The Missing Slate sat with artist Syed Ali Wasif to discuss the inspiration behind his rural-focused art and the colorful contrasts he brings to the seemingly mundane.[jcarousel source=”post” link=”image” size=”500×500″ limit=”6″ items=”1″ speed=”600″ margin=”2″]
Did you always want to be an artist or did it reveal itself to you gradually?
I grew up at my maternal grandfather’s house with my mother after the death of my father surrounded by a bevy of cousins. As I look back I recall either painting or drawing something or the other. So it’s safe to say I always knew I wanted to be an artist.
A longer explanation would be surrounded by art, from one of my uncles who was a perfectionist architect, to my mother who was a sketch artist and embroider. My Grandfather was a poet and calligrapher, a talent he learned from one of his Arab teachers in pre-partition India.
With this background art seemed the most natural decision, and with the cautious instruction of my school art teachers who influenced and provided guidance at different stages, fell deeply in love with the medium. I still recall how, days before my exams, I would paint rather than revise my syllabus.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From a variety of sources, some seemingly benign; for instance, stress opens your mind in ways you can’t anticipate. Other times, there are untold stories gleaned from the conversations, expressions and emotions of those around me. There isn’t just one source of inspiration.
You are a practicing psychiatrist and self-taught artist, do you think that either one of these affects the other in any way? How are you able to balance between the two?
As a student, human anatomy was taught to us in our first year which greatly influenced my work. It helped me in drawing what most artists tend to shy away from, primarily because they tend not to draw hands and feet properly. I try to find art in every emotional expression which isn’t always easy; I may go one step further and say that I have extended expressionist art with richer expressions and anatomical accuracies.
The truth of psychiatry is that we buy pain from our patients to the point where a psychiatrist’s clinical performance starts to wither away until he/she becomes nothing more than a pill pusher with a God complex. Painting is my catharsis – when I pain and draw, I push away my inner conflicts and create a masterpiece from sheer mental exhaustion.
How do I maintain a balance, you asked? In 2006, I resigned from the NGO where I worked and became a full-time artist.
Are there any artists in particular whose work you admire?
Oddly enough, it was med school that brought the art world closer. During my final year, I came to know that Sadequain was admitted under the care of psychiatrist Dr Haroon in a special ward. So of course I had to go and see the legend, but I was too shy to enter his room (partly because of the sign on his door declaring ‘No Visitors’!). However, Sadequain’s assistant encouraged me to enter. It was during that fateful meeting where I met two men, giants in their respective fields, who would go on to become my mentors. Sadequain took me under his wing and so, it is natural that echoes of the great man found their way into my work. To mention the other artists I admire and am inspired by: M.F. Hussain, Picasso, Souza, Dali, Goya, Van Gogh, Munch, El Greco, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
If you had the opportunity, which pre-existing body of work (including literature) would you want to illustrate?
I would like to illustrate the stories mentioned in the Qur’an and the short stories of Sadat Hassan Manto; the vivid imagery and emotional impact of his work is beautiful to watch unfold. Previously, I illustrated one from seven stories of the women mentioned in the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai; Sur Marvi which centers around the folk tale of Umer Marvi from Thar.
You collectively title your work ‘The Politics of Stress’. What is that meant to convey?
As you are aware I’m sure, there have been social, economic, religious and political conflicts and a long spell of military regiments over the years. The prevailing phenomenon of hatred and intolerance along with various other factors have generated countless pressures on both the country and on me personally. The thought process behind my exhibit is the anguish I feel about the generalization of Pakistanis as terrorists.
To me art for the sake of art is a sin; we as artists are part of society [and therefore] have a collective responsibility to rectify existing issues through our work.
Over the years you’ve had many solo exhibitions and the accolades just keep stacking up, how do you find the time to work so extensively on your creations?
Since resigning from my NGO and free Mental Health Clinic, I’m a part time psychiatrist practicing twice a week and involved in my creative activity reading poetry listening to music and painting rest of the week. At times I paint even before leaving for my clinic it is not 24/7 job but a leisure activity for me and keeps me focused on multiple issues of my interest.
A lot of the young artists today talk about ‘Art Lobbies’ within the country – if you’re in, you’re good; if not, you don’t matter. Being a self-taught artist who has witnessed the evolution of the local art scene, what are your thoughts on this?
Unfortunately as the moral values of our society fall into decay combined with a callous attitude towards everything, yes there are lobbies that put you on a pedestal or treat your art badly. I personally do not subscribe to any lobby – I paint solely for myself – if my art sells and if it doesn’t is immaterial. Art does not need any lobbying; if it is good and up to the mark it will sell at the right moment to the right collector.
The local art scene has evolved right before my eyes, especially in Karachi where there wasn’t any proper institution for learning art. Karachi School of Art, which was established in 1964 by Rabia Zuberi in Nazimabad (a mostly middle class locality) was later shifted near National Stadium in the Gulshan area. Arts Council of Pakistan was the primary hub for artists which soon morphed into a social forum for artists and student politics and yet was unsuccessful in enacting change. Today, many of the places renowned for fomenting new ideas and creativity are decaying thanks to the red tape of bureaucracy. It is a blessing that the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture erupted in 1989, by the efforts of certain architects and artists who believed that the city was in dire need for a school that excelled in the disciplines of Fine Arts, Design and Architecture. I’m not sure if that answers your question, or whether I’ve gone a bit off track, but I believe there is still much that needs [to be changed].
What’s a day in the life of Syed Wasif Ali like?
My day starts early, irrespective of whether I’ve had a full night of sleep. Indeed, on certain days I’m a fully functioning insomniac. After catching up on various emails and other tidbits, I sit down to paint or experiment with a concept before committing it to a canvas later.
I usually work through daylight and have a late lunch so the evenings are all mine, that is to say unless I am engrossed in a complicated piece, which arguably does not happen often. At times, I really don’t want to do anything so I travel the wilderness camera in hand mostly alone although sometimes with a close friend, mostly to the Thar desert and Ziarat (in Quetta).
I don’t tend to socialize much but do keep in touch with a very close circle of friends who are on the same wavelength as myself. In fact, when I am to attend an exhibition I prefer going on the second or a later day so as to avoid the crowd.