by VEERA RUSTOMJI
The inclination to use art as a personal commentary has been a methodology very much explored with Pakistani artists. Needless to explain the political details, life for Pakistan has been bleak post 9/11; the constant battle for reformation and thorough change has been projected through many artists' works. However it is interesting to study the political activist work which fiercely retaliated against many socio-political issues since Pakistan's formative years. More importantly, the art circles should take pride in realising how sensitive and individualistic Pakistani artists have always been towards the greater good for their fellow citizens. An artist who had played a most integral role in this field through which many responses were provoked was Professor Abdul Rahim Nagori.
Amongst the many articles that swept the media after A. R Nagori's passing away on January 14th 2011, Marjorie Hussain's title of the artist being 'undoubtedly the country's most outspoken radical political artist' exemplifies his true importance within not just the art circles, but his contribution to Pakistani society. Till his last days, which were prioritised with battling cancer, A. R Nagori was never even remotely hesitant to question people in authority. What makes his retaliation and persistence even more remarkable is the fact that although he was a highly educated man, who is responsible for many wise words for which he is frequently quoted upon in articles, he did not have any particular political experience or a personal predisposition towards law and order. His simplified approach of acknowledging that the unjust was intolerable reflects his humanitarian approach which is sometimes lost in the intense descriptions of his 'in your face work'. Quoted from a memoir dedicated to A.R Nagori in the South Asian magazine, the professor's own words encapsulated his ideology in the best possible way: 'In a speech in 1996, Nagori said, 'Some artists are interested in solving the problems of style and techniques, while others use style and technique to express their social and political views and in the process undertake 'artistic responsibility'. For the latter, art does not exist merely to entertain and gratify the senses only. It plays a role in the improvement of our collective existence. They argue that as long as there are socio-political wrongs to be righted and as long as an unjust and ugly condition requires change, art must participate through visual education and [lead] people to awareness for a better society. Dictatorship enhances [this] urge."
The recent exhibition at the Art Scene Gallery, marked the first death anniversary of the professor, his collection of work was mainly focused on his distaste and agony over dictatorship and military dominance. The blatant violence he felt the military to be responsible for was easily captured in pieces such as 'Proliferating Grotesquerie', 'Victory' and 'Beastly Unity'. One barely needs to check the paintings after reading the emotionally charged titles of his work. Executed in brash strokes with oil crayons and loose water colour, the style of the work translates his urgency to speak over the socio- political issues. This amplifies another kind of urgency which is his rush of adrenaline which can be picked up by the viewer.
Connecting instances figures of mass violence such as the World War 2, the Nazi soldier, a blood thirsty wolf, with the atrocities happening in his world sardonically imply that nothing has changed and his work focuses on the ideology that the creators of violence (usually personified as men in uniform) are inherently created by the same characteristics. 'Guernican Proliferation Continues' is an example from the collection of paintings which exhibits the raw emotion and the universal feeling of loss in war. The highly realistic painting of a man carrying a child is contrasted with the alien like squiggle of an unidentifiable figure holding a baby, both standing hopeless and in evident pain under a miniscule black air force plane. There is something indescribable in the torture and excruciating loss which is easily identifiable on both sides of the painting. One interpretation for A.R Nagori leaving his figures brash and sketchy could be the fact that it didn't matter to him whether it was the Pakistani or the Palestinian, who were suffering from military force, the pain inflicted upon the human souls was a universally felt feeling which A. R. Nagori constantly battled against. It is truly remarkable that even after constant threats, jail time and censoring, the artist remained true to his work and continued to not just take inspiration from incidents such as the Lal Masjid shootings, he used his talent as a vehicle to show that such violence was not to be accepted or ignored.
According to Asif Noorani and Amber Romasa, the artist was born with this innate sensitivity to mankind and nature as he spent his early years surrounded by forests in the Junagadh State. His understanding of life and the deplorable treatments to the innocent accumulates to his progression from the peace engulfed childhood he experienced, to the city life in Lahore while studying at the University of the Punjab. His activism extended far beyond political outcries through paintings; the establishment of a Fine Arts department at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro which owed to him being a man absolutely fluent in philosophy and eastern history, therefore, his work reverberated with symbols referring to ancient folklore and legends. He introduced these symbols to protest against the profound cruelties of man to his fellow beings.
The exhibition undoubtedly brought up many memories of the pioneer and his priceless contributions. His symbolically charged work could never be described as subtle yet there is a personal interpretation required from his viewers. Of course his work delivered a clear cut message but due to the themes he daringly chose to base his collections on, viewers from numerous backgrounds, religions, and beliefs could detect the violence in their own little bubbles which seems to be such a taboo topic to discuss for the fear of those in authority. This, readers, is truly one of the greatest and most honest things about art which will transcend time; the fact that art is a universal language which is relatable to all living organisms.