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Homage: The pictorial language of protest

Untitled work by Asim Butt – photo by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Not too many people had heard of him. And fewer still had seen his artistic work. And this includes this critic. But for the collectors, the curious onlooker and the questioning mind Asim Butt was certainly not the sort of person one just mentioned in passing and forgot about. He was an educated man, a graduate of LUMS and a prolific artist.

He was, as this reviewer discovered in the exhibition currently being staged at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi, a one-man fantasia. The spread of his canvas was mind-boggling. There are oils, and sketches and a video. The pictures are all there, around a 100 of them, on the walls, in the corridor, in cloister like cubicles, in half a dozen rooms. Nasreen Askari, Ayela Khuhro and Nafisa Rizvi must have worked pretty hard to come up with such an extraordinary exhibition. It was an eye-opener and unforgettable.

Here, one sees brief vignettes of everyday life. Fun in the pool room exhibiting tedium and the banalities of life. The odd policeman boorish and menacing, exuding authority and repression. The donkeys and stray dogs reviled and unloved in an Islamic society. The murkiness and stygian gloom of the hovels of the poor, the Untermensch of the social order, forgotten by a society dedicated to a life of conspicuous consumption.

And then there are the sketches and the graffiti, the wonderful quirky and clever graffiti, among which one finds the sardonic and caustic attack on the multinational cigarette companies in a bid to protest insurgency in Swat and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; Freudian symbols that protest against the inhuman practice of karo kari; the STOP sign which replaces the number plate on the rear bumper of the scorched bus twisted out of shape—a protest against incessant rioting in the city. The police are also hauled over the coals when the artist blots out the letters PO from a sign which says POLICE, reducing the strong arm of the law to the small wingless parasitic insect which infests human skin and hair.

In the introduction to the elegant, informative and beautifully produced booklet the artist wrote that he painted because it allowed him to stare shamelessly, to be able to flesh out an idea, emotion or commit to an image, a shadow of the world around him. He added that he painted because there is a spill over of energy within that must find form or else it would haunt and twist him.

Those who knew Butt intimately said he was a very intense person, sensitive to a fault with a strong undercurrent of leftist belief. He was also an educated man, a graduate of LUMS, a born rebel who was always dissenting against injustice and man’s inhumanity to man. But he was also an intelligent thinking being who grappled with the purpose of existence, the problems of time and being, possibly instilled in him by his exposure to the philosophies of the Far East where he spent some time. It was when he was railing against the surreal absurdity of life that he was at his potent best, morphing human beings into animals or birds like the scavenger that swoops down on the Serengeti.

It came as no surprise to this reviewer to learn that Butt was a manic depressive. A great deal of his art is etched with unsettling, dark and demonic images. His compositions are bleak and Beckitt-like and at times quite macabre, like the one of the sacrificial goat, a picture of somnolent and dejected resignation that appears to be leering at the butcher in the face of death. Or one of his numerous self portraits in which, half naked, he appears to be pegged to a wall, Jesus-like, arms outstretched, ribs outside the skin, grotesque bulges on his knee-caps. Only one can’t see the nails that impaled him.

A word of explanation about the self-portraits would be helpful. As the curator of this exhibition Rizvi pointed out the artist is not indulging in bouts of narcissistic self-expression. His portraits are “self-analytical, questioning, probing, and penetratingly introspective works.” The pictures are supposed to demonstrate various stages of self-development. One is tempted to liken the visuals to the progressive degeneration of the human soul in The picture of Dorian Gray.

But Asim Butt had never sold his soul to the devil. On the contrary, though he went through bouts of melancholic, Kafkaesque dejection, in the moments when his spirits soared like the time he asked a clutch of residents in the Khyber area why Muslims were killing Muslims, he displayed a zest for life. These are the classical symptoms of a manic depressive.

Butt was also obsessed with death. When he couldn’t take it any more and committed suicide last year at the age of 31, choosing the solace of silence to a life of uncertainty, unrequited passion and humiliation, the world lost a gentle soul, a decent human being and an artist of considerable talent. He will be remembered by those close to him and one hopes his art will live on in the flickering Valhalla of the mind. Who knows, perhaps before he crossed the River Styx, those immortal words of T.E. Hulme might have flashed through his mind… Oh God make small/ The old star-eaten blanket of the sky/That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie…