Jamil Naqsh – modern master

When Pakistan’s first generation of artists described the initial process of establishing a new country in 1947, they articulated the excitement of new vistas of contemporary art.  Artists returned form Europe and restructured art colleges and young painters arrived from all corners of the subcontinent.  At that time there were no galleries organised, no venues to exhibit art and scarcely an art market.  Yet there was a warm camaraderie that existed in those earlier days, a joy of painting and sense of elation as artists came closer to discovering their aesthetic problems, solutions came later.

Jamil Naqsh in London, June 2005Since those days, the number of practising artists has multiplied, art institutions have been established in all regions of the country and since 1965, when the commercial art gallery opened in Karachi, art galleries have proliferated in all major towns.  Women have emerged as a strong force in art.  It is the one field in which one finds no gender bias and there is total equality.  In a short space of time the scene has totally changed; at present there are art collectors, impressive cultural complexes where national exhibitions are held, art writers and publications.  Artists frequently travel abroad and are aware of international art developments, postmodernist exposure has influenced a revaluation of the definition of art and how it is made.  Through the efforts of individuals and the talents of the creative cadre, art was firmly established in Pakistan.  Extreme individualism and diverse influences generate a plethora of styles from abstraction to visual metaphor.

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Pakistan’s leading artist, the modern master, Jamil Naqsh, was a boy when he left his home in Kairana, on the banks of the river Jumna to live in Pakistan.  He is an independent spirit, with deeply examined conclusions to life and art.  In his early teens he travelled alone through Chittagong, Calcutta and Colombo.  A kaleidoscope of impressions and a great respect for the art traditions of the past was a legacy of the young man’s journey, factors that were to influence his life, his work and his thinking.  As an art student in 1953, he absorbed the aesthetics of modern art but determined to make a thorough study of the various schools of traditional miniature paintings.  Thus he sacrificed the ease of an art student’s life to become a disciple of master miniaturist Mohammed Sharif, and learnt to sit for long hours at his work.  Obsessed with the idea of ‘line’, the young artist sought an ethos that addressed his work in the decades to follow.


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Naqsh paints the people he loves, intimate thoughts and convictions.  He began to paint pigeons in the early 1060s.  there were many implications in his choice of subject; childhood memories of pigeons strutting through the courtyard of his ancestral home and flying freely through the open windows.  Years later these recollections were to be diffused into a symbol of domestic harmony.  Then came the painted pigeons of the miniature schools of art, tiny perfectly formed transient visitors.  In his Karachi studio set in a rooftop garden, pigeons are welcome visitors and allowed to move at will.  By combining the mobile birds with the classic forms of women, Naqsh created a wondrous melding of movement and stillness using muted colours and creating textures of tactile pigments.  The artist paints effortlessly with oils and watercolours.  Though entirely modern in his idiom, he pays reference to the discipline of miniature painting never abandoning his roots in the classic traditions of the east.

Calligraphy was metamorphosed in Naqsh’s ‘Modern Manuscripts’ series, in which he redefined mass as a complex linear labyrinth.  From the beginning work was an obsession as he found the freedom to analyze content, tonality and value.  Through the years the artist has remained single minded about his work; it was and remains the crux of his existence.  His concerns address the surface of his canvas, the subject a means of manipulating space.

Since the 70s, Naqsh has worked in a spirit of meditative seclusion that allows him to totally focus on his work.  The ‘Mother and Child’ began at that time, portray with wistful tenderness the intimate world of the mother with her babe.  These paintings are a sensitive evocation of an orphaned childhood and the relationship he idealizes as the only love that is unconditional.  A complex multi faceted man who seeks solace in books, music and poetry, his method of working is deliberate, the compositions and placing of brush or pen marks perceptively worked out in his mind.

Naqsh was one of Pakistan’s artists to explore the dimensions of eastern calligraphy, a subject studied since boyhood.  He maintains that it is, in essence a question of design and produces dence, passionate and brilliant paintings that evoke the translucency of stained glass windows, referring to traditional elements of design found in ancient manuscripts.

In the 1990s, Naqsh introduced the image of the horse juxtaposed with female forms in a unique, imaginative unity.  Dedicating the work to the sculptor Marino Marini, in 1998, Naqsh exhibited one hundred and fifty paintings and drawings in which two sensuous forms merged in linear harmony.  These works were the culmination of many years of the artist’s admiration for the beauty and power the horse represents, linked here with his appreciation of the work of Marino Marini.

Though Naqsh avoids company preferring to spend his time with his work and the people close to him, he is a well-informed intellectual man who speaks his mind and pays the price for his candour.  For over three decades he has painted his companion Najmi Sura, constantly loved and beautiful, forever transcending the mundane.