Collector’s choice: An epic romance

Published July 20, 2014
Taking flight, Jamil Naqsh
Taking flight, Jamil Naqsh

Pigeons nestling in the cracks and crevices of walls and fluttering about or poised by still faces are a frequent and recurring motif in the work of Jamil Naqsh. Famously reclusive and uncomfortable discussing his work, he warns critics not to look for stories in his work or significance in his themes. He may not paint stories but art tells stories whether an artist wishes it or not.

The birds in his paintings are white, desi pigeons that look like and are often confused with doves. They may be memories of home. Naqsh was born in Uttar Pradesh, India and grew up in the small town of Kairana on the banks of the Yamuna River in a house filled with art, literature and ghazals. In later years, he painted the birds he remembered from the courtyard of his father’s haveli, so the story goes.

He was schooled in the tradition of Mughal miniatures, where courtly women are often accompanied by birds and, as in his case, they are symbols of femininity, of nesting. Their freedom and movement is a contrast beside women socially confined by their gender. Naqsh has painted birds and women throughout his professional life and though his style has a modernist, abstract expressionism to it, his perspective retains the distance of the Mughal miniaturist.

Much of the work is about love — but it’s a love at an admiring, respectful distance. Women are passive, unmoving subjects and Naqsh’s brush skims skillfully across their surfaces. There is desire but there isn’t much depth.


The Albemarle Gallery show is an examination of Jamil Naqsh and Najmi Sura’s relationship


A recent show at the Albemarle Gallery, the London gallery that represents Naqsh, is particularly fascinating because it shows his work alongside that of Najmi Sura, his lover, muse and disciple. She seems to be the subject of his portraits of women and he has dedicated much of his work to her. This is the first opportunity to see their work side by side and as an explication and exploration of their relationship, of the love that he’s painted for the last three decades, this exhibition promises a thrilling insight.

Gathering, Jamil Naqsh
Gathering, Jamil Naqsh

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really deliver. It’s certainly interesting to compare and contrast the work — to understand what the student has learnt from the master and how their work differs. There’s a great deal of skill in the work of both. Whereas Naqsh’s work has an abstraction and its cracked surfaces have a vibrant texture, Sura’s work is a more literal dialogue with the miniaturist tradition. She maintains a similar distance from her subjects, who are frequently women. Her voluptuous subjects, like his, evoke Ingres and reference pre-Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist deities. But where Naqsh’s paintings have the angular, abstraction of Moore and Picasso, hers are more ornamentally Chughtai.

Naqsh is understandably an important figure in Pakistani art and both their work sells well. In this show, his work is priced between £15,000 and £60,000 and hers between £15,000 and £20,000 and about half of the work has sold. The appeal is obvious. In the work of both, there’s a strong understanding of form and a great deal of skill. His brush has a daring and abandon that the discipline of hers lacks. Some of it is pretty, much of it is clever, but none of it is very moving.

Naqsh paints from life in a more obvious way than Sura — the pigeons of his childhood and the portraits of his partner — but it’s difficult to discern the deeply personal in his work. And unfortunately that’s a thread that runs consistently through the work of both.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 20th, 2014

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