The Legends of Modern Pakistani Art #4: Shakir Ali (1916-1975)
by Samina Iqbal
“I often feel that in this cycle of birth and death, I was born sometimes in the period of Altamira caves. I feel like I lived and painted with them. Then again I think I was born in Crete and I was one of the bull dancers. I was with them as well as painting frescoes. I was also perhaps one of those people who have been during the period of Akhenaten and have painted Nefertiti. Then perhaps I was in Ajanta.”
These are the words of Shakir Ali, an artist who thought of himself as a Universalist, irrespective of borders and nations. Shakir was born in 1916 in Rampur, North India. Yet, interestingly, he chose to take up Pakistani citizenship at the age of 31 in 1952 when he moved to Pakistan from Czech Republic. Well versed in traditional Indian painting (Bengal School) and European academic style, he moved to London in 1946 to further his art education at Slade School of Fine Arts.
He later joined the cubist painter André Lhote’s studio in Paris. In 1950, Shakir joined Charles University in Prague to study Textile Design, where he studied the writings of Czech composer Julius Fučík and Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke that profoundly affected his creative practice.
The young artists who were struggling to find a new direction in their work away from prevalent traditional art practices found a mentor in Shakir
Shakir’s arrival in Lahore was a new beginning for him and his younger colleagues. The young artists who were struggling to find a new direction in their work away from prevalent traditional art practices found a mentor in Shakir – he showed them the path to experimentation in the modern abstract painting.
Shakir’s featured painting entitled “Figure”, dated 1970, was painted in oil on canvas and represents his signature abstraction. The seated stylized female figure is placed in the foreground, off-center on a horizontal picture plane. More than half of the backdrop is painted a luminous orange, forming the middle ground of the painting, while the top one-third is painting a rich red. This strategic combination of the red and orange nicely separates the background from the middle ground of the painting. Peculiarly, the dividing line behind the figure does not run straight across the canvas. It is slightly higher on the left side, disappearing behind the figure and then reappearing slightly lower on its right side.
The seated posture of the elongated figure seems mysterious, as well. Its tribhanga (triple-bent posture) harks back to the grace of the traditional Indian paintings and sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora. Careful observation shows the head of the figure turned towards the left; the torso is positioned towards the front and the left leg is slightly twisted towards the right and, one imagines, the right leg is dangling down. The left arm of the figure is casually resting on the left leg, while the right hand shows an elegant movement towards the right and crosses through the middle ground, pointing towards the background.
Shakir’s featured painting entitled “Figure”, dated 1970, was painted in oil on canvas and represents his signature abstraction
Through this mysteriously confident figure propped as the focus of the work, one sees its resemblance to the dancing girls of Indus Valley as well as to the ancient female figure of Crete. This may very well relate to the universality that Shakir Ali imagined being part of. The reds Shakir uses are very specific to his palette, whereas the figure is rendered in dark hues made of several colours, making it hard to pinpoint a specific colour. Shakir’s horizontal signature along the upper left side of the painting balances his composition.
Shakir was a thinker, intellectual and visionary. His close attachment to Lahore Literary Circle and his founding of the Lahore Art Circle in 1952 propagated the dialogue of experimentation that artists cherish today.