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Wahab Jaffer

Wahab Jaffer

‘I know. I don’t look like an artist. Artists have beards and long hair. I wear a suit and look like a businessman.’

– Wahab Jaffer

One of my interests to find out the impulse, or event, that drives an artist to realize his/her vocation? Throughout history they have been viewed as being bohemian, but the more one delves into the lives of creative people, one realizes the delicate line they must tread to juggle art with the demands of reality. Again, artists have their roots in all walks of life. Paul Gauguin spent many years of his life as a banker. Toulouse Lautrec was born into a wealthy family. But being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth doesn’t guarantee artistic development. It has frequently discouraged it or been the cause of a lack of motivation.

So I was interested to know how this soft-spoken gentleman in a business suit with well manicured hands became an artist? Did he always want to be one, even though he was born into a well-known business family from Karachi? Did he have some artistic training at school and college level?

Jaffer’s answer is no. At school, he was known for his beautifully drawn and coloured maps, ‘as you know, at that time art was not a subject that was either encouraged or pursued as a career.’ At university in England, he qualified as an automotive engineer in preparation for a career in the family industry.

However, he was drawn to art and on his return to Pakistan, in the late nineteen sixties, he began to collect paintings, frequenting the studio of Ali Imam, well renowned for his fostering of art and artists. As a businessman, international travel gave him the opportunity to visit museums and galleries, increasing his exposure and familiarity with the history of art, new developments and styles

The impulse to become a painter began after events set in motion by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In 1972, the family was setting up a fertilizer factory when Bhutto, a friend of the family dating back to pre Partition, ‘nationalized industry overnight.’ ‘My father used to send his car to collect Z. A. Bhutto from the railway station, and he would stay at our house in Bombay,’ he reminiscences. And then, ‘from being an owner of the factory, I became an employee. I would go to the office and sit there the whole day reading the newspaper. I was given no work. I was useless.’

This was the time when he joined the studio of Ali Imam, almost across the road from his office, as a student. Within months, he learned to mix colours and handle acrylics, his chosen medium. And it was here that he met Ahmed Parvez, who became his teacher, mentor and friend. His early works, with their strong colours and abstract themes, show the artist’s influence on Jaffer, who became one of the foremost collectors of Ahmed Parvez’s work.

However, in order for an artist to develop and attain recognition, there must come a time when the mentor and student part ways in their work. If Jaffer had remained stagnant, he would not have the recognition as a senior artist that he does today.

He is presently selling many of the works in his collection, which includes art by the foremost artists in Pakistan, as well as international art. His house in Karachi is near the sea, and the damp atmosphere affects the paintings, which he is unable to look after properly as he spends part of the year in Canada. Also, he feels that they interfere with his own work.

I ask Jaffer how he has managed to combine a career as a businessman with a vocation as an artist. Hasn’t it proved stressful, even conflicting? ‘Yes,’ he answers, ‘perhaps that’s why I had my first heart attack very early, followed by two more surgeries during subsequent years. If I felt like painting during the day, I couldn’t, because after the events of 1972 I was again fully involved in the family business. I frequently painted at night, because in my capacity as honorary consul of the Philippines I often had to collect visitors from the airport, and flights usually arrived in the small hours of the morning. Instead of going to bed, I would use that time in my studio.’ ‘How did your family feel about this lifestyle?’ I ask. ‘Well, I have a wife who is very understanding. She knew how much art means to me, that it gives me a sense of freedom and peace. And she keeps me company in my studio, without disturbing me while I am working.’

At Tanzara Gallery, with its state of the art space and lighting, I view the paintings. I am taken by the black and white drawings which fill an entire wall as one enters the gallery. Features, line, geometric pattern, all flow into and grow out of one another. Although the features of Jaffer’s women are similar, the eyes are full of expression: they seem to talk. The lines flow to become a shape, frequently a bird; the bird may jump out, or tower over the face, or be full of surface pattern which dictates the mood. ‘I began the drawings in 1985 while lying in my hospital bed. Everything around me, the walls, the sheets, the nurses’ uniforms, were white. My world felt totally black. Eventually I asked for a sketchpad and began to draw, using a black marker. Slowly, as I sketched, adding texture and line in place of colour, I discovered the light and colour in black and white. Today, these sketches are often the inspiration for my paintings. They are also my favoured medium when I am traveling: I always have my sketchpad and black pens on hand, and I am constantly doodling, so to speak.’

In contrast to the black and white drawings, which sparkle with life and movement dictated by line, the paintings glow exuberantly. Layered and blended, the colours appear to bounce off one another to create yet more shades. As with the line drawings, the eyes talk, appearing to discourse with the bird (or birds), which grow out of hair, while quick lines add form and texture. Enigmatic, whimsical, the eyes look back at you. The birds symbolize both peace and freedom (unlike, he says, what women frequently experience in their actual lives); they are sometimes hawkish, like birds of prey. In each painting, they, and colour, appear to denote the inner landscape of the subject’s mind.

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