A portrait of two artists

August 27, 2023

Apart from teaching and inspiring students, both Zahoorul Akhlaq and Salahuddin Mian created images with profound meanings

A portrait of two artists


here is an old, creased and faded photograph of two boys, from the first graduating class of the National College of Arts. Both were still students, as is apparent from their attire and thin frames. One of them is holding a large sketch book in his left hand. Standing relaxed, in casual outfits, against unrecognisable background, the two are smiling – not aware of the future, which brought them much recognition and respect as well as undesirable deaths. One was senselessly shot at his home along with his firstborn; the other suffered the trauma of brain cancer.

A portrait of two artists

Zahoorul Akhlaq and Salahuddin Mian shared a lot more. Both worked at their alma mater and were elevated as heads of their respective departments (Fine Art and Design). The two class fellows trained and inspired a number of students – though the mode of teaching and the measure of their influence varied. Many former graduates of Fine Art consider Akhlaq their mentor, guide, guru. Some still betray elements of his aesthetics in their work. However, only a limited number of students in ceramics design at the NCA could associate with or respond to Mian’s artistic features in their work.

Despite the difference between their legacies – the two contemporaries had much in common. Both, in their distinct styles, had a similar spirit of pedagogy, believing in minimum formal instruction. Zahoorul Akhlaq was known for his grunts, gestures and rare nods of appreciation. Occasionally, he made some indirect suggestions. He never directed students at length, but his expressions were enough to motivate young students. A former student may not recall today what Akhlaq actually said, but would certainly admit that he/ she learnt a lot from him. Salahuddin Mian, too, was a man of few words. I recall him visiting a student’s (disagreeable) display, and turning away his face in dislike. While he made no verbal comment, his reaction was enough for the unfortunate individual to realise their shortcomings.

Maintaining a measured distance, the two taught studio courses at the NCA. They never held long sessions of critique, hours of analyses or regular drill of scrutiny and inquiry about intention, motivation, justifications etc. Instead, a brief utterance, some practical advice, sometimes a remark about a seemingly unrelated matter, helped a young person recognise issues with their work and seek solutions.

This pattern of teaching, now extinct in a sense (partially because of the guidelines issued by the Higher Education Commission) was not limited to studio classes; it extended also to their own art practices. One believes more in art teachers who inspire people through their own magnificent creations - even those not enrolled in their classes, who have never met them or did not coexist in time. Works of such masters become lessons for people across locations, disciplines and limitations.

Besides paintings, Zahoorul Akhlaq, created sculptures, prints and public monuments; Salahuddin Mian, besides making his exquisite ceramic pieces, produced sculptures, mixed media murals for installations and paper collages. 

Not surprisingly, what Zahoorul Akhlaq and Salahuddin Mian taught their students was not detached from their art. Both created images – canvases, drawings, mixed media pieces, sculptures, ceramics –with profound meanings. Their surfaces had layers of sensuous and painterly marks. When you see an oil or acrylic on canvas by Akhlaq or a stoneware by Mian, you recognise a great affinity in the way they approached their material, colour, texture and the sensation and content generated through those. The first and foremost response of a viewer seeing a painting by Akhlaq or a pot by Mian is the temptation to touch it. However, as hands are not allowed as a tool of art appreciation, eyes assume that role. The sight grazes and gathers the subtle variations in thickness and application of paint/ glaze/ clay – as recorded through the direction of hand/ brush.

The two artists lived in the pre-internet age. As such, neither of them was able to keep abreast of the latest work of their contemporaries in other parts of world. Nor were their works widely circulated in their life time. Nevertheless, both were extremely inquisitive: interested in and aware of what was created, not only by other visual artists, but also writers, musicians, social scientists and cultural theorists. I recall Professor Akhlaq, my head of the department, coming to my studio one morning in 1986 and uttering just two words:”Borges died.” The novice had no idea what or who Borges was. Only later a translation of some of his works in Urdu introduced one to the Argentine author, and to recognise the teacher’s extraordinary and multi-faceted method of education, that went beyond matters of brush and paint.

Likewise, Salahuddin Mian used to astonish his colleagues by his thorough reading and research in art, literature and related sciences. Stuck in the niche of Ceramic Design Department, Mian managed to free himself from the category. Making a series of remarkable abstract paintings in enamel fired in a kiln, was one such attempt.

Today, many know of Akhlaq as a painter, and believe Mian to be a ceramicist; but the two class-fellows defied classification. Besides paintings, Zahoorul Akhlaq created sculptures, prints and public monuments. Salauddin Mian, besides making his exquisite ceramic pieces, produced sculptures, mixed media murals, maquettes for installations, and paper collages. His work, like his dress during the mid-nineties, was ahead of his time. No wonder, there was no immediate acceptance or appreciation for it.

Our problem with regard to Zahoorul Akhlaq or Salahuddin Mian is not about them; it is about us. Today, many art students may have heard of Akhlaq, and probably of Mian, but most are not familiar with the work of these two – incredible and largely invisible giants of Pakistani art. There is no public gallery or museum where one can see the art of Zahoorul Akhlaq or Salahuddin Mian (a few early acquisitions of Akhlaq’s work are displayed at the National Art Gallery of Pakistan in Islamabad). The two class fellows who posed in front of a camera some 60 years ago, now have a monograph each to their credit, but their contributions need more than an inaccessible book, perhaps a series of exhibitions at public venues, to remind people of their genius.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

A portrait of two artists