Zahoor ul Akhlaq

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Zahoor ul Akhlaq

Space, As Zahoorul Akhlaq Saw It

By Niilofur Farrukh


At a recent show, a wall-sized painting triggered off the memory of Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s work through the 1990s. This was the decade before his untimely death. He had several shows at Chawkhandi Art Gallery, Karachi that displayed how his affair with space had intensified into passionate visual poetry.

Just as a soundscape is created in the audio void of silence, art too finds its starting point on an empty white canvas and from imagination the artist wills a work from nothingness into a much sought masterpiece.

The beginning of 1990s was a time when Akhlaq’s colourfields had become active, refusing to be subservient to his forms. They carried the palpable tension between the forms. From white to a range of greys was his palette with occasional touch of other colours to hint at all that the black void contained.

The grey surface was neither smooth to the touch nor optically flat -- he had begun to use tiny iron filings so that light bounced back to remind one of the sparks the moon lights up on a sandy beach or desert, offering tiny specks of illumination on an infinitely deep field.

This was also a time when his paintings referenced Mughal Miniature; sans colour he was exploring the familiar form. ‘The suspended throne’ and ‘The princes’ are two works that can easily be identified as among the most challenging from this period.

In the canvas with the twirling dancers, the quick capturing in pale black strokes on red was as kinetic as ‘The descending nude’. It captured time and movement to push the canvas beyond its two-dimensionality.

His contribution to the Venice Biennale were female figures and birds that were not imposed on the void of the huge canvas but emerged from within it as the artist’s tiny deep grey strokes forced the surface to yield its white images.

Without any doubt, Akhlaq learnt to understand space from Shakir Ali, his mentor, whose spatial interpretation remained meditative. Space in his work reveals new relationships between objects in his painted still-life. The figurative canvases are intensified by mark making and tonal subtleties as it weaves space around the austere form and the controlled lushness of the floral pattern.

The choreography of light inspired Shakir Ali and many of his students remember him looking out of the window lost in studying shadows.

He challenged himself to interpret its impact on altering the space an object seemed to occupy in much the same way Van Gogh studied the haystacks.

By the 1990s, Akhlaq who inherited this ability to see and interpret the nuanced relationship between light and form, had spent considerable time studying the grid. This signature matrix of modernist thought that symbolises structure and rationality had appealed to him and he gradually realised its limitations could only be surmounted through its deconstruction.

Bringing it into the three dimensional, Akhlaq explored different possibilities. The wooden grid with depth allowed him to hang it on the wall to place objects within it.

The cast metal forms then could be changed around to vitalise the inner space of the fixed dimensions of the outer structure.

In the 1970s he made a piece called 12 pyramids in stainless steel. I stumbled upon them quite by chance in architect Habib Fida Ali’s art collection. Each form that stands around 2.5 tall can appear quite threatening with its sharp edges but once arranged together it is transformed into a faceted crystal-like form with a strong reflective surface. Stainless steel occupies space in a completely different way to wood or stone and the reflective surface like a chameleon takes on the colours of the environment creating an illusion of lightness, much the same way metal and glass monoliths do in the 21st century cityscape.

If we look at one of Akhlaq’s earliest sculpture at the site of a dam north of Islamabad and his last at the Maritime Museum in Karachi, one can see his expanding understanding of the semantics of space.

In the earlier work, he uses the girder to shape a standing human form that echoes a modernist vocabulary of industrial overtones and an existentialist subtext. To some the way the human form with its raised hands is shaped appears like an arch. The linear work despite its huge scale somehow fails to engage its environs.

Maybe Akhlaq realised this and used all the lessons learnt while creating the complex piece at the Maritime Museum in the late 1990s. He worked tirelessly at the Naval Dockyard workshop for months to achieve the form he wanted. Built from a grid of flat white metal bars the deep intersecting lines follow a convex curve to shape the body of the fish. Emulating the silver fish scales the surface has a fluid movement because of the way it reflects and absorbs light.

The mammoth fish that is installed on a circular elevated platform swims in the light as the artist visualised it. At different times of the day the fish appears differently to the viewer just as a walk around it also alters the way it appears. Its spatial complexity is a tribute to one of Pakistan’s most cerebral artists.

This way of seeing and not just looking that Akhlaq passed on to his students facilitated the breakthrough in miniature painting while he headed the Fine Arts department at National College of Arts.

Two of his students Shazia Sikander and Rana Rashid have taken his legacy into the digital dimension. Sikander’s animations like ‘51 ways of looking’ illustrates how analogous boundaries between space, time and form can be dissolved to recreate a new understanding of digitised space.

Rana’s work creates spatial illusions through physical mass, his contribution to the Art Dubai in 2008 was a monumental ‘glass’ cube that skilfully projected a macro visual built from micro images activating yet another layer within the optical space.

Both the artist and the historian have much to discover through the infinite space in art as Zahoorul Akhlaq saw it.

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