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.
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…