The act of painting is one of the ways to manifest,
and celebrate the experience of life in its gaiety and pain.
for me it is a necessity to excavate, unravel and
recompose the contextual iconography of being. 'A Visit
to the Inner Sanctum' is a series that relates the man to
man, and the man to the environment. It is not a comment
or a description, it is just a page from a scrapbook noting
things from the past and the present. The process of
living initiates a mode of expression in sharing with things
past and present, in day-to-day existence.
-Zahoor ul Akhlaq, statement, March 1997
Painter, sculptor and printmaker, Zahoor ul Akhlaq's work - standing between tradition and contemporaneity - consolidates his research into the many visual traditions that criss-cross the political and geographical boundaries of Pakistan. He looks into the discipline of Islamic geometry, the iconography of the Moghul manuscript, the well-worn genres of European painting as manifest in the British colonial heritage and the complex business of being an artist of today; feeling, recording, communicating. He moves with ease between these different compulsions; his references multiply, synthesise, appear and submerge themselves in the discreet handling of his medium. As a young child he watched the famed calligrapher Yousaf Dehlavi, a friend of his father's, work in Karachi. Thus a respect for skill and a familiarity with order were internalised at an early age. The uprooting of his family and the migration from Delhi to Karachi at the partitioning of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 also left its emotional scars. The nostalgia and the sense of separation which underlies Akhlaq's work is gently pervasive. His travels to different parts of the world have reinforced both the 'rootedness' and the contemporaneity in his work.
Much of Akhlaq's earlier work has involved an
exploration of the canons of art-making in the sub-continent and the inferences
which accompanied the advent of Islam in the area. The spatial order is
arrived at by moving around a rectangle within a rectangle, suggesting
an Imperial 'Firmaan' (decree), the page of a manuscript, or the courtyard
in a Mughal palace. The 'inner' and the 'outer' are in dialogue, each a
foil for the other; the 'border' and the 'picture' poised in delicate equilibrium.
Questions of balance are also encountered in the 'Inner Sanctum' series. The figure desirous of flight or of descent achieves instead a state of deliberate limbo. There are undercurrents of pain and a persistence of memory, but the human presence retains its composure in an undescribed condition of stress. The works in acrylic on canvas are at once ominous and lyrical in their rendering of colour. The strong contrasts become subtle and muted because of the deft mark-making; whispers of brush-etched colour, nuanced, spattered, texture, disclosing embedded forms reluctantly.
Akhlaq approaches the human figure gingerly, acknowledging its emotive possibilities but downplaying its context, helping it to transcend the momentary. He accepts and affirms the influences that informed his work in the past and now. Geometric grids, undulating line, a sensuous surface, celebrate a heritage which embraces the length and breadth of the sub-continent with all its diverse layering.
- Salima Hashmi, March 1997.
One of the senior stalwarts of Pakistan's scene Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq in his recent exhibition which opened recently at Chawkandi Art has presented himself in his work as a thinker painter who is more interested in academic and intellectual exercise than in playing to the gallery.
Always an off-beat painter, he is too impersonal in his recent work - floating images are based on vertical and horizontal lines which are suspended in the vacant spaces of the canvas reflecting general movement as they float freely. His doodling like paintings, images picked up directly from newspapers in a genre of pop exercise, look so mundanely dominating the canvas a a symbol of materialistic over-ambition in a state of hit or miss uncertainty and certainty. These crosswords puzzles are hanging like carrots on the canvas as a challenging last temptation.
In fact, Zahoor, like Warhol, seeking images which perhaps, are more meaningful symbols of material commercialism. Here, another paradox emerges. These crisscrossing lines bear no decorative trappings instead they are bare and austere. They are coldly frigid and impersonal, like the face of a bridge player. In fact his academic way, he is attempting to reduce an image into a concept brief or any distracting element. He is presenting an idea in a skeleton form.
Though a simplified linear image of crossword puzzle taken as a symbol of uncertain gambling, expressing the loss of faith in personal potential. Zahoor has always been interested in finding or identifying the social and psychological problems and has never been a painter of glitz and festive creations. Denying the archaic concept or picture making, he seems to believe in the primacy of the idea and strength of the image over his personal feelings or emotions. In his attempt to discover meaning behind meaning and to dig deep to find the source of the under currents when focuses the meaning or his idea or image, and slowly, he builds up a kind spatial layering. He is reducing the art of painting to its barest essentials in terms of visual communication.
In his cross-word blocks, the lines are never autonomous. They are primarily seen in relation to each other, though each line is struggling to define its own, and each others boundaries. Zahoor's clear, bare and economical image is the result of years of astute and prolonged observation. He abandons illusion hence discipline become freedom and simplicity richness. Stillness here becomes silence which is subtle and balanced. A sensitive mind can discern a kind of underlay crying movement in the stillness of the canvas. There is rhythmic evocation yet the artist remains aloof from the close personal involvement.
The rhythmic relationship provides a unity among the inter-locking rectangles in the crossword blocks. The inter-cutting vertical and horizontal lines bring a vitality of geometric planes. Here, art does not perform the role of glitz, but strips itself to near nakedness. It flaunts its paradoxes between the entities of meaning and meaningless. His three huge panels show his influence of pop-genre on big screen cinema which has since long dominated the visual vocabulary and the robot-like dolls are performing like actors and actresses like controlled puppets. His film image with sharp focuses on rectangular lighting defines the boundaries of emptiness. In fact, Zahoor's bigger canvas is like Mallarme's, "Page Blank" where silence becomes a kind of eloquence. In this psycho-visual drama, it expresses absurdity of human existence where humans have no choice but to act according to the dictates of some other force touching the borders of existentialism.
Zahoor's frequent visits abroad has enabled him to examine and study the new movements in the western world. It has also enabled him to explore and find their oriental context if any heading more towards abstraction and thus towards oriental metaphysics where negative perception carries a positive reaction. This transcendental negativism is the crux of Zen's nothingness.
- Hameed Zaman, January 1999
Ardeshir Cowasjee's article on the death of Zahoor ul Akhlaq
A Summary of Professor Zahoor ul Akhlaq's achievements