February 03, 2019



While new and experi­mental forms of art continue to impress the viewer’s mind by pushing the envelope, one cannot deny the pure expressive magic of the human figure rendered in realism, especially when it appears on R.M. Naeem’s canvas. In his latest show at the Sanat Gallery, he explores social, religious and spiritual themes with concepts and visuals derived from his previous practice, revisiting past ideas — as the title of the show, Revisit, suggests.

Naeem is one of the biggest names in Pakistani art mainly because of his striking painting style, prolific career and his inspirational persona. Many renowned artists consider him to be their mentor. He has evolved from a signboard painter in a small shop in Mirpurkhas to one of the most recognised artists in the country, and continues to provide guidance to young artists through Studio RM. Revisit, his latest show, has been curated by Muhammad Zeeshan, who himself emerged from a similar background.

Naeem’s works display a strange sense of otherworldliness, creating a dreamlike space within which his subjects reside. There are clashes of imagery across the works — flat opaque colours against black and white textures, organic human figures against crisp geometric lines and forms, ordinary people against idealistic female nudes. Yet none of it is ever out of place and comes together in harmony as clues to decipher the coded narrative. “The figure itself speaks so loud that one needs to be careful how much to render it, and keep everything else subtle to get the point across,” says Naeem.

R.M. Naeem constructs new social narratives by drawing on cues from his previous works

For this series, the artist takes inspiration from his own previous works, picking up visual and formal cues, as well as concepts and ideas that demand further exploration. “Ever since childhood we have heard that if you want to go forward, you must go back first,” he says. Through these revisited ideas, new social narratives and ideas are explored. Works such as ‘In The Absence Of’ recall his series of works on Adam and Eve, using the visuals from Albrecht Durer’s depictions. Both figures have been left half-finished to convey the idea of man and woman as not two species in conflict, but two parts of one whole, both incomplete without the other. In ‘Emancipated’, we can see visual similarities to his previous work ‘Superwoman’ — a reference which allows us to know this female swimmer breaking societal norms and living her dream as nothing less than a superhero.

Even If You Deny Me I Am There
Even If You Deny Me I Am There

Throughout the show this idea of personal freedom becomes a running theme that threads the works together. Each figure bows its head with eyes closed, in a gesture of submission. The artist feels that we are always judged on our appearances or our choices, never free to live life on our own terms. We are either bound to each other, to religion or to societal expectations. The only figure that faces the audience with a sense of defiance is the female figure in a burqa in ‘Even If You Deny Me I Am There’. While the liberals might consider this dress regressive and oppressive, the artist argues it is a woman’s choice to cover or uncover her body. It is this freedom that is most important, and a source of strength for every individual.

“Revisit” was on display at the Sanat Gallery in Karachi from January 8 to January 17, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 3rd, 2019