|Controversial Pakistani Artist Makes a UK Appearance|
You cannot be certain whether the world before you is one of dry land being flooded with water or of an expanse of water draining away to reveal dry land. A bull bathes, half-submerged in a lake; two men in a rowing boat drift slowly along the water’s glazed and windless surface, gazing at the naked female figures who linger at its banks. The scene is exotic – tropical even – but the colours are subdued, ominous and a little depressing: as a brooding mantle of grey cloud casts a shadow over the lush landscape, it is not clear whether what you are witnessing are the initial stirrings of a great monsoon or its concluding, otherworldly hush. The six hastily scrawled letters in the bottom-right of the frame are a humble but wittily self-assured reminder that such an image could only have been envisioned by the mind of one man: ‘Sohail’.
This is one of Tasaduq Sohail’s more restrained paintings. Joining it in a comprehensive retrospective of the iconoclastic artist’s work at the Noble Sage gallery this summer will be a plethora of his playfully weird depictions, from his much-loved images of fish swimming through the sky to farcical water-colours of mullahs and priests caught with their pants down in compromising situations. Essentially, the artist’s post-Surrealist symbolism reveals a frustrated disaffection with the arrogance of humankind, and what he sees as a damaging yet inexplicably pervasive conservatism that stifles the imagination. By invoking the surreal, Sohail invites his audience to confront what it in everyday life is considered to be ‘real’, creating a space in which marginal voices are given the opportunity to be heard.
Born in Jullundhar, East Punjab, in 1930, Sohail describes his early days as fraught with despair, violence and repression. With partition taking effect in 1947, his home region was soon in bloody turmoil with many different groups vying for domination. Sohail remembers his family fleeing Jullundhar: “They nearly killed me in Amritsar… we could see them sharpening their knives. They were going to kill the whole train.” It was down to luck that his family escaped with their lives.
It is in these early years that Sohail began to develop a deep antagonism to authority, particularly religious authority, which he perceived as hypocritical and repressive, unhealthily suppressing humanity’s natural longings. Whether it was priests, rabbis, or mullahs, to Sohail they were all living a lie and, worst of all, forcing others to live the same way. By 1961, the claustrophobia became too much and the artist left Karachi for England. For many years he led a lowly, often penniless existence in North London. He had forty-five jobs in five years: a bus conductor, a toilet cleaner and a supermarket shelf-filler to name just a few.
Arguably the most startling images in the Noble Sage exhibition are the macabre drawings that Sohail created while sitting in McDonalds. These small, spidery pen and ink works evoke the underside of the buoyant life he saw around him. Drawing on deeply ingrained personal anxieties and the violent experiences of his youth, Sohail combines natural landscapes with the goriness of a charnel house: smiling skulls and bloody carcasses intermingle with rocky vegetation. Below, Sohail signs his name, the date and (in a typical touch of comic morbidity), his blood pressure – as if the very act of creation had an effect on his heart rate.
Rebellious and prolific, Tasaduq Sohail is undoubtedly today one of Pakistan’s most renowned contemporary artists. At 77 years old, he has had over 40 solo exhibitions to date, more than 25 in Pakistan and 15 internationally. Last month, a painting sold for well above double the starting estimate at a Bonhams auction. Sohail is finally enjoying the success he deserves after more than forty years of toil to break the London art scene, and the Noble Sage retrospective is sure to cement his reputation for years to come.
‘Tasaduq Sohail: A Painting Retrospective’ opens at the Noble Sage gallery on June 20 and runs through the summer until September 2.
The Noble Sage Art Gallery