Art matters

September 13, 2020

In his solo show, titled City Dwellers, Kamal Hyat creates his world that resides in an outside reality but appears as private as a dream

Inner City Residents.

All Lives Matter is the title of a painting by Kamal Hyat from his solo exhibition, City Dwellers, being held in September 2020 at the Nomad Gallery, Islamabad.

Drawn on a small (13”x10”) acrylic on paper, the portrait clearly refers to George Floyd, the African-American brutally killed by a white policeman in May in Minneapolis. The death triggered protest and violence across the United States and internationally. The incident highlighted racism, segregation and prejudice not only in the American society, but in many countries of the world.

In Hyat’s version, the face is not black, but a deep red, and its counters are outlined with flowers that seem to be stemming out of a light-brown vessel. Understandably, Kamal Hyat, a socially conscious citizen, reacted to disparity of colour and its cruel aftermath; but the painting can also be seen in a different light, especially with Hyat’s preference for All Lives Matter rather than Black Lives Matter.

In the category of ‘all lives’, one may include lives of art forms and art practices, and the many prejudices attached to them. Racial problems aside, one also comes across artistic hierarchies. Certain art expressions are thus considered superior to others. There is a major division (instated through European hegemony/colonialism), between ‘refined’ and ‘raw’ art. Between the convention of rendering the visible world following Classical Greek and Renaissance art, and other practices from different societies – Asia, Africa, Mesoamerica, Aboriginal Australia.

Cultures outside (and independent) of West have had their traditional and diverse ways of narrating reality. However, due to the recent phenomenon of globalization, they are now retreating in favour of the Western canon of art. Not unlike the state of language in contemporary times, each nation/group has been speaking a different tongue. However, the age of internet is surrendering to English. Earlier, a great majority had adopted Roman numerals in place of vernacular numbers.

Another hard divide is between trained and self-taught artists. Although we have had luminaries like Allah Bux, Zubeida Agha, Sadequain, Ahmed Parvez, Shahid Sajjad, Ismail Gulgee, who never graduated from an art school, one could always sense the difference of attitudes when it came to work by individuals without a formal art background. And not only in our midst, but generally, some of the image makers, not trained in Western system have been defined ‘primitive’, a description as demeaning possibly as ‘nigger’.

Usually, primitive art is perceived as raw, unkempt – uncivilized. On the other hand, a few who had studied at art schools, favoured this naïve – rather ‘pure mode of depiction. French artist, Jean Dubuffet joined an art academy and was a close friend of Juan Gris, Andre Masson and Ferdinand Leger, but left to pursue his own vision and found the movement ‘Art Brut’. A major artist of our era, Dubuffet preferred a vocabulary not affected by strict codes of art education.

Seeing the paintings of Kamal Hyat, one has to admit that art is not made in academies but in the hands of individuals (if not in their hearts). Thus works produced by artists who never enrolled in art schools, lead you to other ways of seeing and saying. Their art is not merely a scientific and distanced description of their world (external and internal). Every image conceived by these self-trained artists conveys emotion, feeling and the excitement experienced by the maker.

There is a hard divide between trained and self-taught artists. Every image conceived by these self-trained artists conveys emotion, feeling and the excitement experienced by the maker.

What one sees in their canvases, papers, woods or other materials, is a blend of body and soul, observation and memory (myth), and sense and sensation. The real task of an artist is to make a work that looks natural born not manufactured. This aspect of honesty or ‘primitiveness’ is observed by Martin Gayford in the aesthetics of Constantin Brancusi. For the Romanian-born sculptor, village “wine jars, oil presses and animal traps” were part of life. If transported to Paris “these gnarled, timeworn objects would have looked like ‘primitivism’, but to Brancusi they were simply the implements he had grown up with”.

Kamal Hyat convincingly creates his world that resides in an outside reality, but appears as private as a dream. It’s not only his choice of delineating bodies, structures and spaces, but also his colours and compositions that turn his paintings into pages of a personal notebook. During his years at the Aitchison College, Kamal Hyat was taught by Moyene Najmi, an eminent painter of Pakistan. “Later, interactions with leading modern artists in Pakistan and Bangladesh broadened his understanding of the creative process”.

This ‘understanding of creative process’ is just a phrase, because the art of Kamal Hyat emerges from a depth that is not daubed by the principles of visual art. He is free to paint a reclining woman joined with a contemplating horse, as if the two species are a singular entity (Wounded). Or three people sitting on a table embedded with not only tableware, but also their hands – all in different shades of black (Silhouettes).

It is imagery that does not verify our habit of seeing the world, but communicates something more than the optical encounter. Hyat uses the language of stylization in such a manner that his characters are not there to be ‘photographed’ by a painter; he captures their essence instead of mere appearances. Paint, its application, the decision to work with flat colour, and combination of odd elements in a picture frame convert his paintings into a landscape of our dreams and desire – rather than our daily routine.

Woman in Blue.

This deviation from daily convention is apparent in his canvases like Portrait Through a Key Hole in which we are not just looking at a face through the artist’s eye, but are involved in the entire setting/process of stealthily observing another person. The same can be said of other works, which reveal the artist’s peculiar interpretation of anatomy, perspective and local colour. The leap of imagination is visible in The Destruction of Reason, in which you may guess the presence of a human being, yet the style is heavily abstract.

Rather than having a literal approach, Kamal Hyat opts for a freedom that enables him to see reality in a unique way; the imagery is more felt than matched. But in a few works, he seems to comply with the code of depiction. In paintings like Old Gymkhana, Inner City Residents, and Old Tollington Market, one could detect a structure derived from Pahari miniature painting and popular picture books printed by humble publishers.

These works, though connected to narrative tradition, are not as powerful as his uncanny and uncontrolled imagery. Through that body of work, he suggests another existence, within all of us – self-taught, self-sufficient – and of self-doubt.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Art matters