Beyond this world

September 4, 2022

The world of artist Mussarat Mirza is located in a neighbourhood, within a village, amid a cluster of mud houses

Beyond this world


nly a great creative individual makes the ordinary, mundane and routine in our surroundings appear significant to us. Like the short stories of Indian Urdu writer Zakia Mashhadi, this could change a reader’s perception of the world, especially of those one has never met, hardly noticed, skipped their news in the paper or switched channels broadcasting their stories, their miseries, their lives. Mashhadi, in her realistic, honest, strong, seemingly simple fiction, has dealt with unnamed, unrecognised, unregistered people and places.

The art of Mussarat Mirza is similar. Her pictures of mud dwellings, humble abodes, congested settlements, unhewn walls, uneven elevations, unrefined finish and raw surfaces, catch our eyes, before controlling our minds and conquering our hearts. Houses rendered in her canvases are like structures forged with love by an enthusiastic sculptor, seen through the lens of faded light, dust storms, layers of atmosphere.

For the sake of convenient classification, paintings produced by Mirza are generally included in the category of landscape, mainly on the basis of the artist’s references from urban or pastoral settings. Most of the time, a realm in-between, because you are not confident whether the clay-coated courtyards and coarse cubicles are from a village or a some small town neighbourhood.

Mirza does not agree with the label. She clarifies: “My concerns are entirely different to those of a landscape painter.” Yet, the context of landscape is crucial. This art form has had a peculiar history and a pompous popularity in Pakistan. The genre, handled by several artists, witnessed a boom during the eighties, as it was considered apolitical because of its subject matter: sky, fields, water, trees and distant hamlets. It was appreciated due to its non-figurative elements in harmony with codes, needs, demands, and restrictions of the state under the dictatorship. It flourished.

However, after Allah Bux, there were other, early exponents of landscape, like Khalid Iqbal, who with his mesmerising brush strokes captured the soul of a spot. They made the fleeting light, fluttering foliage, swaying tree trunks, flowing water channels, growing fields, occasional farmer, a few animals and sparse clouds, ‘permanent’ – echoing Paul Cezanne –“into the art of museums”. Iqbal’s legacy was blindly, blatantly and blandly followed by a horde of dabblers, reproducing scenes of villages, alleys, sections of old city and rural areas ad infinitum; so that landscapes were available for a dime, prepared by every brush-pusher.

A few of the works are remarkable renderings of nature, but compared to Mussarat Mirza’s canvases, almost the entire course of landscape painting in Pakistan is at a separate level. From the delicate surfaces of Khalid Iqbal to the crude attempts of his followers, a majority of the painters approach their theme from an outsider’s position. In Khalid Iqbal’s case, this physical gap provides an occasion for searching the essence of his subject; but his imitators treat landscape with a distance; standing at a comfortable point, a safe distance away, to paint, transcribe and document.

On the other hand, the world of Mussarat Mirza is located in a neighbourhood, within a village, amid a cluster of mud houses. She does not stand away, to draw what unfurls in front of her eyes and easel, or captures the depth of field. Examining her compositions, one realises that she was stationed somewhere in the narrow lanes, dim alleys, next to niches, in courtyards with (memory like) presence of a chair, charpoy, some domestic objects. What she paints is not a stranger’s (pictorial, societal, historical) view, but of one who lives within her subject.

Mussarat Mirza, as you well imagine – at the age of 76 is not residing at a humble house in interior Sindh, but there is hardly a need to do so. Creative people do not need to be put into the cauldron of misery, discomfort, poverty; because like Pablo Neruda they are blessed with the faculty to transpose themselves to the situation of those they represent in their verses. Where an artist chooses to place him-/ her-self in art and life is their prerogative. In that sense, Mussarat Mirza’s aesthetic position, of being next door to a patchy plastered wall, in spaces connected to other buildings, thatched roofs, haunting light of a diminishing day, windows with shafts of sun, is about an ethical stand; of a painter who prefers to be an intimate part of the community, even though you hardly see the presence of people, apart from one or two. (In that respect her imagery could be linked with Khalid Iqbal’s; perhaps the absence of human being in their canvases is a way of transmuting every other element into human).

If you are not too far (unlike the colonial watercolourists documenting native population, vernacular ways of living, indigenous structures, local terrain) you can rub shoulders with the thick mud wall of a house in the middle of Sindh. That sensation, of touching a tactile surface, normal for inhabitants of these interlocked residences is translated in Mirza’s highly sensitive and sophisticated textures. In a number of paintings, the imagery is a composite of sparse marks, subtle lines and a selective, yet spectacular chromatic order, almost a piece of poetry (because, in contrast to prose with its explanation and rationales, poetry merely suggests its content).

For those who have never set foot in Sukkur, Sindh, Pakistan or even South Asia, the canvases are significant. If these encapsulate an intimate experience, these also liberate one from the limitation of a regional identification.

Careful renderings of interiors, expanse of fields and complexity of living quarters are Mirza’s oeuvre. The artist blends reality into poetry through her application of paint. From a close quarter, all her marks are abstract, they do not define a body, an element of landscape, a segment of building, but once – like pieces of jigsaw puzzle – they are put together they convey a strong sentiment. She has hardly painted mist, fog or other alluring situations/ subjects that have a tendency to sublimate a common view into a beautified image (tired streets, familiar structures, typical city turn into attractive substance during fog, flood). Instead, it is Mirza’s manner of painting, layers after layers of delightful impasto, shades and hues arranged like notes of a symphony that transforms known reality into extraordinary entities.

In that sense, her way of spreading paint is not different from the way humble houses are coated with mud or lime. A majority of the paintings are created with palette knife; a painter’s tool not dissimilar, in shape and function, from a mason’s trowel - thus, attaining an affinity and harmony between makers of elementary houses, and the maker of images of these basic structures. Rarely in our art has an artist’s tool had such significance in his/ her flow of thought, strategies and expression as Mussarat Mirza’s preference for palette knife.

Her retrospective, Har Ja Tu: In the Realm of Light, (curated by Maha Malik, on display from August 27 to September 17 at Koel Gallery, Karachi) comprises 58 works from 1968 to 2021 and offers a unique opportunity to view the artist’s exquisite, incredible and incessant practice. It made me revisit a 30 x 60 inches canvas from 1969, of a Sindhi family on a bullock cart. I first saw that painting on her easel at her studio – as an eight-year-old. I still recall that Mirza was making it with great intensity, devotion, seriousness – with a palette knife.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Beyond this world