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Iqbal Hussain - the enfant terrible of Pakistan

an exclusive interview with The South Asian Life & Times

"Iím still optimistic about the future of art in Pakistan. Artists do have problems here, but donít forget the Renaissance movement took 500 years and Pakistan is only 60."

 

Iqbal Hussain, a Lahore based painter, is unconventional, outspoken, radically innovative, avant-garde and more Ė all of which appears starkly in his paintings. He runs Cooco's Den & Cafe - a gallery, where he exhibits his paintings, and a rooftop restaurant with breathtaking views of the 17th century Badshahi Mosque - in the century-or-more old house where he was raised - in Lahoreís red light district known as Heera Mandi. He gave an exclusive interview to The South Asian Life & Times.

He is of medium height, and deep-chested. His self-assurance and that firm torso exude the kind of authority and sensitivity that does not need advertising. In repose, his gray eyes are hooded, inscrutable, yet twinkling with buoyancy, "the unbearable lightness of being". In one of his self-portraits, wearing a beret he could almost pass off as a French wine maker. His house interiors juxtapose the multi-pan-religious and earthy tones, bearing statues of Buddha, Hanuman, Nandi Bull, Virgin Mary with a church bell over her head. He has painstakingly collected old doors, enamelled tiles, and mirrors and put them in a real life canvas of his home- haveli. 

In retrospect, one could almost hear at times the faint strains of Beethhovenís Ode to Joy as one climbed and walked through his haveli in the inner city of Lahore. To the west, on his rooftop cafť, is the sculpture in white marble of Virgin Mary silhouetted against the skyline of the Badshahi mosque. To the east, seen through the dancing Natraj railing, is the massive Lahore Fort Main Gate and its walls. The river Ravi once used to flow past these monuments very much in the style of all old cities in Asia and Europe. Iqbal Hussainís house stands on the left bank of this river, now flowing about a couple of miles to the northwest. He has painted the Ravi River with its boats and buffaloes, in various moods and seasons. He has mockingly named his house the "Holy Palace". To the south is the rest of the old walled city of Lahore with its eleven Gates. In winters the sky is full of paper kites especially in this part of Lahore. This is Iqbal Hussainís canvasí backdrop.

Even as he talks of the sufferings of his working class neighbours, there is no melodrama, no waving of arms. There is only a quiet, almost Buddhist acceptance of lifeís sufferings. Yet the power and the passion below has the distant and deep growl, rumble and roar of a jet engine as it revs up for a fully loaded long journey. In his hands the painters brush, which he took up once his childhood novelty with guns and knives wore-off, has become his weapon of choice. He has learnt to wield this tool effectively, practising his craft of painting with the mastery of a senior Black belt Judo tenth Dan martial artist.

Iqbal Hussain immortalizes his subjects in paintings that belong to Lahoreís walled city - courtesans, dancers musicians, and the Ravi River. He uses mirrors within his paintings with great sophistication, to juxtapose images of himself and sometimes the subject, as if to say mockingly to the viewers that this is to make you reflect on what is in front of a blinded society / citizenry. These are the courtesans, dancers, musicians that a deeply retrogressive and intolerant society has chosen to write-off and ignore. He captures the voluptuousness of big, beautiful courtesans. The artist Iqbal Hussainís work is in part like the blues saxophonist Coleman Hawkins [the Hawk], who was called Reuben of the Tenor Sax. The mood of his courtesans and landscapes is "Mood Indigo".

Iqbal Hussainís work show his insights into (but also seeks to transcend) the darkness, shadows, despair, desolation and no-exit life situations. It tells the story of how a courtesan feels waiting for societyís acceptance. Iqbal Hussainís work bears the hallmark of true sophistication, which is audacious simplicity. His work, like that of all great artists is done in faith and hope. As a February born Aquarian, Iqbal Hussainís zeal in work stands in the same vein as William Faulknerís work, which in his Nobel Prize speech he said sought to: " .. create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before."

 

Read the interview in the print issue of The South Asian Life & Times

 

 

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