Delicate the tendrils that
From the brain-box
And the heart’s moist
These active shoots
twine and turn
Round and about, and
then head skyward
In winding spirals
It can be evergreen
triggered off at the least
Brush with a fertilising
Leaves that curl to
the near perfection
Of the symphonic form,
buds that bloom
To the pull of the full moon
With clusters heaped
Of the melodiously
sounding circles and rings
And so, with luck, in
a good year,
Flowers a tender plant
– Roots deep down in
the perennially quickening dark.
Earlier in the century, it was the most responsive writers who might begin their setting of the encounter with a much admired body of pictures to words by paying tribute to painting as a form of the unsayable. As Paul Valery wrote in 1932, “One must always apologise for talking about painting.”
From the summoning of each art to what its means only could enact, it follows that nothing can be paraphrased or transposed into another medium. Painting, like music and dance, does not signify in the verbal sense: what you see is what you get. “A work of art, if it does not leave us mute, is of little value.”
Muhammad Ashraf’s sensual gestures can be seen as a reaction against the pervasive minimal tendencies of the late 1960s. To counter the long domination of abstract expressionism, a visible trend emerged among painters, one that rejected painterly qualities such as brushwork in favour of a new kind of materiality. Using symmetry, hard edges, and smooth gilded surfaces to create ‘monochromes’, artists began to address the painting in space. Their canvases began to function both as paintings and as objects, emphasising structure, opacity and surface perfection. Ashraf, on the contrary, creates paintings, both on paper and wood that combine densities to culminate in evocative and richly textured surfaces.
These untitled works continue the trajectory of concealment and revelation. While there are blades and swirls of red and yellow invading the works, the result is an impenetrable density that seems burdened by its own mass. The surfaces, in the current suite of paintings, mysteriously titled as Malleability turn from interiority to outwardness, conveying emotive space through a body of ‘landscapes’. This series of works embraces the daily litany of responsiveness, keenly mapping nature and its cadences as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of human relationships. Through the rhythmic sequences of seasons, nightfall, and light, Ashraf narrates lived experience without the directed specificity of autobiography or storytelling.
Getting closer to the light, looking for a point of reference, to understand the world and ourselves better, may sound like a beautiful metaphor. Many poets, for example, find in the light an ally to protect them from the shadows of their personal failures. Looking at the paintings of Muhammad Ashraf, going on show at Koel Gallery in Karachi soon, I felt the congeniality between two artistic languages that are closer to each other than many people think: one paints in images, the other paints in words, but both are trying to give way to their artistic expressions. It is then that they find themselves naked in front of the mirror of the soul. And it is there in that mirror, in that soul; where all paths come together to the light that uncovers, that takes away all accessories, and leaves us with the essence: the emotional sensation to contemplate.
Our painter knows this. Furthermore, being an expressive artist, Ashraf is obsessed with light, catching it, decoding it, understanding it. This desire finds him looking for light in contrasts, in layering gold and silver leaves/foils as an underlay. This reminds one of the Far Eastern horizon, where light has not yet been contaminated by the modern world, or of the Mediterranean islands. Even though there have been many attempts to destroy the world’s natural beauty, nature still has kept its secrets for the few sensible spirits that can explore it. Ashraf’s paintings tell us about an intimate adventure – an adventure supported by a painter struggling with his art, to show atmosphere, gloss and truth, of impressions of a wilderness.
One of his paintings is a closely rendered landscape painted in viridian and gold, signalling harvest and abundance. The composition is a smear of autumn against the horizon. His brushwork is dense and expressive. Another painting heralds a bitter palette of ochre, cream, brown and yellow. Thick strokes blanket the withered bean stalks and clumps of frozen mud. Yet another painting announces the new growth of spring. Tender green shoots poke up out of the thaw. Through rich colour and texture, Ashraf evokes the density of the sodden earth, accented with notes of mahogany, red and chocolate.
Ashraf’s paintings do more than simply document the changing nature of the landscape. They emit a sensual cognizance, resisting illustration. Rather, they can be construed as a metaphor not for nature itself, but for the nature of impermanence.
Much of Ashraf’s visual process is imbued with a strategy of accumulation. The tactility that began with his earlier work is enhanced and embellished by the breadth of supplementary materials, including charcoal and gold leaf. With both field and flowers in shades of crimson, the concentration of the colour red marks the field as a subjective site of passion, rather than a real world location.
As an articulation of fugitive states, Ashraf’s fields are perhaps best illuminated by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote: “Each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and means… thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” Bachelard argues for loss as a continual process of recovery, rather than an ongoing deprivation. Ashraf’s fields, then, become highly symbolic of loss, renewal, and, ultimately, transformation.
Ashraf is an extremely process-oriented painter. There are no clear divisions or applicable chronologies in determining where one leaves off and another begins. For instance, in the diptych and triptych on show, the left panel is filled with short, dense strokes, while the right panel is mottled with tufts of herbage, suggestive of clumps of roots. Ultimately, life is stronger than the frames which are applied as starting points. Life knows no bounds. To the observer of Ashraf’s images, every space is given for a personal interpretation and experience – that’s why titles are lacking – so that the artist might agree with Goethe: “…because man and earth become timeless in her colourful landscapes of mind and emotion.”
Jab chaha kar liya hae,
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad