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Painting taboo from within: a window to the outside world

Painting taboo from within: a window to the outside world

At the opening of his exhibition at Tanzara Gallery in October 2009 in Islamabad, Iqbal Hussain talks about his life, work and community. It is clear that his life has been one of constant challenges, although in the last two decades he has seen wide recognition of his work. But there is a sense of humility about him, and he is weighted with a sense of responsibility to his family and community.

On display are the large canvases for which he is well known. There is also a set of small, beautiful paintings resembling studies, views of a woman in red in different poses, reminiscent of a series of pen and ink sketches with vivid water colour washes that he painted in large sizes a few years ago. There is a mid sized group of interiors: women seated on charpoys covered with brightly patterned bedspreads. Deep blues are dominant in the shadows. In one work, the artist himself reclines on a bed to the side of the room, like a shadow presence. When I ask if this representation of the artist is a statement declaring his origins and affinity with them, he demurs, saying that the models often ask that he include himself in the painting. However, he has used this device in several compositions throughout his career, and is often shown reflected in a mirror into which a woman gazes at herself, repeated here in a large canvas which, although otherwise effective, lacks perfect draftsmanship – an occasional drawback in his paintings. What is truly striking is a large painting of three women standing one behind the other facing an open doorway: youth, prime and age; their eyes reflecting tenderness and hope, disappointment and resignation.

Lastly, there are the landscapes – now a regular feature of his work – which appeared in the exhibition at the World Bank in 2003; soft, ethereal white-scapes of the Ravi; two of them with unusual explosions of colour in the centre of the river. There are also scenes from the area around his house, facing Badshahi Masjid: silhouettes of the mosque wall, with groups of figures sketchily painted in bright colours. Paintings in this genre are therapy; he loves water and misty mornings near the river. He is now better equipped to catch the best moments of the brief window between daybreak and full morning light, as an assistant accompanies him to take out the colours.

Some of the large canvases lack the meticulous quality of his earlier work, which shows attention to detail in form as well as layering of glowing colours. As in compositions from the ‘80s and ‘90s, he now uses bright hues as compared to the predominantly somber canvases of the World Bank exhibition. These were masterful works, possibly representing the zenith of his artistic career since the 80s, with their dark, brooding sense of ennui and drabness, their views into interiors where women are seated on beds or stand pressed against walls, or waiting in doorways. White highlights painted thickly over colour have become a dominant feature in many of the new portraits, so that flesh tones spring to life under light, while the brush strokes have also become looser. This departure was visible in the 2003 exhibition in a painting of his daughters clad in white school uniforms, standing against a turquoise background, their faces reflecting innocence and hope not featured in the rest of the works. His understanding and sense of compassion, however, remain: the eyes of Iqbal’s women depict a world of expressions, from the coquetry of youth, to sadness, wistfulness, boredom and despair.

Talking to the artist, one has the impression that his early life consisted of a series of events which seized him from the aimless life of most males in the ‘red light’ area. They have contributed to his deep faith in God. His commitment to art, his sympathy with the women of his community, and respect for his family have given him the unique position of making him a window through which the world sees the harsh life of dancing girls and prostitutes. By virtue of his connections with the more bohemian section of wealthy society, he has made his café and restaurant a success story, bringing both men and women to a locality that was usually frequented only by the former.

None of this came easily, and has entailed a constant struggle. The root from which many of his challenges have sprung is the battle against the wall of prejudice that stratifies Pakistani society, denying leverage even to those who want change. Throughout his teaching career, Iqbal was often superseded by his own students when promotions were due. When I ask about his children, he says, “It is very difficult to fight against people’s fixed ideas. When their school fellows learn where they come from, their attitude changes, and they don’t want to associate with them.” He has great pride in his eldest daughter who has completed university in Canada, is married and works there: another, also married, lives in Pakistan. The others find it hard to stand up against the stigma: one daughter studies privately, while his son, now almost entering his teens, suffers the same problems at school that the artist did in his youth.

Sent to school by his sister, Iqbal was expelled thrice before barely managing to pass his Matriculation. “It was a very difficult time. We were badly off when we moved to Lahore from Patiala. I have great respect for my mother. And for my sister, who sang and danced all night: I am indebted to them for supporting me. When I was young, the musician who lived at home with us dropped me to school every day. But my childhood was not like that of the children I went to school with. There were no school friends: even if somebody came to visit, there was no place where we could sit or play.”

In between school and joining the National College of Arts (NCA) he whiled away his time gambling and wandering the streets, often sleeping on the steps outside the house at night. He took up sporadic petty jobs, including pumping gas. Accompanying the musicians living around Shahi Mohalla to musical evenings at NCA (this was a time when classical and semi classical musicians lived in the area), he began to draw pictures of film stars on graph paper. A friend persuaded him to take the entrance test at NCA, while another helped him through the art theory paper, which was in English. Ironically, she failed the test while, to his own surprise, he passed. “When I joined the National College of Arts, I would go to college wearing a boski shalwar kameez, gold chains at my neck, carrying knives or guns and flanked by two other youths. This was my idea of impressing the girls. Where I came from, women were on their own, unprotected, and they looked for figures like this. But at college, nobody bothered to look at me.”

