What makes up a Mughees Riaz landscape? Superficially viewed, it is fine, powdery earth, sky and water, with a distant sun reflected in it.
It is always sunset. The horizon stretches as far as the eye can see. Everything is flat, still. The skyline is occasionally punctuated, at its very end, by a line of trees. Here and there crows wheel in the luminous sky whose colours are reflected in the river, the difference between them visible only in the water’s density, its surface like heavy glass. The ochre earth, fine as dust, almost shimmers with tones of mauve, peach and blue. To punctuate this landscape, there might be a solitary buffalo, a few crows, a sleeping dog, a tree, boats, or makeshift tents. And if one is from the Punjab, one can instantly recognise that the paintings belong to this province: he has captured the essence of its light.
It is this muted, almost veiled light, the sky represented in whites tinged with various shades, the accompanying river, outlines of objects soft against them, and the vision of endless space, that Mughees Riaz is a master of.
I first saw Mughees Riaz’s work at a show in Islamabad, then later at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. All of the paintings were as described above, except for one shown at the opening of the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, which was a side view of a seated young man bent forwards, with a crow perched on his upper back. The same luminescent light surrounds him, tinting his flesh, although in this painting the figure is dominant and almost fills the large space. The recent exhibition at Nomad Gallery in Islamabad again featured sunset paintings, excluding one of ‘Sarson’, mustard fields, which fill the foreground, their green stalks topped with tiny yellow flowers, against an enormous sky. Almost layered in green, yellow and then a pale, bluish sky, it appears a departure from the norm, although in comparison with the rest of the work it lacked their reflective quality.
Talking to Mughees, one is struck by his humility of tone and palpable faith in God. “A human being is never satisfied with what he has created. And I feel that I have not yet perfected the sunset that God has painted,” he says. Of his preoccupation with sunset, he says, “My classmates and colleagues would paint during the day, and they would tease me because I preferred to go out at sunset. But I wanted a sense of vast space and sunset reflected in water. So the River Ravi, just outside the city of Lahore, was my choice of place.”
Given the fact that sunset is a short span of time in the subcontinent, I reflect that he has a very small window in which to observe and paint, to which he responds that usually his paintings are worked over three days. On the first, he will paint in one layer in which he quickly captures the colours, for as long a time as the light allows. The following day he returns to the same place, at the same time, and further works the painting, using his memory of the previous sunset to help him, while on the third, again at the chosen spot, he paints in details. His medium is oil, which lends his paintings a transparency and luminescence characteristic of work by older artists, although it is far more difficult to work with than modern and more popular mediums such as acrylic.
Graduating with a Masters in Fine Arts in Painting from the Punjab University, Riaz currently teaches painting there. He grew up in a family that was no stranger to the art world: his mother’s maternal uncle painted film posters and was renowned for his artwork for the famous film Jugnoo, while his grandfather’s cousin worked out the proportions of the Pakistani flag. His father is a graduate of the National College of Arts, as is one of his brothers, a sculptor, and his wife is a Fine Arts graduate.
He has always been interested in landscape painting, and regards Khalid Iqbal as a mentor. He is also inspired by Monet’s rendering of sunset.
Riaz’s work has steadily appreciated over the last two or three years, so that prices of his paintings have almost tripled. His resume shows an extensive exhibition list which includes galleries around the country as well as group shows of work by Pakistani artists in Korea, Mumbai, England and the US.
I remark on his preoccupation with crows, which are featured in most of his paintings. He began by painting them simply because they were ‘there’, a part of the landscape, until as time went by he became conscious of their presence, and began to observe them closely. “They are like humans,” he says. “They will find a way to do something. If there is a paper or plastic bag lying around, they will put their heads inside and look through it. Like humans, they have a desire to possess things. And they have a sense of unity. If one of their brethren dies, they will congregate and make a great noise. They have now become a conscious part of my paintings.” The painting shown at the National Art Gallery was painted much like his landscapes: capturing a moment at sunset.
Similarly, there are the buffaloes, again almost as much a part of the landscape as crows, lending a weight, density, and contrast, almost like an anchor to the surrounding landscape, drawing the eye down towards it.
All these elements are characteristic of Punjabi landscapes, although in this genre Riaz’s work differs from that of most landscape artists, in that it is a study not of the objects that make up the landscape, but of space and the quality of light.
As with the work of any artist, change is a necessary element, and I ask Riaz if the painting of mustard fields is a departure or signal for a new period. He replies that he has still not been able to paint the most perfect sunset, and does not consciously plan to change, “I leave some things up to God,” he says.