Lyari's Michelangelo: The man behind the Obamas portrait

Parvez dispels stereotypes about Lyari through his art — including the Obamas portrait that got instant attention.
Published April 6, 2015

We advanced into Lyari with feelings of apprehension and excitement to meet the artist who had been recently discovered for his impeccable portrait of the Obamas. As our vehicle drove deeper into the neighbourhood, the environs began to appear unfamiliar and archaic, but none more so than your average time-worn Saddar street.

A few more turns into narrow roads, and skirting around road-carts or otherwise preoccupied looking pedestrians later, we finally reached the ‘studio’ of Parvez Bhatti.

Parvez, 60, came into media spotlight when his painting of the Obamas was photographed by a student photographer at ‘Humans of Lyari’ (HOL) — a venture of the Society for International Education and the Karachi Youth Initiative, and put up on their Facebook page after which it instantly went viral.

The once unheard of aesthete had an artistic den; a few creaky benches stained with paint, a stool with a piece of glass which served the purpose of a palette and a number of men appeared into sight as narrow alleyways (and a goats’ enclosure) led us into his sunlit studio.

The painting of the Obamas which received instant recognition.— Yumna Rafi
The painting of the Obamas which received instant recognition.— Yumna Rafi

However, one unmistakable facet of the scene, even from a distance, was the immense portrait in which the Obama family beamed at the visitors as it sat along with some 20 other paintings in a mini art gallery in the background.

A closer look and it was evident that the Obamas portrait was only one of the feathers in Parvez’s cap — and a small one thereof; from portraits of Quaid and Jesus to depictions of old Karachi and rural Sindh, each piece seemingly attempted to engross its observer into the fascinating tale it encapsulated.

Towards the facade, Parvez perched on a stool working on a piece, careful not to miss any highlights on the face of a rural woman he had portrayed on the canvas.

Before we even took our seats for a chat with the maestro who delicately added some final strokes to his piece, we were served tea despite our polite refusals.

Parvez, a resident of Lyari’s ‘Slaughterhouse’ (locally known as Kamela) neighbourhood, is joined at his studio by his two sons — Raheel and Jisarat, who Parvez said found their way into art only a few years ago after he successfully convinced them to join him.

“I wanted Raheel to become a doctor and Jisarat, a pilot,” Parvez said, his tone wistful. “But they only ended up being painters.”

Parvez started painting for local art galleries under the training of his mentor, whom he referred to as Sardar Sahab, in 1971 and has never stopped since.

A painting by Parvez's son that was displayed in one of the exhibitions at Arts Council.— Yumna Rafi
A painting by Parvez's son that was displayed in one of the exhibitions at Arts Council.— Yumna Rafi

“My father did not want me to become an artist, he thought the mental effort that art demands would weaken me. He would rather I became a wrestler,” Parvez said, recalling how his family reacted on his decision to pursue fine art.

“[However,] I gave more importance to my will and passion,” he added.

Parvez decided to turn his passion of fine arts into a profession. His paintings have so far been bought in the price range of Rs 10,000 to Rs 200,000, depending on the work's size and content.

Parvez making a potrait of a woman. — Yumna Rafi
Parvez making a potrait of a woman. — Yumna Rafi

Pointing towards the portrait of the Obamas, Parvez revealed how his friend ‘Agha Sahab’ advised him to paint the first family of the US suggesting it could be a late breakthrough in his career.

It took Parvez three months to complete the Obamas portrait, which he made a year ago. Parvez wished to see his masterpiece end up in the White House. In fact, he was quite optimistic about it.

Painting for the past 40 years, Parvez said he has lost count of how many paintings he has under his belt to this date and where many of his pieces are now. “I often see a painting gracing a wall somewhere, I appreciate the effort behind it only to realise that it is in fact my own creation,” he said.

Yet he has never invested heavily into advertising or marketing. “I don’t know how God creates the means for my sustenance,” Parvez said, leaving us wondering where his business would stand if he had a Facebook page devoted to it.

He has also never held a bona fide exhibition of his works and said the chances of him holding one are slim since he does not find the time needed for the planning and execution.

Much of his paintings and skills have been inspired by the handiwork of “Qasim Sahab of Bohrapir”, who he lists as a mentor.

The simple palette with a cleaning cup.— Yumna Rafi
The simple palette with a cleaning cup.— Yumna Rafi

The lifelike paintings in the studio were each marked with great detail, which could be easily mistaken for a photograph. “A true artist will never give up on his work until he is truly satisfied with it. If a painting is completed today, I will take two [extra] days to work on it.”

“A satisfied customer is the perfect remuneration for me,” he added, as we were served tea for the second time, this time with biscuits.

Parvez said his educational background is negligible but that his sons attended school until Matric (grade 10).

Upon our query if he ever regrets not getting educated, Parvez seemed to hide an emotion or two behind a chuckle. “When the time has passed, everybody regrets to not have done something or the other. But what can you do?”

According to him, the key to mastering a skill is thorough practice. “I used to think I would never learn this art even after spending a lifetime with Ustaad (mentor). It took me three years to realise I could in fact do it.”

Being an artist in Lyari

The artist’s talent has not gone unnoticed by the residents of Lyari who have been immensely supportive of his work, and the Obamas painting has been no exception to this.

“They (people of Lyari) realise that I am an artist and an artist can portray whoever and whatever he has been asked to,” Parvez said.

The fragile security conditions in the neighbourhood have never been a problem for his business either since he, like the majority, take necessary precautions such as coming home before dusk.

“There are no disadvantages to living here,” Parvez said with a peculiar lack of anxiety.

He added that if and when he ever decides to move to a more affluent neighbourhood in Karachi, Lyari's current conditions would not be the cause of it.

Parvez believes a good painting is one that speaks for itself. —Yumna Rafi
Parvez believes a good painting is one that speaks for itself. —Yumna Rafi

Parvez said a large trove of talent remains undiscovered and that he has always been open to mentoring young aspiring artists.

“It’s not that we would refuse to train some students. But if a student really has that x-factor, then we fully concentrate on [training] them,” he said.

The artist, who after some contemplation declared orange and amber as his favourite colours, has also painted extensively for churches and mosques.

He believes art can play a major role in creating harmony among the people but only if they are willing.

“I am certain that the conditions will change — of Lyari, of Karachi, of Pakistan,” Parvez enunciated before we bid our farewells, leaving us with a renewed sense of hope.



Adeel Ahmed

Edited by:

Yumna Rafi


Yumna Rafi

Video and Editing:

Muhammad Umar