Usman Saeed’s Secret Garden


Usman Saeed’s Secret Garden
The search for one’s self makes for interesting journeys. Usman Saeed’s search for the self has brought him closer to nature. This artist finds his late mother Sadia Saeed’s memory in mother nature and unending vistas to express his visual creativity by documenting birds, flora and fauna, sounds, scents, and seasons. Usman Saeed is a creative, perceptive and extremely adroit draftsman who specialized in miniature from the National College of Arts in 1999 and later from the Royal College of Art, London, in 2006.

Saeed is a product of an important intersection of NCA’s Miniature department’s history - a time when Ustad Bashir Ahmed’s orthodox teaching style was being challenged by the then newer generation of practitioners and teachers like Imran Qureshi. This meant that while Usman got an opportunity to be more open to experimentation, as a student he also had a struggle to strike a balance between that academic generational shift.

Saeed has faced that generational struggle in personal life too. He is son of master painter Saeed Akhtar, also known for his strictness and disciplinary life style. It is always challenging to live with the legacy of a famous father and that too if one pursues the same field. Amidst the legacy challenge and generational struggle, Usman Saeed found his anchor in his late mother Sadia Saeed - a noble lady of quiet demeanour. Her loss in 2001 led Usman to keep looking for a balancing act and a muse. He turned to fashion photography for a couple of years and pursued gardening. In the joy of gardening he finally found solace and creative inspiration from the plants and creatures that started settling in Bagh-e-Sadia.

Study of Amrood Tree unit 1 - Usman Saeed

Saeed’s latest exhibition Garden Find Two is an indication of pathway he is determined to take. It is displayed in artist’s own garden in Lahore. A beautiful art exhibition in the outdoors during spring is an experience in its own right. Everything is exquisite about the exhibition: from ambiance to themes to craftsmanship. In some ways the show synthesizes Saeed’s years of rigour and experimentation.

Writers, scientists, and musicians document memories, scents and sounds in different ways. It is, however, more difficult for a visual artist to do that. How does one paint or visualize a music notation or the scent of Chambeli? These are some of the challenges that Usman Saeed has undertaken. Numerous works in the show depict different visualization of sounds like Study of Sound 3 done with pencil colour, ball pen and marker on a tea stained paper and Study of Sound 4 done in ink, acrylic and pencil colour on paper. Both works imagine sound in a floral pattern or like a scientific study of movement. It also draws from classical dance – like a dancer moves in a fixed geometrical patterns Saeed portrays sound in repetitive patterns. He visualizes the aroma of Motia, Marwa, and Chambeli like star bursts or light patches in a galaxy. These look like photographs of a galaxy.
exhibition Garden Find Two is an indication of the pathway he is
determined to take. It is displayed in the artist’s own garden in Lahore

Usman Saeed does detailed studies of flora and fauna e.g. he documents tulips and irises. A different type of study of irises made him visit different parts of Lahore city to study the ornamental usage of the Iris in Mughal era monuments. He also went to see how Abdur Rehman Chughtai used it and finally arrived in his own garden Bagh-e-Sadia to observe his own grown irises. In these types of works, Usman particularly shows his strong craft as a miniaturist. The works makes one feel the allegorical fragility of a flower. A close-up study has hues of orange dawn in the background which make the viewer almost touch the purple petals of the flower.

These studies also gives feeling of looking at a journal of a colonial- or medieval-era enthusiast trying to study, document and learn about the flora and fauna of unknown distant lands. One recalls sixteenth-century Master Claude de France’s Book of Flower Studies currently on display at the Met in New York. Saeed’s display at the exhibition is an exploration in itself - the works are placed on wooden tables on book stands. One has to settle down and then open a work to explore and enjoy each - by being fully attentive to it. It is akin to immersive art exhibition but in reality - where one hears different birds chirping, smells different flowers and even drinks fresh juice of oranges plucked from trees in the garden.

Saeed’s craft - the stylization of miniature tradition coupled with powerful drafting - is also seen when he paints birds and trees. My personal favorite is the Amaltas Tree painting - Lahore’s summer glazed in yellow bell flowers, the twist and turns has a Van Gogh feeling. Also the study of the Amrood Tree is a captivating painting. A lonesome reddish tree composition, delicately painted leaves and a fantasy landscape makes the work a torn page from the Mughal era classic manuscripts.

Either by design or default or owing to his life in the garden, all of Saeed’s compositions be it a bird, tree, or flower, exist in singularity or isolation. A lonesome gardener living, working and spending most of his time in this open-air studio – for him perceiving objects to exist in isolation is disturbing. Seeing Saeed gelled into Bagh-e-Sadia reminded me of Masaa - character from Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s epic novel Bahao about the collapsing Hakra valley civilization - who leaves the town and start living on trees and as civilization decays he’s swinging on trees and it is hard to distinguish between Masaa and tree branches. Usman Saeed is very much part of our living civilization. I hope unlike Masaa, Saeed’s current work will help him to separate himself from the garden and further build on his craft and imagination to keep producing powerful and engaging work that needs to be widely admired.