An English Forest
(by VEERA RUSTOMJI)
A true gem of Karachi's heritage, the Frere Hall building had been severed for citizens for a long time. Once again however, one can find many families enjoying picnics and get-togethers under the shadow of this impressive gothic style building. What we are more grateful for is the initiation of art exhibitions at the prestigious Sadequain Art Gallery where artist Mohammed Yousuf recently displayed his collection titled 'An English Forest'.
With a genuine and absolutely positive message to his work, the collection is quite unique primarily because we have an extremely few number of artists who voice their concerns for the environment through their work. While many Pakistanis believe that human rights are given the least of priority, it is actually the environment, our natural habitat and our surroundings which are neglected the most. Collectively the paintings are simple yet provocative as they makes the viewer see what nature really is. Although the painting style is not realistic it projects an uncomplicated perception of landscape, Yousuf has deliberately avoided detailed aspects of botanical depictions and instead adopted a water colour type style by dabbing and gently spreading hints and hues of pigment. The paintings do not burst with colour or endure captivating scenes of forest; they are very much rooted into a practical and subjective view from the artist.
'An English Forest' is quite wholesome, however, I believe that because his style does not depict realism, his compositions do. Inspired by a series of photographs taken by a British photographer, Yousuf cultivates landscapes which speak of tranquillity and transcends the viewers to a location they have never experienced with their own senses. This effect is probably achieved so well because of the large degree of personalisation in the technique of painting endorsed by him.
For instance, a painting with a single tree leaning towards the right with an abundant head of leaves is done or executed in such simplicity that one can really imagine the actual tree cascading its leaves in the wind while the gentle rustling of grass against the pink stained sky follows the direction of breeze. Underneath each painting is a quotation by a collection of inspiring poets on nature or trees. In this particular painting, the work of Joyce Kilmer laces the frame of the painting from his poem 'Trees'. The line 'Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree' in a way spells out the collection's environmental message and emphasises our current situation and relationship with the neglected natural landscapes of Pakistan. The power to initially create something as majestic, as essential to the ecosystem of the universe, does not lie in the hands of man, yet we do manage to break and cut down these colossal creatures.
Michael S. Glaser's poem 'A Blessing For The Woods' is exceptionally inspiring and while there is but one line featured underneath a certain painting the entire poem is extremely relevant to the present day environmental crises.
'Let me stop to say a blessing for these woods
For crows barking and squirrels scampering
For trees and fungus and multi-coloured leaves'
Quotes such as these infuse Yousuf's work with additional spiritualism and sensitivity towards art and nature. Furthermore, by featuring the work of other literary artists, the paintings conjure lyricism as any observer will easily collaborate the quotations and painting together. The true offering of forests, as the lines from Michael S. Glaser's poem point out, is for the use of other creatures. Providing homes and natural raw material for animals and humans, Yousuf clearly shares this certain view that many poets have written about. He delicately dabs at tree trunks fading away the inky blues, sea greens, musky earthy sage greens which play with light and shadows developing a series of forest scenes which release the feeling of antiquity yet freshness. The new buds of green are hidden enveloped inside leaves which have been yellowed and autumn streaked. Some paintings identify a single overpowering tree, while some constitute tree trunks and lakes with dashes of sunlight bouncing off the wood and water. A ground flooded with dabs of rusty oranges and reds is titled 'A tree endures autumn as beautifully as a sufi endures hunger' proliferates the universal message of trees and their position in every community, belief and religion. In fact one cannot help but notice that many of the quotations hint at God who has blessed us with trees. Some examples 'A house in the woods is a house in the heaven', 'For squirrels, birds, and even tired men, God's shelter is a trunk and green leaves ventilated and strong.' The words such as 'house', 'shelter', 'heaven' and 'strong' focus on the magnitude of nourishment and safety trees provide.
Evidently the artist has aimed to capture the variety of uses and connotations trees are associated with which has lead to their depictions recreating their actual existence, pulsating with life and vigour.
Since 1984, the artist has exhibited quite prolifically, winning an award in 1992 titled the Sadequain Award in calligraphy. Having explored in naturalistic depictions previously in 2002 at a Cactus Painting Exhibition, he has developed and enhanced his understanding of not just vegetation but the creation of nature in all forms and the integral place it has within our community. By branching out and painting foreign lands, the artist does not alienate his own culture and hometown landscape, as some may argue. He has in fact, related the solid proof of all living and breathing creations thriving upon the existence of forests and trees across the globe. As we are dependent on our irrigation system and forests in the Northern Areas, it is an extremely similar phenomenon in Britain and in every other country. However most important, at least for this article, is to attribute the efforts made by the artist to paint something that is barely touched upon by the artists in Pakistan.