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Sadequain: The painter who made high art popular

Published 06 Oct, 2018 06:16pm
Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

What makes an artist popular among the proverbial masses? Many would imagine that popularity comes with compromise and simplification but Sadequain is remarkable because he occupies the position of a populist while maintaining an almost fanatic sincerity to his work.

Sadequain was a self-taught artist and perhaps one of the few continuing strains in his artistic methods was pace. He was a devoted workman and thus extremely prolific, often effortlessly shifting between mediums. It is reasonable to assume that he produced more work than any other artist from Pakistan. During his frenzied art making, he seemed not at all concerned with the longevity of his materials. Infusing his characteristic irreverence to power into all stages of his work, he did not subscribe to the notion of art as a permanent and possessable object. In the absence of a fully catalogued and traceable number of his works, coupled with their massive quantity, an unwitting tribute to Sadequain cropped up posthumously in the form of an imitation industry devoted to him.

Sadequain’s influences and interests were eclectic, owing partially at least to the fact that he did not have a fixed relationship with location. Often adrift in his personal life, he did not centre himself on any geographical boundaries and allowed the multiplicities of contexts to enrich his practice. In fact, one of his significant recurring symbols, the cacti, were seen and absorbed by him during his travels to Gadani on Balochistan’s coast. When not in transit physically, Sadequain would wander in his mind and thus felt at ease with influences as distant from each other as El Greco, Picasso, Michelangelo, Ghalib and Faiz among many others. His currency among ordinary people can be attributed to that fact that he cast his net widely.

His pronounced interest in literature particularly endeared him immensely to the public. This is because literature, being easily reproducible and transmitted in comparison to art, is a major constituent of the public domain. Sadequain was himself a poet. He also illustrated the works of Ghalib, Faiz, Iqbal and Camus. The centrality of word in his practice is simultaneously found in his stylised calligraphy. It would not be inaccurate to claim that, in its essence, Sadequain’s work relied upon linear progression borrowed from writing. His acts of image-making are complementary to or in service of his words.

The content for his literary allegories and symbolism often came from his immediate realities and the struggles of a working individual caught in the painful throes of an early modernity. His sense of the collective social ethos informed the undercurrent of his practice. He was able to push this understanding to extraordinary dimensions, both physical and metaphoric, in the public murals he undertook at the State Bank of Pakistan, Frere Hall, Lahore Museum, Mangla Dam and other public locations.

Even though he was commissioned by the government to work on these murals, Sadequain remained ungovernable in his own way. He pressed calligraphy, typically reserved for religious expressions, into the service of secular ideas. A hint of subversive erotic elements is also there in some of his calligraphic work.

While eschewing over-identification with the state, he simultaneously located himself outside of the academic art circles as well. This is an important point of reflection today. In a situation in which the trajectory of art is predominantly determined by academia, Sadequain was able to occupy a place unto himself — an elsewhere of his own.

The writer is a prominent artist and the dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.

This article was published in the Herald's August 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.