On Monday, the 25th of February 2008, Pakistan lost a distinguished and revered artist. The world of art joins his family in mourning a great and gentle soul who will continue to live through his work for all time to come.
The country’s outstanding contemporary painter, Colin David, was an artist who understood the modern idiom in art. The sense of spatial harmony, brilliant use of colour and the contrapuntal element that balanced his work created paintings of rare and masterly quality. He was a superb draughtsman, an artist who endowed his work with a technical perfection that is all too rare.
Born in Karachi in 1937, Colin David began his art education at the Punjab University, Lahore, when the Fine Arts Department opened its doors to male students in 1956. After taking his MFA from the Punjab University Fine Arts Department in 1961, Colin was awarded a scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Slade School of Art, London. There he was guided by Sir William Coldstream, an artist who painted in the celebrated method of the ‘Euston Road’ group. Like Khalid Iqbal before him, Colin admired Coldstream’s viewpoint involving the `reality rather than the impression’ of a subject. At the Slade School, for the first time Colin David had the opportunity to paint from life, and found his artistic métier.
Returning to Pakistan in 1962, Colin rejoined the faculty of the Fine Arts Department of the Punjab University, and remained there until 1964, when differences with Anna Molka Ahmed caused him to leave the department and join the National College of Arts, where Shakir Ali was the principal. Colin David remained there, an integral part of the college, for over two decades, and made life-long friends with his peers such as Saeed Akhtar and Ahmed Khan.
In those days, there was a lot of experimentation going on among artists excited by the possibilities of diverse methods of expression. Colin developed a unique, distinctive style following his own inclination. He would often incorporate elements of `Op’ art in his imagery, the optical illusion of lines, rings and squares that created an illusion of movement as explored by artists in the sixties. His work in the genre of the nude inspired new art collectors. His first solo exhibition, a collection of figure studies in oils painted with great luminosity, was held at ‘The Gallery’, Karachi in 1970, and it was hailed with great excitement and appreciation. The element of design in his work and the relationship of the colours testified to his enormous skill and mastery of his subject, the work being dynamically crisp and unlike the work of any other artist at that time. Much of the work eschewed obvious symmetry, full frontal and ‘neat’ compositions and focused on experimental and intriguing organisations of the picture spaces. His nudes were never obvious portraits but rather design elements in compositions in which the ‘space’ was as important as the subject. His use of colour was no less ingenious – using predominantly neutral tones, the artist might add brilliant splashes of colour, red or emerald green, which gave his paintings an amazing intensity.
Two highly successful solo exhibitions of the artist’s work followed before changes in national policies decreed that figure studies were no longer artistically acceptable. As the climate of art changed, the artist’s signature work in the classic genre was seen less and less in exhibition. In the changing atmosphere, he was represented by contemporary, minimal ‘Still Life’ paintings and mysterious ‘Landscapes’ with barren trees. In a curious way the human form, overtly absent from these canvases, was to all intents and purposes, part of the scene. It was there in the spatial contents of the work; to the imaginative, the air of strange anticipation reverberating from the surface of the work, made it seem a figure would step from behind the tall form of a tree and take its rightful place in the overall composition.
Colin very successfully created sensitive studies of children at play, bringing to the canvas the absorbed concentration children bring to play and learning. A painting of his son when a small boy, show him removing paper from a wrapped toffee, chubby fingers persevering, and an expression of total single mindedness on the child’s face. This charming and touching aspect of childhood roused the interest of the Unicef, which was given permission to reproduce the work. Often David incorporated elements of ‘Op’ art in his imagery, the optical illusion of lines, rings and squares that created an illusion of movement. Colin David never abandoned his muse but he showed his studio work to a selected audience. Many of his pieces went to foreign art collectors and are lost to future generation of art enthusiasts in Pakistan.
In the ensuing years, Colin David was obliged to hold exhibitions at his home or at unnamed spots for an invited audience since he was unable to show his work publicly. The restrictions on art constituted a great setback to the development of art in the country. Even now one finds the consequences of that time apparent, as there are few young artists in the country today who approach that genre without self-consciousness.
Colin continued to exhibit his work discreetly until 1990, when an invitation to a private viewing of work at Colin David’s house fell into the wrong hands. Shamefully, the event became a black spot in Pakistan’s art history, as a gang of young men, leaving one of their numbers armed with a gun on the doorstep of the house, burst into the artist’s home brandishing sticks. They proceeded to destroy a number of canvases, including a portrait of the artist’s young daughter. The results of this outrage reverberated through the country. Artists strongly condemned the villainy, there were strikes, black armbands, meetings in which artists, art connoisseurs and writers spoke out publicly against the unspeakable actions and the media reacted strongly against the affront.
It was ironical that Colin David, an artist showing his work in private in deference to the climate of the times, always low-key and avoiding publicity, became by the actions of the hooligans, front page news that raised the ire of art loving citizens of the country. Colin and art were the subjects on everyone’s lips, and he received heartening public support.
Despite health problems, Colin David continued to exhibit his work in Karachi and maintained his popularity. The natural and direct treatment of the subject conveyed an innocent celebration of nature’s handiwork, the miracle of the human body rendered with superb skill and a fusing of the miracle of existence.