He scraped through the first year, declaring Fine Art as his major in the second year because his friend had chosen to do so, “although I disliked drafting.” From then on, he came under the wing of Khalid Iqbal, the then-Head of the Department of Fine Arts, “Khalid Sahib would call me in early, before classes, and explain things to me in Punjabi, because I didn’t understand English well. I think he knew my background. Perhaps he saw something in me: I don’t know why. But he has been my mentor.”

When he finished his diploma in 1974, Iqbal was again at a loose end, unsuccessfully trying to get jobs in teaching and in advertising. Finally, he learned of an opening for a lecturer’s post at the NCA. Despite discouragement from his peers, he applied for it. Once again, circumstances intervened to change the course of his life. The night before the selection committee was due to make their decision, the interviewing team was arrested on the charge of a highly publicised case of misconduct. Instead of delaying the process, the Ministry issued a letter declaring that work should continue as scheduled, under a different team, and be decided on merit. Iqbal was selected, and recently retired after 27 years.

The musicians of Heera Mundi led Iqbal to art school, and this led him to look for subjects to draw and paint. “When I looked around me, I realised that I had my relatives to paint. Modelling isn’t an easy task, and it was hard to find live models. You know that it entails holding one position for a long time. I would ask a woman to model for me, and chat to her while I was drawing so that she wouldn’t get bored. Nearly every time she would burst into tears. I would close the door and play loud music so that she could unburden herself. I began to realise that their lives were incredibly difficult, and would try to help them, first by listening and later giving them money.’

Exhibiting his paintings of the women of Shahi Mohalla in the Zia ul Haq era of great piety was no easy task, although the subjects were neither overtly provocative or naked, were often stout and past their prime. A 1981 exhibition at the Punjab Arts Council was taken down after two days. In 1984 at Alhamra, objections to the work included “You can see the model’s arm” and “They are not wearing dupattas”. He tried to have a pavement show, and two trucks of policemen came to pick him up. He was forced to hide while his students helped to cart away the work. Of this exhibition, two paintings, shown at NCA, were banned by the authorities, but were later sold at Sotheby’s.

Shehla Saigol’s patronage of Iqbal Hussain is well documented locally as well as internationally, and when she opened Lahore Art Gallery in the 1980s, he was given studio space. His work steadily appreciated in value and was bought extensively by private collectors, among them John Wall, the former director of the World Bank in Pakistan. International exhibitions increased the value of his work, as did frequent showings in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

For Iqbal, the act of painting is not about concepts but emotion. He is a painter of the pain of the marginalised, whose lives are taboo, and he exposes the hypocrisy of society. Aside from his well known works are a series of paintings of acid burn victims notable for their sense of loneliness: in one of these, a woman lies covered with a red blanket, her head turned away from the arm that is tied to a frame so that she cannot touch her wounds. Aside from red, the painting is a palette of white and grey: a vision of blankness. She has no name: her bed number is visible behind her head. Her eyes are vacant, apathetic. Iqbal says that prostitutes were among those targeted for this terrible act, although the painting could well apply to anyone.

Asked what periods of art have influenced his work, he cites the carvings of Ajanta and Ellora; Michaelangelo; Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens; and later, Toulouse Lautrec and the Expressionist Eduard Munch. These influences are apparent in his method. A practitioner of traditional techniques of painstakingly layered oil paints, he brushes aside the easier medium of acrylic espoused by the younger art community. He is committed to social realism, and has little patience for the new crop of artists, whom he feels are often lost in following fashions dictated by the West.

There are some who contend that Iqbal Hussain’ work has become careless, or that there is now a commercial bent to it. There is no doubt that the brushwork in one of his last exhibitions appeared unfinished, in some places limbs were blocked out in white, with outlines sketched in rough blue and red brushstrokes. He does not comment on this. But besides his obvious talent and commitment to making a living almost solely through art, he is a painter with a social mission. The recent years during which his daughter studied abroad have made it necessary for him to produce incessantly, and his current project is to open and fund a home for professional sex workers to retire without being reduced to abject poverty once their performing careers are over. His respect and affection for them and for the old city are clear from the way he talks about them, and in the fact that he has not moved out from the area although many of the new generation have done so, often operating out of residential houses in affluent new suburbs.

What is unanimously agreed upon is his importance as an artist who paints stark depictions of reality with a masterly grasp of tradition, empathy and expression. It is equally an indictment of society, revealing what we would often choose not to recognise.

Iqbal Hussain’s memoir, ‘Painter of Imprisoned Souls’, written by Marjorie Hussain, has recently been published.

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