Talk about humble beginnings.
Then I graduated to sitting in public parks and doing sketches for money. 20rs a pop, sometimes even 50rs. It was the real big time. I did a lot of modelling for artists; those days you could see most of my bones and veins so I was the perfect model for anatomy. Got the money, applied to NCA, did my time.
Did your time? That doesn’t sound like the grandest endorsement.
Oh they didn’t teach us jackshit, everything was too stuffy and everyone there is stuck in some sick game of mimicry and praising themselves. I’ll give you an example: we had a guest lecturer in our first year, an expat Pakistani with a really heavy British accent. Instead of talking to us about where we’re from or what we want to be, she starts her monologue in her heavily accented English, basically only communicating to the people from upper middle class background who had studied A levels etc, and all the other “ordinary” people weren’t even on her agenda. I asked her where she’s from, she just looked at me surprised that I’d addressed her. So I repeated, “are you from Pakistan?” She said “yes”. “So why don’t you talk in Urdu so we can understand you?” She never paid any attention to me again the whole semester. It was a great place at the time, because I stopped feeling like an alien. I could just sit down anywhere and paint or draw and not be gawked at, but it was also a terrible place because sometimes I think I unlearnt stuff there.
So what’s more important, better teachers? Or a more conducive environment for artists in Pakistan generally? Or are there enough artists doing incredible stuff, but we just don’t know it?
Oh there’s so many artists around, but I think there’s a fundamental role that institutes such as NCA need to play to foster development of artists and we don’t have that yet.
As Mayo shows me his digital archive on the laptop, I mention how some of his anatomical paintings remind me of Alex Grey’s work in their emphasis on the energies flowing in those paintings. But while Grey’s recent work showcases a sort of sacred harmony, Mayo’s pieces were much more fluid, more “chaotic”.
Oh, I’m a big fan of Alex Grey and Adam Scott Miller especially. I’m using some of the same elements, but in my own way. If you could look at my old sketchbooks you would find that influence surely. That was a time in college, but NCA fucked me up so much I burnt an entire term’s work in front of my department building. Gave them my thesis and got out of that place for good.
When we get to the topic of success, Mayo sheds his laid-back approach for the first time and reveals a deeply determined individual who’s seen all the hard knocks of life and knows success will come.
If you’re not a sell-out it can be difficult to break into the market, but those who take the easy road have always been inconsequential to me. It might take a bit longer for my work to be appreciated in stuffy art circles, but slowly the tide will turn. But yes, I’ve finally turned my work back into what I wanted to explore back when I’d left Alipur Chatta. All that time at NCA trying to ‘learn’ from others was taking me away from other important work.
If you had to define this turn, would you call it anatomical, spiritual or psychedelic?
Yes! It’s all about my spiritual imagination, my idea of self and selflessness. It’s what I’ve always tried to do, but try passing end-of-term juries with that attitude. It wasn’t until much later I realized all these “teachers” weren’t artists; a lot of them were rich, entitled, nothing else to do, so why not go to NCA types. I tried very hard to mould my work in their terms, in their mediums, but they just wanted fucking stooges to go along with their ideas and to drool over them. Those who really teach you something, they always stay with you even if they’re long in the grave. For me that person was my English teacher who I would claim as my spiritual guide. I wouldn’t be an artist if he hadn’t been there really. I became his student after flunking out of ICS, and I needed to pass high school to get into NCA. Most of the subjects were pretty easy, but English I had trouble with because we had only started learning A B C in class 6. So I went to this English teacher in my village, an ancient man over 70 who had done his masters almost five decades ago and had been a teacher ever since. We got to be pretty chill, he’d look at my sketches, we’d smoke together in class while the other boys looked on enviously. He was the one who taught me about Sadequain, about aesthetics, about how to look at life! Imagine, he was such a cool dude that once upon a time a Jewish friend of his in New York wanted to send him an Eid card but couldn’t find any, so he wrote Eid mubarak on a Christmas card and sent that instead! I saw it on the wall of his house, just brilliant.
How did you end up in London at the Espacio?
Well the internet is great, you can take chances and submit your work to lots of random places. Most places want registration money or something, so I forget about ’em. But Espacio didn’t ask for money, woo. They sent me an invitation in February of 2014, and that’s when it hit me! This is happening. I didn’t even have a passport at that point, and that whole passport process took so long there were points I thought that it would never happen. Because everyone in the fucking government wants bribes! I went to the Lahore passport office and I was in a rush so this person at the counter told me he’ll expedite the process if I paid him a bribe. So I did obviously, but that fucker ‘lost’ my documents after a couple of days. It was just a way to get more money from me really, crafty bastards, “Oh we’ve misplaced your documents. But if you pay me some more I might find them!”. Then they found out I’m on some ‘blacklist’ or something. Someone with the same name must’ve been deported or whatever, so now I was blacklisted! And I got told if I give them Rs. 5,000 more, my name could be off the blacklist. And all I had was Rs. 4,000 in my pockets so I couldn’t do that. My documents were going to be posted to Islamabad (the Capital) and processed in two weeks, so I snatched my documents and sat on a bus to Islamabad myself! I got to the main passport office and was told all I need is one official letter from my university stating I was not the ‘blacklisted’ Zahid Mayo. I called the Registrar who told me I still have to pay my university fees so I wasn’t going to get no letter. After a torturous day of trying to find people to vouch for me, I finally just went up to the director in the passport office, walked into his office and told him look man I’m an artist, I need to get a passport and I have no options left. He said, “oh, you’re an artist? Make me a sketch” (starts laughing hysterically), and well the next day I got the letter to get a passport.
Mayo’s method of biographical inquiry often sees the funnier side of past events, some of which were allowed to go on record.
When I was in 6th grade, I attempted suicide by jumping into a canal.
Some fight at home.
Who saved you?
The owner of the land where the canal was located.
As I was being taken out of the canal I remember seeing my mother run towards me, one shoe had fallen off and the other was in her hand. Oh, I got a walloping. That night they tied me to a tree, so I wouldn’t try it again. It was the time before Internet, before cellphones, etc so people had lots of free time. That night the whole village must’ve passed by me and laughed at me. And then, my father comes back home at night and unties me, tells me to attempt the same jump again and starts walking in front of me. I’m following, determined to jump again and that’s when I got hit with the most legendary slap in Alipur Chatta’s long, tranquil history. It was the sort of slap that shifts your world sideways and then upends it. I still remember the fall off the side of the path down into the fields. It left a pain in my back for years (I’m still laughing as remembering this, while I grimace at the thought). I’d always had plans of running away. I’d pack my bags so many times, but more often than not I’d start thinking of my mother and father and then stop. And, I never really dreamed of these big cities, more often than not I used to imagine living in a jungle, eating berries, creating shelters, hunting, that sort of thing. Of course I never imagined I’d end up in this fucking concrete jungle where all the monkeys wear suits and all the berries have a price tag on them.
Do you ever regret selling your work?
There’s a bad feeling when the wrong person gets your work. I don’t know how to tell it, but it’s something so personal to you that it breaks your heart when it goes into the wrong hands.
So what’s next? What do you want to see happen to your work?
Give me 20 models and a few months and I would have my own solo exhibition. I’ve been wanting to recreate some old paintings, tap into the collective popular imagery, see them in the light of today. I want to capture the essence of today in the context of our history; my own understanding of what being alive today means to me.
If you had to say three words about being alive today, would you use “all talked out”?
Me? I don’t say nothing about anything. I just paint what I experience. What’s the use of saying anything, really…