused and decaying mosque, surrounded by trees also in various stages of decay. Yesteryear is a part of their lives, too. Yet strangely, when asked about influences upon her imaginative work, her individual style,she replied, “The work being done all around influences everyone, including me. We live in a world where technological advances enable you to observe work and techniques being used around the globe on your desktop.”

Farooq Aftab has been painting for 15 years, and has taken part in a number of shows. He learned his craft from the International School of Painting, Peshawar, and is delighted to have his work displayed with that of senior artists. He has contributed 5 pieces from his River series to this exhibition, related to the river and Cholistan, a number of them featuring boats at the edge of the Sutlej River, the easternmost tributary of the Indus, near Bahawalpur. Quite apart from the rich symbolism of boats in many cultures, it is interesting to note that Farooq’s boats are especially prepared from wood, and for centuries have been made by one family only. They are used simply as a ferry, to transport people and their various paraphernalia, including tractors, from one side of the river to the other.

His untitled picture featuring two boats moored at the riverside is quite dramatic, and has a feeling of photo-realism about it. It is a pleasing study showing the two boats in the foreground with their bleached wood and their plain style, Since the river is moving slowly, this imparts a little movement to the shadows cast by the boats. While not colourful, the picture has a lot of character, and indeed, though Farooq has worked on a number of themes, the boat and the river are his favourite subjects for painting.

A graduate of Karachi University, and holding as well a diploma in fine arts from Mashkoor School of Arts, Sadia Arif mostly paints in watercolour, and has chosen floral painting as her subject. She has participated in many group shows, and has taught art in various schools. She finds the transparency and luminosity of watercolour appealing, and paints primarily to depict the beauty of light, while the delicacy of the medium enables her to capture the range of variations in value and colour that light reveals, from striking to subtle. She likes to zoom in on her subject, producing intimate portraits and drawing the viewer in closely. This we find in her charming study of pink bougainvillea against an old grey door, where the details of the weathered wood and the shadows of the flowers add much charm to the piece. Though the picture is full, with a feeling of completeness, it is not crowded due to the skillful use of positive space.

Arif Ansari has had quite a varied career. He is another graduate of Mashkoor Art School, and has worked as an assistant interior designer, has participated in many watercolour shows in Pakistan, as well as exhibiting in Italy, India and Dubai. Apart from this he has held live demonstrations of his art in various universities in Pakistan, and has 2 more coming up in Karachi. Of his 5 pieces in the show under review, his untitled landscape with brilliant blue water in the foreground is the most striking. One is puzzled about the white splashes in the foreground water, but Arif explains that this is a device to create texture and make a break in the symmetry to add interest to the picture. Even without this, however, the contrasting touches of yellow in river and sky certainly add interest and accentuate the excellent depth of field.

We are told that no matter how dear we hold the traditional values in art, the digital world is here to stay, and will keep exploring vistas, besides blurring the line between reality and fantasy. But let us take heart in the understanding that the magical world of landscape painting will never disappear, and that artists will continue to offer works featuring what the eye sees, and what inspires the heart.