When talking about how an artist is moulded by his environment, Professor Nagori would refer to the story of Picasso visited by the Gestapos at the time of Nazi occupation. The officers saw Picasso’s painting Guernica, which was made in response to Nazi Germany’s bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish civil war and showed the ugly suffering caused by war. One Gestapo officer looked at the painting and asked, ‘You did this?’ Famously, Picasso quipped, ‘No, you did it’.
All forms of art, be it dancing, singing or painting, are expressions; and the most powerful expressions arise when the artist is moved by something either in his/her personal life or in the surroundings. Manto’s heart-wrenching short stories are unimaginable if he had not lived through the India/Pakistan partition. Whilst Goya’s The Third of May (1808) wouldn’t be possible without the horrors of the French occupation. Professor Nagori started out as a figurative painter, often painting ‘the belles of Lahore’. With time he changed, both in expression and content, to become Pakistan’s first socio-political painter. This was a question that often intrigued me, both in the capacity of being his daughter as well as someone interested in political art. In our conversations, I often tried to unravel the reason for this change. After all, it was so much easier to go with the mainstream tide and continue with just decorative themes.
I believe the somewhat seismic shift occurred when, on completion of his studies at Punjab University, (after briefly working in Kohat and Sarghoda) Nagori moved back to Sindh to set up a Fine Arts Department at the University of Jamshoro. This was the time when he became friends with leading intellectuals like Ibrahim Joyo and Sheikh Ayaz. In his library, Nagori would fondly point out the books given to him by each of them: Glass Bead Game and The Story of San Michele. Both books were diametrically different kinds of books, one purely centering around ideas, the other appealing to the artistic imagination; but both loved and treasured by him over the years. Talking to his students, watching the poverty and helplessness of the rural areas, the laws enacted under General Zia’s regime (especially the ones that marginalized women), and the great love and simplicity of the ordinary people, even in the face of hardships, all moved him greatly.
How should an artist react to the events around him? Should one ignore it all and continue to paint pretty leaves and flowers? Or does one respond against the oppression and lessen injustice with the only weapon that a painter has, his brush and his paints? Otto Dix, Deigo Rivera and many other artists have seen their works as more than mere decoration, so too did Nagori.
Great furore ensued when Nagori exhibited Anti-Militarism and Violence, an exhibition sponsored by the PNCA in 1982. The exhibition was banned but the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists gave him their support and all the posters were exhibited in Karachi at the Press Club – it was protest art at its finest, where the ordinary people refused to bow to the dictates of those in power. The anti-dictatorship exhibition at the Indus Gallery in 1986 too was held under the oppressive climate of threats; all credit going to Ali Imam who remained committed to artistic freedom. All the paintings from the exhibition sold immediately. As a child, I remember seeing a great number of art students traveling from various parts of Sindh to see his exhibitions. They spoke with great love and admiration for his work which reverberated with their struggles and aspirations.
Women of Myth and Reality, exhibited at the Indus Gallery in 1990, was about injustices that women faced. One painting, that I particularly loved, had four figures of women (from different regions), with a snake cutting through the middle of the composition. An allegorical connotation of the adulterous and the temptress, the reason for the fall from the heavens. The one who is responsible for evil in stories – in tales condemned and in life mistreated, abused, relegated to an inferior status. Oppression and injustices against women are often justified through myths that society accepts unquestioningly after all. The 1994 exhibition Black Amongst the Blacks was about bonded labour under feudalism.
Professor Nagori’s last exhibition, Return of the Sphinx was held at V M Gallery in 2004. By now, the country had changed and Nagori too was a celebrity. Many thronged to see his exhibition. As an artist Nagori was now more relaxed, the anger had subsided and the humourist in him started appearing in the paintings. There was the King of Cards series, where different leaders were painted as kings on the deck of cards – with General Yahya, known for his fondness for pretty ladies, as the King of Hearts. Another one, which always made me smile, was based on the folk story of the fox who fell in blue paint, and because of his changed appearance, was able to fool everyone to accept him as their leader. Easily recognisable in the painting of the animals bowing to ‘the great new king’ were the faces of the political leaders of that time. The painting Secretarial Bird had an owl sitting on every branch of a tree – a reference to the Urdu proverb ‘her shakh per ullu…’
Towards the end of his life Nagori, in recognition for his lifetime services to art, received the Pride of Performance award that was collected posthumously by his son.
For me, the question still remains unanswered: what drives people like Nagori who till their death, unconcerned about any obstacles and challenges, remain committed to something beyond themselves? Are they the ‘unreasonable’ men of George Bernard Shaw on whom the world depends for the progress of ideas?
The most powerful art pieces can only be created when the person is driven by something beyond the calculating senses; listening to an inner conscience, willing to give up everything, to create something meaningful that until the moment exists only in their imagination. Or, are they comparable to the Sphinxes and Cassandras: who watch the destruction caused by humankind’s greed and short-sighted selfishness, warning humanity, who heeds often too late, as the ancient Greeks told us in their tragedies.