‘Images dance to the tune in the viewer’s eye’

January 9, 2022

The message in Fazil Hussain Mousavi’s paintings is not static, solid or one-dimensional

‘Images dance to the tune in the viewer’s eye’

Dr Nadhara Shahbaz Khan, the director of the Gurmani Centre at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, is a historian of art. The other day, she showed me an exhibition of the unique art of Fazil Hussain Mousavi, titled ‘Dirafsh-i-Kaviyani’ that captivated my attention on account of its major theme of resistance to tyranny.

I knew that the name meant Kava’s flag and that Kava was a blacksmith who rose against the demon Zahhak who killed young men till Iran was running out of them. The flag was nothing but the leather apron of the blacksmith whom the people joined in such large numbers that they defeated the tyrant and a new dynasty came to occupy the throne. The story is in the Shahnameh or, Shahnama as we call it in Urdu, written by Firdausi between 977 and 1010 CE. It is one of the 62 stories in this really big epic poem that is longer than Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. I learnt that the artist was from Quetta. This particular exhibition is being staged at the LUMS from December 11 and will continue till February 2022.

I saw 14 miniature-like paintings and three large canvases, all replete with symbolic significance that calls for negotiation between the beholder and the image. Indeed, the meaning one gives to it is in a state of flux, of transition, of possibilities as the artist does not limit it to a single interpretation. I was fascinated by the name of the exhibition itself — the flag of the rebellion of the blacksmith — since Iran had offered such resistance in my own memory to Reza Shah in 1979. Under such a flag of resistance, though this time led by a cleric, the people had risen and the incredible had happened ­ the Shahanshah (king of kings), had left Iran never to return. I myself saw the cheering students of Iranian origin in Karachi University: religious ones who always said their prayers; the Marxists who never did; the liberals who sometimes joined the one group and sometimes the other. As Wordsworth said about the French Revolution:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!”

So it was in the heady days of 1979. But this art was created in a remote corner of Pakistan in entirely different circumstances. So what world did the artist live in? What did he mean when he created these images with such fluidity of meaning? How did he do it? To understand it all — or something about it at least — I talked to Dr Nadhra S Khan.

Tariq Rahman (TR): Why did you hold this artist’s exhibition at LUMS?

Nadhra S Khan (NK): This exhibition is a part of the Gurmani Centre’s commitment to promoting social and cultural activities that reflect indigenous traditional practices and can pave the way to re-establish links with regional languages, literature and art.

TR: Does this artist’s work belong to a known school of art or is it in a class by itself?

NK: Fazil Hussain Mousavi’s art has some parallels with contemporary Pakistani artists but it also has several features that are unique to his style. While he uses abstract forms that share boundaries with non-objective art, his compositions have allusions to representational art. Both visual strategies demand a vocabulary infused with several literary traditions rooted in the subcontinent and spreading out to its neighbouring territories. As the disconnect with the once mainstream Persian and Arabic languages has pushed them to the peripheries, several literary art forms have been lost as people in general do not have the proficiency to comprehend them. His art vociferously recalls metaphors and myths, and with them, regional languages and their expressions that not only attract visual attention but also have the power of speech — an attribute that breaks many silences with a bang.

‘Images dance to the tune in the viewer’s eye’

To my mind, Fazil Hussain Mousavi’s work fills in a very big gap in our artistic tradition as it aims to mend the age old bond between text and image and invites us to reestablish our connection with Persian that was severed during colonial times. Today, our inadequate familiarity with our vernaculars leaves us no choice but to read Rumi, Hafiz, Firdowsi, Sa’adi, Bedil and several other poets in English. How much is lost in translation and how little we catch is reflected in some of Fazil Hussain Mousavi’s paintings that are laden with both latent and visible metaphors that can only be deciphered through the lens of a spoken language.

TR: What does the artist want to portray in his art?

NK: Mousavi allows his intuitions and ideas in the subconscious take shape in his hands. The fluidity of his forms and the spontaneity of his expression give his compositions several layers of meanings. Most of his paintings are open to interpretations and do not offer a static, solid or one-dimensional message. The juxtaposition of abstract images and recognisable forms recalled from the land of literature have the ability to dance to the tune that resounds in the viewer’s eye. Calligraphy, therefore, plays a very important role in his compositions. The artist frequently draws on his familiarity with the written and spoken word, both intentionally and subconsciously, and expects his viewers to be conversant with this vocabulary.

TR: Why is the exhibition called ‘art of resistance’?

NK: There are many reasons to see Mousavi’s work as the art of resistance. The foremost amongst these is the fact that his compositions accommodate both despair and hope and allow them to assert their presence to the viewers. While gloom hovers over through sombre colour choices and textures that recall harsh realities of life, each composition offers a sense of power to regain control and question repression. Some of these harsh questions and acts of defiance are folded in mystical covers thus making the boundaries between politics and faith sometimes porous and at others, problematic.

In one of his paintings, there is a huge rock that has been split into two by weeds growing in its fissure. To me this is symbolic of Palestinians’ resistance against Israeli military domination. However, it also represents indigenous forms of protest and resistance to domination. Another painting has the head of the Buddha presiding over — transcending, as it were — a landscape where scattered bones show that it has been subjected to trauma but is now in search of unique individuals (gems) and peace. Yet, another is captioned Kasi koo hawayi Faridun Kunad (Who shall rise in support of Faridun?). To me, it is a call to moral action, even to resistance, if one wants to make the world a better place to live in. Here I should pause to assure the reader that I do not claim to understand art, especially modern art. So the meanings I have given to these works do not exhaust the possibility of symbolic significances more discriminating viewers will discover for themselves. For me the wonder that overwhelms one upon seeing art, reading a masterpiece of literature and seeing the star-studded sky on a summer eve ­ is where meanings end and ecstasy begins. Art can lead us into that state even if you do not really understand it.

The author is an occasional contributor

‘Images dance to the tune in the viewer’s eye’