Surprise of the new

February 18, 2024

Mian Ijaz-ul Hassan can replicate furious faces, agitated features, angry people and terrifying characters in his canvases

Surprise of the new


n reaching a certain age and level of experience, artists usually function either as protectors or innovators; settlers or nomads. Some of them continue with familiar ideas, imagery and subjects – even the same technique and medium. For them, breaking away from the comfortable confines of their style can be a burden. This is partly on account of the viewers’ expectations, collectors’ demands and the gallery’s pressure. Having attained a level of success and recognition, they tend to enjoy and further explore their chosen mode of work. To these artists, evolving their style is like acquiring your house; once you have it, you are not moving somewhere else.

Surprise of the new

Others keep surprising their viewers by producing work that cannot be identified with their past and celebrated creations. They are constantly trying something new, so much so that one has to read the name on the label or decipher the signature to know the maker. There are fewer examples of the latter type among mid-career artists and fewer still among aging artists. This is to be expected as the elderly often find even the chore of changing their clothes tiring, leave alone an art practice.

This, however, is not the case with Mian Ijaz-ul Hassan. At 85 years old, he has recently exhibited work that does not match with his oeuvre. In his solo show, Devils & Demons (January 20–31, Gallery 8 B2, Islamabad), the mixed-media canvases look like abstract imagery at first glance. However, most of these have roots in reality. A painter’s reality is of two types. The artist can use his smart phone to photograph the details of his surroundings: from his breakfast table, folds of a napkin, household and mundane stuff, and later transform those by enlarging the visuals and adding some brush strokes on the printed version. Through the lens of his vision one can then locate furious faces, agitated features, angry people and terrifying characters in these canvases. The origins of all these pictures were rooted in actual things, but Hassan unearthed and/ or introduced another reality in the process.

Surprise of the new

He saw devils and demons in the banal views, and helped the viewers see them as well. The question arises: why only devils and demons? We have all been finding various forms in clouds, wall cracks, marks on the tiles and marbles and spots on the floor. Some of us read these as elephants, horses, human beings, maps of certain countries or insects. Each of these readings is connected to the viewer. If Hassan discovered devils and demons around him, and captured them on his canvases, it alludes to another reality: the socio-politico-religious reality of our times.

Since his formative years, Ijaz-ul Hassan has been a political activist, spending brief periods of confinement due to his ideology and actions. Despite its unusual imagery, the latest body of his work, relates to his earlier paintings

Many people are either demonised or become devils when it comes to money, power, privilege and faith. We are surrounded by these characters and are affected by their growing dominance in every sphere of life, as we were under the military dictatorships from Ayub Khan to Pervez Musharraf. Identifying, and making the public realise the existence of devils and demons – from the higher crust of social hierarchy to one’s immediate surroundings is a political act. Ijaz-ul Hassan has been a political activist since his formative years, spending brief periods of confinement due to his ideology and actions. Despite its unusual imagery, the latest body of his work relates to his earlier paintings and devils and demons like the US - with its involvement in the Vietnam War etc - and the militaries - with their social and economic exploitation of the world.

Hassan’s iconic paintings from 1974, like Thah, The Green Revolution, Peace/ Freedom, The Mai Lai Massacre and The Rifle Butt all refer to the subjugation of the Third World in various disguises. Politics has been a constant point of creation even in his work not directly linked to these concerns. Hassan employed several metaphors to depict the unbearable conditions, resistance and resilience during the dark days of Zia: a glass filled with a flower-like arrangement of barbed wire (New Year Banquet, 1981), a large clear window against a view of lawn with a number of monstera leaves daubed in blood red (Glass Cage, 1979) a reference to judicial murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and atrocities against his party workers. Hassan’s other work also deal with socio-political situations but in a more oblique way, preferring symbols like a withering plant, a resilient tree in the autumn and blooming red flowers against a backdrop of bleak grey.

Somehow the work in his latest exhibition in Islamabad demonstrates how a creative and intelligent mind moves in directions unseen, unexpected and unprepared. Most of us possess and utilise a mobile phone camera. However, we see reality as it is directed, and rarely go beyond the ordinary. What makes the latest works by Ijaz-ul Hassan extraordinary is that he can discern content in a matter not associated with it. In our daily lives we eat eggs, consume ice-cream, pick tissue papers, sip a steaming drink, but never associate these comforts of our existence with harsh realities. Only the genius of an artist pushes the limits of the common and the ordinary and points out something relevant, crucial and concerning.

The faces that he has discovered and portrayed were segments of usual [ignored] things until the artist excavated those attached contorted expressions to them. Hassan not only unearthed these, but also built on what he found fascinating and forceful, through his artistic intervention.

If one is not inclined to follow the artist’s direction to understand these visuals as the manifestations of demonic currents from within ourselves/ our environment, the work can be perceived as excursions in the realm of abstractions. This, however, might be a superficial conclusion. Like Pablo Picasso, who once stated that he never made an ‘abstract’ painting, Ijaz-ul Hassan probably never painted an abstract canvas. Producing an abstract surface – for Picasso and for Hassan - would be a removal from reality, not merely from the optical, but also physical reality. Picasso, once a member of the Communist Party and the creator of Guernica, was a leading figure in the league of artists, including Hassan, who were/ are socially conscious and wield(ed) their brush to denounce brutal forces.

Most of Hassan’s new work is prints, occasionally overlapped with a few brush/ ink marks based on a digital gadget. This is enough to conclude that Ijaz-ul Hassan, famous and experienced, is still inventing his ways of making images as well as our ways of looking at the world that starts from our house, room, table, spoons, eyes and thoughts.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Surprise of the new