An Artist, An Agitator

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Some called him a ‘free thinker’ some suggested that he was the pioneer of socio-political art in Pakistan. Critics thought that he was too radical and too drastic, while few called him as a legend!

Among these voices somebody named him as the unreasonable man.

Whatsoever the comment may be, but the reality is that he is yet another artist of Pakistan that we have lost forever! Abdul Rahim Nagori.

A student of Ana Molka Ahmad, and a graduate of the Fine Art Department of the University of the Punjab Lahore, Nagori is often labeled as a colorful painter with dark themes!

Originated from the land of colors and thirst, Rajasthan; Nagori personified the deserted mode of lavish panoramic vision of that very terrain, within his style and across his canvases, which was as colorful as a rainbow, and as thirsty as sand!

His frames are as vibrant as the dances of Rajasthan; where he was born in 1938. While his themes are as dark as the nights of Pakistan today where, he breathed his last on 14th January 2011.

Being the son of a forest officer, his association with the darkness and mysteries of a jungle, remained haunting throughout his life and crawled transversely in his images.

His paintings, at times were as thespian as the beauty of an Apsara or an Aphrodite, and at times, as deep and fatal as a Vishkanneya (poison girl) could be. Nagori always showed a specific and dogmatic approach towards the fragile half of humanity, and its beauty!

Once in an interview, with a tinge of mischief, he said,

“They (the sadhus) told me about beautiful women – the Apsaras – who descended from the heavens to take men away to paradise, posthumously rewarding them for their sufferings in their life on earth. The Apsaras were a mystery to me as a child, and they remain a mystery to me now, when I am over sixty!”

But this mischievous artist was very loud and bold in his comments on society and politics.

He could be found as instinctual in his palette as a Fauve could be, and as direct in his style as a Realist should be.

This amalgamation of Realisim, Modernity and Politics remind us the restlessness of World War-I and II. This is the same frenzy which forced artists to become Dadaists, or to provoke artistic thinking to be transformed into action art.

Socially-conscious art and artists have never been rare in any era, weather it was Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) who was moved by the Shootings of 3rd May, or it was Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) who expressed his deep nationalism in the painting Liberty Leading the People. Later on, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) under the overwhelming clout of realism were convicted of the same crime! Whilst Lunch on the Grass by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) mirrored dichotomy, discrimination and dearth of society in relationship with humanism and individuality.

Nagori is amongst those who got inspired by the changing social and political scenario of their country. When the homeland lost its sovereignty after being put under Martial Law, almost all the thinkers, writers, poets and artists protested against it, but not many were those, who raised their voices through their expression. A handful was the poets and writers who burnt their pens to ablaze their lyrical themes and brave concepts, even fewer were the painters who could escape the power and authority of the dictatorship. In a time when many figurative painters were twisting their brush and style towards calligraphic or nationalistic (rather nationalized) portrait painting, Nagori was agitating with all his colors, concepts and themes! He screamed, and screamed piercingly out of his frames.

Nagori’s socio-political paintings in the regime of Zia ul-Haq clearly display a sloganeer’s attitude within an artist. Though Bashir Mirza was also commenting on this situation in his own manner, but Nagori’s voice was loud and forceful. His series of rebellious exhibitions from 1982 to 1988 echoed stridently, with energy and lucidity.

In 1982 Nagori came up with ‘Anti Militarism and Violence Exhibition’ which got censored and banned by the martial law regime. In this exhibition he also commented on the massacres of Sabra and Shatila: the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon.

In 1983 ‘Anti Martial Law Exhibition’ got sponsored by Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ); this show was unique within its topic and brave connotations.

The year1986 compelled Nagori to paint against autocracy. ‘Anti-dictatorship Exhibition’ was held at Indus Gallery, Karachi which was known as the most powerful exhibition of his career where he exposed sixty two different awful national events to grope the conscience of the nation.

“Road to Democracy” was an anti-dictatorship exhibition that was held at Indus Gallery Karachi in 1988. That particular show was reviewed by Mark Fineman of the Los Angeles Times. In this show, Nagori displayed the evils of society by evolving new alphabet-symbols for children, basing them on the events which took place in preceding two years; bomb blasts, crime, dacoities, guns, heroin, Ojhri Blast, Kalashnikov, rape etc. became new symbols of the alphabet.

While in the last decade of the 20th century, his work was more focused on humanity, individuality and identity.

In 1990, he put on display, “I am you” an anti-violence exhibition; this show was also participated by International Artists. In the same year, the display “Women of Myth and Reality” at Indus Gallery Karachi, renounced the treatment meted out to the women.

In 1992 a series of 40 paintings under the title of ‘Exhibition on Minority’ was again a process of social and political protest for the mute, bewildered and confused society which finds itself full of tears, shame, anguish and anger. This show was held at Chawkhandi Art Gallery, Karachi.

Black amongst Blacks was another exposition which earned significant attention of viewers and critics in 1994. This exhibition was held at Lahore Art Gallery and its main target was the Feudalism and its effects.

In 2004 the exhibition “Return to Sphinx” held at V.M. Art Gallery Karachi, was one of his last major appearances. Since then, Nagori was not found in limelight.

Nagori may well be the only artist who targeted government’s stance on its nuclear policy. His paintings ‘Nuke Nights’ and ‘Nuke Delivery’ are the paradoxical expression of his sarcastic agitation which he also applied in criticizing educational strategy of the government as well, by symbolically painting intellectual of this country as ‘proverbial monkeys’ who couldn’t see, hear or speak of any evil of the society!

With the exception of socio-political scenario, Nagori’s interest in ancient history and mythology persisted to be his specific doctrine in the process of putting his seditious ideas on canvas.

As the titles of exhibitions suggest; Nagori was a thematic and dogmatic artist, who was very sensitive towards his surroundings and who never remained quiet. At a time when in Pakistan, even well established artists were seeking government patronage by condemning figural or conceptual art, and by promoting calligraphic or decorative art, Nagori painted the way he always wanted to!

Many critics blame him of being inspired by the fauves! In a way, he might be, in his palette and expression, in his clear-cut subject matter, and in his anguish. I think he was also a realist, an expressionist, an impressionist, an abstract painter or a surrealist; whenever it was a matter of expression. But above all he was a nationalist!

A painter of Pakistan!

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Source by Nadeem Alam

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