Remembering Masood Kohari, an exceptional artist unbound about his views on art, ethics and society
hile still surviving the sad news of Scheherazade Alam’s passing away, one hears that another ceramicist, Masood Kohari left this world on the morning of June 22, in Rouen. Born in Bombay in 1937, Kohari had lived in France since 1969, but continued to visit his homeland, to exhibit his work and meet his close friends. He was from the distinguished and disappearing generation of artists that introduced the language of modernism — particularly that of abstraction in Pakistan.
Primarily a self-taught artist, Masood Kohari also spent a year (1958-59) at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Karachi; and soon afterwards started participating in exhibitions across the country and beyond. A journey that began in 1961 with Painting Exhibition at Alliance Francaise, Karachi and the RCD International Biennale, Tehran, till his waning years. His final show at his land of origin was Masood Kohari: A Retrospective. It was organised by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) in 2009.
It was held at Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore, where Kohari explained his technique and discussed his imagery. A pleasant person and an eager individual, he was a ceramicist to the core. While he had a smooth glaze of gentility, politeness and cordiality about him, if he was provoked, fire was not far. This is an exceptional quality, because in today’s tamed environment, it is hard to come across someone in our art with strong opinions and disagreeable positions. Replicating the atmosphere of corporate sector, the art world has become careful, controlled and constrained, mainly due to its dependence on commercialism. Criticising a fellow artist’s work is considered hampering his sales. In the sixties, seventies and even nineties, it was a different scenario; as art objects were not translated into hard cash, so artists used to get together and share comments – honest, harsh, ruthless, fierce – about their contemporaries’ output. (The exercise still persists in Urdu literary meetings; because a piece of poetry or a work of fiction is ironically yet not equal to big - or any - amount of money.)
Masood Kohari belonged to an early group including Ali Imam, Jamil Naqsh and Shahid Sajjad unbound about their views on art, ethics, society and matters of belief. Kohari once questioned and condemned his omission from the Pakistan National Council of the Arts’ book 50 Years of Visual Arts in Pakistan. A justified reaction, because in exhibitions, publications, documentations, the diaspora artists are often overlooked. If the find a mention, it is in the margins.
It was laudable therefore to host the retrospective exhibition in Lahore for an artist who had migrated to France. The catalogue documents his oeuvre, which consists of sensitive drawings, emotive paintings and experimental ceramic and glass pieces. Using metal net, oxides and glazes Kohari had created a number of dense, delicate and delightful ‘fire paintings’ (as he named them). Due to purity of colours, complexity of form and a control on the process his works in Lahore appeared as sublime poetry in mundane material.
Kohari was an unexhausted traveller, between materials, mediums, genres, cities, countries, cultures; and remained an outsider – equally in Pakistan and France. He enjoyed the privilege of being a non-conformist, as he was not tied to one location, surface, method, imagery. At Alhamra Art Gallery, there were deft drawings of female nudes (2005), abstract canvases (Space Flight, The Wind: A Study in Texture) and several fire paintings, crystal collages and sculptures, all confirming the artist’s mastery in different vocabularies of art making.
Long before his last exhibition in Pakistan, Masood Kohari had spent a considerable time in Gujrat to be with local potters, to acquire their techniques, to get acquainted with their forms. Kohari was a pioneer in reaching out to traditional aesthetics, learning from it, and absorbing it for his artistic necessities. Like a true son of the soil, he concentrated on clay, moulded and modified it so it could speak to him in the language of contemporary art. Same was the case with glass – another primordial substance – which he transformed into painterly surfaces.
When a person – or painter - dies, the custom is to bury him/ her in 1,000 or 1,200 words; eighty years of a creative individual are reduced to a few paragraphs highlighting his/ her career, read as true and objective biography of the departed, without a realisation that the artist happened to be larger than life. They, like Walt Whitman, “contain multitudes”. At the Lahore exhibition of Masood Kohari, the inclusion of figurative drawings and paintings, next to abstract canvases, along with ceramic pieces was a way of acknowledging that the artist does not hide in one medium, material, style. But if one compares his nude drawings to his Transfuge sculptures, one recognises a similar flow of line, subtle formation of planes, and an exciting attitude towards colour.
His sojourns, from Normandy to Karachi, to Lahore and Islamabad, were a way of conversing with audience across continents. In his work, Kohari, did not project his origins (he was what Semyon Bychkov, the conductor of Russian origin who lived in the USA for 15 years before settling in France, in his Hard Talk interview on BBC, called himself, “a mixed salad”). Kohari’s work on paper, acrylic on canvases and ceramics and sculptures could be from anywhere in the world: Paris, Karachi, Kiev, London, Bombay, Prague, Jerusalem, Fukuoka, Lisbon, Cape Town.
Actually, in his entire art practice Kohari was not besmirched by the need to identify with his homeland. A position similar to conventional potters, who do not plan to produce ‘indigenous pieces’. They just dig the earth and shape dishes, bowls, pitchers, etc; because for them the issue of being local or outsider is least important. Kohari drew bodies, which cannot be seen in the Islamic Republic, he created canvases, which do not remind a connection to his homeland and his sculptures and ceramics were not linked to his heritage (certainly not the recurring Coke bottles in his assemblages). Masood Kohari, the expatriate for 53 years, did not feel the need or urge to represent his ethnicity.
He was not fixated on one region or one time, he reinvented himself. The veteran writer on art in Urdu, Shafi Aqeel in his Jang column published on August 9, 1985, talked about Kohari’s experiments of using photocopy to make art, and his subsequent exhibition in Karachi. In 1985, Xerox was as exciting, unusual and unexplored as some of the latest software programmes or a new media gadget today, but Kohari, in contrast to his contemporaries, chose to work in the untried and latest medium.
This confirms that Masood Kohari was one of the rare artists not entangled with the past or strangled by the tradition. He lived in the moment. Because a moment never dies and never grows old, his art is still resonant.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore