Interviewed by Haseeb Ali Chishti
“It’s a good thing I’m not awake yet,” I grumbled at the silhouette of my friend as we scrambled our way into his car. It had been a long hazy night, some celebration or the other had taken place and libations had flown, or floated at least. At some point my friend, Zuhair, had announced the birth of his nephew, a name unknown to a crowd of people who had congratulated him and then carried on whatever conversations they were having. He told me he was leaving in the morning for Lahore and needed someone to tag along with him. Lahore… I hadn’t been to the Pearl of Punjab since my return to Pakistan some six months ago, so I saw no reason why I shouldn’t go along with a friend and get out of Islamabad for a day or two. God this city was beginning to weigh down on me with its confined, closed-off feel and lack of spontaneity, so I said “yes” and fell asleep with the promise of a journey ahead.
Still, it was bloody hard to get up at 8:30am on Sunday, the bloody Sabbath of all days. As Zuhair filled up on petrol, I went to the convenience store to get a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of milk. Supplies in hand, I sat back in the car with my polarizing shades on and began to ponder the meaning of this random trip to Lahore, 390 miles and growing ever less, as the 2014 Honda ate up the motorway. Ah yes, Mayo.
Zahid Mayo. Some painter in Lahore, a name I’d heard six years ago from an old friend in another lifetime. My friend, Babrak, had recently gotten admission in NCA, National College of Arts in Lahore, the premier art institution/university in Pakistan and had met an eccentric senior called Mayo. This Mayo was supposedly a visionary artist, a village runaway, a street-smart saint and a Punjabi shaman all rolled into one. I missed meeting Mayo then as I moved to London for my own studies. The name that had slipped from my conscience all those years ago resurfaced last year in London when I read about the work of a Zahid Mayo being exhibited in Espacio Gallery in London. The exhibition was titled “Material World – exploring the landscape of human condition”. It was a shame I’d seen this piece of news a few months too late, so I had missed Mayo again. A few months ago in my living room in Islamabad, I’d picked up the Dawn Sunday magazine to read a review of Zahid Mayo’s latest gallery opening at Sanat Initiative in Karachi. I gleaned that Mayo still lived and worked in Lahore, and on impulse I sent him a Facebook message introducing myself as a friend of a friend who wanted to meet him. He replied cordially, giving me his number in case I was ever in Lahore and wanted to stop by his studio. I called him from the start of the motorway before we got too far and lost cellphone signals, letting him know that I would be in Lahore for a few hours if he had time to spare.
Lahore certainly looked different than I remembered it, a lot more flyovers and underpasses, if it hadn’t been for the satnav I wouldn’t have been able to find Model Town, one of Lahore’s leafiest districts. My friend dropped me off outside the park and set off to meet his nephew, name still unknown. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview that took place over the course of four hours, starting with the park session during Lahore Sketch Group’s monthly meeting and continuing back at Mayo’s studio where he was kind enough to show me a growing catalogue of work. The work was both digital and traditional, and finally helped me see what my friend meant when he called Mayo’s work “visionary”. A fair chunk of the interview happened “off-the-record”.
What’s the Lahore Sketch Group (LSG) then?
We set this up as an online group to give people some motivation to work and have the space to show that work to others. We meet once a month and work together for a few hours; we’ve met here in Model Town, Shalimar Gardens, other sites around Lahore… This one time I posted on the group asking everyone to go on their roofs and paint what they saw. That day we had people joining us from Karachi, two dudes from Canada, it was a very easy way to connect with people who appreciated the process of making art.
If a person unexpectedly stops by your studio when you’re absorbed in your work, what do you do?
That’s never an issue, work can always be done later. It happens a lot, people usually drop by the studio, whether it’s friends or models. After all, people are more important than art.
Tell me a bit about where you’re from, because I vaguely remember our mutual friend Babrak describing the quintessential village life when talking about your background.
So, I grew up in Alipur Chatta, a small village in rural Punjab. Typical country life, no electricity, no gas, no banks, no problems. The only school there was a primary school till Grade five, after that we had to go to an adjoining village four miles away if we wanted to study on. Alipur Chatta was a pretty cool place btw, that’s where I learnt how to do yoga. Oh yeah, we didn’t have a yoga studio or even a library in the village, but we used to get these big sacks of recycling paper from the larger towns (called ‘raddi’ or waste) and I used to peruse through that. Always interesting what people throw away ain’t it? So yeah, I picked up a moth-eaten book on yoga when I was eleven and even to this day, I can sit in the perfect lotus position. I sat in Etakaf (a ten day solitary meditation that adult Muslims perform during the month of Ramadan) in the village mosque when I was around 15 or 16, and I used to run up to the roof at night and sit in the lotus position for hours.
Let me guess, your parents weren’t supportive of your dreams?
Of course not! But hey that’s not their fault, so many educated city folks I know lost their shit when their sons or daughters went to NCA, so you have to remember my father was just a small farmer. He didn’t have the exposure to know any better. In fact, in his own way he did try for all his children to raise their station. I was off studying ICS (Intermediate in Computer Sciences) just because someone from the village had done that and it was going to be a respectable job. I wasted two years in that.
So how does a guy born in Alipur Chatta end up at NCA?
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an arts institute till after matriculation. A friend of mine was studying law in Lahore, so he used to frequent the Punjab Public Library. At the time NCA and PPL were next to each other, so he accidently entered NCA once and realized its an art institute. So, when he came back during the next summer break we were all sitting in our lawn and he was asking us what we want to do in life. He was quite the trendsetter you see, studying Law and what not. So I told him that I don’t know how, but I want to be a painter. I don’t think I even knew the word artist then. So he asks me, “See that cow over there, paint it for me,” I pulled out a paper from my pocket and drew a sketch. That’s when he told me about NCA. Once he told me, I just knew I must get there if I wanted to paint. I didn’t have the money for my registration papers or anything else so I ran away from home trying to find NCA. It took me 3 days to find NCA but I finally found the place. Now, all I had to do was get enough money for admission. I started out painting ceramic mugs in factories, it used to be 3rs (three cents) per piece.