Jamil Naqsh | Echoes
The way in which what is extremely ancient resonates within the best and most characteristic art being created right now is something that has always fascinated me. In fact, I got into art criticism seventy years ago, because I was a teenage antiquity collector, using my pocket money to buy bits and pieces from antiquity sellers in London’s famed Portobello Market. Even then, I was mirroring the pattern set for me by collectors very much senior to myself. Ever since what we now call Modern art came into existence, more than a hundred years ago, in the earliest years of the 20th century, the very old and the very new have gone hand in hand.
One step up from the Portobello, I used to run errands for and buy inexpensive treasures from London’s best- known antiquity dealer of the immediately post-war period. He had a little shop at the other end of the street where I then lived. A client of his, whom I met there, was the great sculptor Jacob Epstein. It also so happened that this dealer was one of the first to sell work by Francis Bacon, long before Bacon was represented by the Marlborough Gallery. It is therefore no surprise that Jamil Naqsh’s recent work seems to speak so directly and personally to me.
Great changes have taken place in our knowledge about the ancient world since I first encountered archaeological research and scholarship. Equally great changes have taken place in the world of contemporary art. In both cases, one of the most important changes is that our range of knowledge has vastly increased. Our knowledge of ancient cultures has become plural. In our response to contemporary art, pluralism also prevails. It is no longer possible to devise a Modernist and Post-Modernist storyline that narrates a single unified line of development. Although, it must be said, many Western commentators on new developments in art still seem to feel a nostalgia for this – with Western ideas and values remaining fully in charge.
Jamil Naqsh is an important figure in in this complex development. Born in Uttar Pradesh, from a Muslim family, he was forced by the post-war partition of the Indian subcontinent to take refuge in newly created Pakistan. There he studied both in an art school that followed an essentially European curriculum, and also under a master who followed the traditions of Mughal miniature painting. Like many young Indian and Pakistani artists of his generation, he kept in touch with European post-war developments through the art books and catalogues illustrated in full colour which were at that time becoming internationally available. He became one of the major contemporary artists in post-Partition Pakistani. There is a foundation in his name that flourishes in Karachi.
Eventually, however, he made the decision to move to London, away from the conflicts of the sub-continent. He now lives there as a recluse, happy to be able to devote himself fully to his art, without outside distractions. Modern technology – television and the internet – enable him to remain fully in touch with the contemporary world.
The major series of new paintings in this exhibition shows the complex interaction in his work of both chance and choice. More perhaps than most artists, simply because of his complex cultural background and equally complicated personal history, which has from time to time put him at the mercy of great events over which he could exercise no control, he has had to consider the impact of an often remote past, while remaining firmly committed to the idea of making art that is intrinsically modern.
The paintings in this show are best described as figurative works, moving towards abstraction. The degree of recognisable figuration seems to diminish as the series proceeds. The images are deliberately fragmented, just like our own relationship to the distant past, which we can now know only imperfectly, in shattered fragments.
The main inspiration for the series is the famous Mohenjo-daro site, located west of the Indus River in Larkana District, Sindh. Mohenjo-daro was built in the 26th century BCE. It was one of the largest cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Forgotten for more than 3500 years, but extensively excavated since the mid-1920s, the site offers proof that Pakistan was at a very remote epoch in possession of a complex urban culture.
The paintings do not, however, insist on a single set of cultural references. There is instead a whole network of other images, which often seen to appear then disappear again as you look. There are references to cultures even more remote from us than that of Mohenjo-daro – for example to Palaeolithic graffiti. There are references to European classical antiquity, and to the neo-classicism of J.-L. David and Ingres. Perhaps also to the classical phases of Renoir and Picasso.
There are still-lifes featuring fish, and at least one painting whose main image is a zebu, filling the whole of the picture-space. Zebu cattle exist today, sometimes in miniature form, but they are thought to be derived from the much larger pre-historic Indian aurochs, which became extinct during the time of the Indus Valley civilization, and possibly because of its rise.
The more closely you examine these compositions, the richer the range of cultural reference becomes.
In this sense Jamil Naqsh’s new paintings are extremely modern, in a very comprehensive sense of that much-abused and much misused adjective. They remind us that, wherever we actually come from, we live in an echo chamber, and that the resonances become increasingly complex and intense as we moved towards whatever the future may have in store for us. A citizen of the world, content to remain enclosed in his studio, Jamil Naqsh may be more keenly aware of that than we are ourselves. His paintings bring us face to face with this realisation, but slyly, cunningly hold just a little bit back. We have to do more than just look – we have to become part of the work, through the act of looking.
Art Historian, Author and Critic