It’s the spatial conundrums in pioneer modernist Shakir Ali’s canvases that have always intrigued me. The decluttering of objects helps you focus on the infinite void and the tension between space and levitating objects, subverting all notions of gravity to give a sense of weightlessness. Unlike these, his earlier red canvases are populated with enigmatic life-size female figures anchored in dense shadows and textures that emit a powerful emotive energy.
Recently when a rare drawing by Shakir Ali, circa 1965, was introduced to me by Mrs Ali Imam1, it opened my mind to new ways of reading the master’s work. The drawing, a study of the motifs on Kulli Pottery2, has an outline of a pipal leaf and bull among other decorative elements delineated with a firm crisp hand. Many of his students had often told me about Shakir Ali’s interest in artisanal crafts, his enthusiasm during their excursion to Swat and the craft show he organized at NCA. His residence, which is now the Shakir Ali Museum in Lahore, still holds his collection of baskets, carved objects and fabrics. The furniture he designed with Swati carvings is proudly placed alongside original Swati chairs.
The drawing reveals a deeper motivation to document and study craft iconography which opens up the possibility of the impact it had on his work. Did it in anyway influence his modernist sensibility? For answers I decided to go back to his oeuvre.
Shakir Ali entered Modernism via cubism— the still life and the landscape became visual devices to experiment with the new idiom. Here local appropriations like the terra-cotta matka and kunali mingle with the usual mug, jug and bowls. The matka with its distinctive outward turned lip, is placed in the foreground in a painting while the kunali, a traditional shallow bowl with a wide flat base, can easily go unnoticed among other vessels. In a vertical painting from 1959 he deconstructs the landscape by vertically piling architecture, trees, humans and animals to evoke the village. The impasto strokes and attention to abstraction push the human and animal figures into the background of this cubist experiment.
When painted in herds, the focus returns to the animal form and it’s here that the bull he studied on Kulli pots make its appearance. Quite clearly, it’s the long-bodied bull with sharp crescent shaped horns, one that is quite different to the one depicted by Picasso. Picasso’s bull is the agile and feisty creature of the bullring but the one Shakir Ali paints is the long-bodied bull, a beast of burden found pulling the plough and carts across our villages. A painting dated 1962 titled The Bull indicates an earlier interest in the form but we are not sure if the Kulli Pottery drawing is just one of a series he did in the 1960s, or after studying the bull in Western classical and modern art he turns to researching local depiction in pre-history where pots serve as the canvases for a wide range of animal and flora forms.
Another lingering trace could be his use of foliage, a persistent motif of craft patterns which may have found its way into Shakir Ali’s work in the shape of bunched leaves. Sometime this resembles the poinsettia flower but constant morphing keeps it ambiguous. In the wall mural at the Punjab Public Library, it spreads like a carpet, weaving in and out of angular calligraphies. Was this inspiration from the pipal leaf on the Kulli pottery and the myriads of similar forms which persist in Indus Valley pottery? We cannot be certain but Shakir Ali’s study of prehistoric cave paintings, the Ajanta and Ellora murals, and the living crafts of our region was an abiding interest for decades that ran parallel to his art practice; hence a cross pollination of ideas cannot be ruled out. It’s not clear however, if these were assimilated as formalistic devises or had taken on an allegorical significance. Two other symbols that he himself talk about were the bird and the black sun— the bird serving as an emblem of freedom, and the black sun represented his anguish during the war of 1965.
Shakir Ali belonged to a generation that looked at modernism as a lens to rethink and rejuvenate legacy by reinterpreting it with a modern sensibility. He may have wanted to activate moribund motifs with the esthetic logic of his time. Similar activation takes place when Imran Qureshi uses the foliage from Bacholi3 Miniature School. The tight canopy of leaves, appropriated by him are now his signature motif. They are ever present in his miniature paintings and central to his seamless floor murals. From verdant green to gory red, they have taken on a new meaning for the 21st century audience.
I am sure if this drawing had come to light earlier, his independent trajectory could have added to the discourse on the autonomous interpretation of modernism across continents. On the other hand, we may have missed the connection because art criticism is an evolving field often informed by the ideas foregrounded by current theories and debates. 1960s was not a time for critical debates and it was only after the writings of Edward Saeed, followed by Subaltern Studies and the efforts of the Third Text, that Modern Art from non-Western countries was recognized as a repository of independent ideas rather than a derivative of Western Modernism.
The discovery of this drawing by Shakir Ali encourages us to look beyond the paintings in circulation. A re-examination of archives and availability of new material on art practices will help to lend critical vigor to readings of works, and enabling new territories of thought.
Cover Title: The Bull, Shakir Ali, oil on canvas, 29” x 22.5”, 1962. Image courtesy, Image & Identity by Akbar Naqvi, published by Oxford University Press (OUP).