Rediscovering Sadequain: the artist of the dustbin
By Asim Fareed
ROME: In Pakistan, there is a tendency to view domestic and South Asian artistic endeavour as somehow separate from the global art front. This predilection may explain the reason that the inclusion of Sadequain Naqqash (1930-87) among the world’s greatest artists elicits almost self-deprecating surprise among art aficionados.
Sadequain, one of the first Pakistani painters to gain international recognition, is counted by most art historians as the greatest Pakistani painter, ever. But this suggests a hesitance to view his oeuvre within a broader historical context. Sadequain: The Holy Sinner, the catalogue raisonné by Hameed Haroon and Salima Hashmi should change that.
The whopping catalogue (at Rs 20,000 and available only in limited edition) comprises critiques and commentaries, many by revered art historians and illustrious contemporaries of Sadequain’s, including Indian painter MF Hussain. It also includes the accompanying text to last year’s once-in-a-lifetime retrospective at Mohatta Palace.
To its credit this remarkable tome does not mourn the tragic life of the artist. This is a holistic celebration of the works of Sadequain and it forces one to comprehend the impact they have left on Muslim and non-Muslim minds alike. Even Sadequain’s most ardent supporters stand to learn more about the depth of the artist’s vision.
The catalogue, which does not include Sadequain’s famed calligraphies of Ghalib’s and Quranic verses, reveals “the almost alien brilliance of his individuality”, writes art historian and Dawn publisher Mr Haroon. The profound link between Sadequain’s paintings and mankind’s broader intellectual and philosophical evolution is unmistakable.
The deconstructionist approach, in which artist and art are perceived as inexorably bound, remains the dominant force in contemporary art scholarship. The life of Paul Gaugain is one instance of this. Gaugain was an exceptionally complicated and self-conscious individual and his biography seeped into his art. Accounts of Gaugain’s escape to and life in “primitive” Tahiti infuse his works with legend.
The Holy Sinner reveals that the distance imposed between the biography and art is largely artificial. “To understand the forces that make Sadequain’s hands move in the way they do is to understand the man,” writes Mr Haroon. The forms and themes we observe in Sadequain’s works are a reflection of his character, his biography. Sadequain was self-destructive and spiritually tortured. To see this is to understand his work.
Deconstruction provides opportunity for discussing an artist whose manner, like that of Salvador Dali, was no less enigmatic than his work. “I am not an artist of the drawing room but of the dustbin,” Sadequain once said. When Sadequain died in 1987 after a sudden illness, the iconic figure was destitute and penniless, even though he was one of those few artists who had the patronage of the state.
One of the greatest successes of this latest homage is its unabashedly asserting Sadequain’s importance to world culture, and also the undeniable influence of world culture upon this frail unassuming hermit. It is in retrospect that we may now see that this unconventional figure was a vessel through which the divine communed with man.
Despite the universal implications of his works, the primary visual source for their contorted figurative style stems from the barren domestic landscapes he encountered when he arrived in Pakistan from Amroha, UP, India in 1948. The plains were host to fields of cacti that seemed to reach out to a merciless sun in the hopes of obscure salvation, it was their pleading hands that left an indelible mark on the artist. The painting, Treasures of Time, homage perhaps to the School of Athens, depicts the stars of Eastern and Western civilization including Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Buddha, Dante, Shakespeare, Ghalib and Rabindranath Tagore. Sadequain has also included his self-portrait in this constellation but the rendering comes off humble, even ironic.
This painting betrays Sadequain’s interest in the progress of mankind, his belief that greatness rises above nationhood, race, and religion, and also his own very human concern over what legacy he would leave behind. The Holy Sinner shows us the resilience of Sadequain’s legacy to the wears of time.
The author is a student of art history in Italy