Living through his work

June 19, 2022

It is time we recognised the brilliance and creativity that set Shahbaz Malik’s work apart

Living through his work


H Lawrence, the great English writer – and occasional painter, advised the viewer in one of his essays, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale”. When Shahbaz Malik was alive most of us believed in the artist but had doubts about his paintings. Sharp colours on the verge of being harsh, excessive inclusion of patterns, unconventional solutions to composition and an unexpected approach towards the human figure (stick, silhouette, skeletal, a mass of paint) were reasons to make the man an outcast. He did not follow a school or a style and was not associated with a movement. He did not subscribe to a fashionable mode of image-making.

Shahbaz Malik, who graduated in fine art from the National College of Arts (NCA) in 1986, remained an outsider till his death (December 26, 2008). He never joined his alma mater or any other art institute in Lahore as a lecturer and so was unable to become a part of the elite accumulating power through connections in and control over the art academia. He taught art at the Sadiq Public School and Islamia University of Bahawalpur, but no matter how hard he tried or how brilliant he was; it was his uncompromising work that deprived him of a place in the hall/ graveyard of fame.

One of his students recently sent me a message, urging me to write on her former and favourite teacher Shahbaz Malik, because she wanted “to see him alive through his artworks”. The text made me ponder about the matter of life and death when it comes to a creative individual. Often a poet, a fiction writer, a visual artist or a singer keeps on dying/ disappearing on a daily basis, primarily due to having left, or always lived far from the art centres. They keep the flame of their practice burning, but that flicker can’t compete against the glare of art business, which includes exhibitions, residencies, grants, awards, publications, media interviews, collectors, museums, etc. In that situation, a few choices are available to artists of periphery. They can become pushy, or jealous, or resilient, or rebellious, or they can negotiate to enter that closely guarded citadel called art establishment or turn totally disinterested in it.

Another artist, Mohammad Ali Afzal, unfortunately faced the same fate in his lifetime. Ironically, both Shahbaz Malik and Afzal belonged to Bahawalpur. Both lived in Lahore before returning to their hometown, known for its historic architecture, rich craft and the beauty of landscape. The two artists were related, but more than the blood bond, it was the superb quality of their art that tied them together – without their being conscious of this link. Afzal, a former student of the NCA, studied at the Pratt Institute in New York, before joining the NCA as a faculty member. Circumstances forced him to abandon that teaching position, so he shifted to his ancestral home in Bahawalpur, to paint. Just one work, Composition, a mixed media on canvas from 1978, in the collection of Alhamra Art Museum (Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore) certifies Afzal’s genius as a painter. The work, in its formal structure, treatment of material and sophistication of imagery appears distinct from most paintings produced in those years.

Living through his work

One look at that canvas and you know who Mohammad Ali Afzal is, but simultaneously you wonder where Mohammad Ali Afzal is – one hopes he is still active; in the same instance on seeing the paintings of Shahbaz Malik, one still muses over his absence even though it has been some time since he passed away. Throughout his career, Malik remained an artist of an unusual style. It is so uncanny that he, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not have another painter’s stain on his canvases, a quality so hard to achieve, because it is almost impossible to evade the shadow of your teachers, predecessors, mentors in your artworks. Malik managed this remarkable feat.

Knowing the person, one is certain that this uniqueness, this individuality was not a conscious decision or plan on the part of the painter. It just happened. Shahbaz Malik was from the pre-social-media epoch, so no immediate access to artists, galleries, art exhibitions around the world on one’s computer and smart phone. His pictorial diction was entirely independent and self-devised.

Probably this was the cause – because he spoke in a tongue that for many was an alien expression. Although he had several solo exhibitions in different cities of Pakistan, participated in a group show of Pakistani and African artists in Avignon France, and his paintings are in some private collections, his surfaces seemed strange. Since his aesthetics was not mended, muted, modulated or manicured to suit the art course/ trends of his time. There was no formula, method or comfortable passage from one canvas to the next, except the urgency of transcribing his mark. If one looks hard at the paintings produced by Shahbaz Malik, one discovers that these are not the residue of spontaneity or chance but are careful combinations of planning and freedom: a reflection of the artist’s self; who in many spheres of ordinary existence was reckless, but in some matters was extremely careful and meticulous.

Shahbaz Malik’s paintings are ‘constructed’. There are layers of paint; there is selection of motifs, a pictorial tension between quiet spaces and busy areas. When you come across any of these extraordinary canvases, you are not seeing the final brush strokes, but you spot earlier excursions too. One of the revered Muslim figures from the early days of Islam advised the faithful that they should offer each of their prayers as if it was their last one on this planet. Shahbaz Malik, not a religious man in a conventional sense, followed the advice. He attempted – or should one say, attacked every canvas as if it was his last painting. Hence, there was a passion mixed with paint, a frenzy frozen in his imagery.

Living through his work

Malik’s euphoria in executing a work, was the intelligent division of space, exploring the possibilities of mediums, juxtaposing conflicting pictorial elements – quite convincingly. There lurked an extremely serious, diligent and intelligent image maker, under the awning of that Bohemian artist, who was not bothered about his appearance, useful contacts, prospects in art, only about keep on making paintings. When talking about Shahbaz Malik one is tempted to cite the example of Paul Cezanne – being part of Parisian art circle of his time, yet not one of them – who did not need to earn through his canvases and pursued a vision so different from his contemporaries that he was a misunderstood genius. Shahbaz Malik was part of his fellow artists’ and friends’ group, survived on his family money, looked for a language that was unknown and became unsettling for some (galleries included). Hence, he was conveniently obliterated from our art discourse.

Today, we need to shuffle the order of art, and revise its history. In some cases, an artist must die, for us to register him/ her (Vermeer, Van Gogh, Lala Rukh, and several others), because what is produced in the flow of creativity is often ignored, missed or misjudged. Only once that stream of creativity stops do we recognise its value.

14 years after Shahbaz Malik’s death, the moment has arrived to revive, realise and reaffirm his position in the domain of Pakistani art.   The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Living through his work