The paintings of Aqeel Solangi move us with their pristine perceptiveness, their raw, powerfully heightened vibrancies and subtleties of colour, and their exhilarating explorations of form and pattern. At their heart is an intense philosophical search for the authentic nature of human identity. Solangi’s work has a paradoxical quality, at once lucid and wild; its highly disciplined tuning based on a vision of spontaneous openness and intuitive discernment. In more than ten years as an artist, throughout which time he has read widely in modern Urdu literature and befriended distinguished painters, his precise, intimate, familiar intuition regarding humanity and nature has been a starting point for his imagination; and while certain paintings, prints and drawings show the artist exploring an apparently pure, abstract language, in retrospect there is not one canvas devoid of landscape resonances.
Solangi’s attachment to a particular vision of nature is present in the earliest works from 2008. But it is also apparent in later, radiantly redemptive renderings of landscapes. His work eschews obvious literary allusions and flamboyant symbolism; nevertheless it has its own subtle, fertile inner life of allusive poetic symbols. To speak of Solangi’s work solely in terms of landscape is somewhat misleading. As a matter of fact, his work is far removed from a gently contemplative, essentially topographical English landscape tradition, with its quiet observational beauties. Solangi’s own pictures belong assuredly to a wider continental tradition of art and encompass acknowledged background influences and inspirations.
In Solangi’s paintings diverse, vivid, yet rooted forms against the rough, harsh ground are perceived with primordial alertness; nevertheless the pictures also convey what the artist calls ‘an element of the passage of time and of the movement of the objects within the painting’. Foliage may move in the wind, but in his paintings even the massive tree trunk appears dynamically animate, as supple and alive as we are. The scintillating scene is infused too, but not overloaded, with a sombre poignancy, rooted in the artist’s knowledge of how land in Sindh has often been left abandoned, owing to centuries of political conflict and sectarian persecution. So the painting is as inseparably concerned with a specific vision of nature as it is with a specific understanding of human suffering and historical displacement.
Aqeel Solangi’s artwork represents a lifelong project of creating an alternative chronicle as refracted through personal memory. His paintings (oil and acrylics), prints, and drawings on paper challenge preconceived notions, but they do not ‘document’. Instead, they tell of customs, folklore, and imagined landscapes. Their pleasing and deceptively simple appearance bears the weight of memory.
Solangi’s art takes the form of personal memory within a visual ‘academic’ idiom, suggesting a sharp contrast with a modern art that is understood as a break with the past, with tradition, and with religion. But such a view would be shortsighted, overlooking a significant tributary for modernism in Pakistan. Born in Ranipur, on Sindh’s northern periphery in 1981, Solangi has spoken of inheriting ‘the best qualities of my mother and father: their energy, sane common sense, and a love of liberty. My failings are of my own invention. I used to draw and paint every day, but I never thought that was going to be my life.’
As he came of age, Solangi inwardly understood that he would become an artist. His parents allowed him to have freedom of choice and he found that ‘there was nothing to react against…I came from a working-class background, and they had great aspirations for me to do whatever I wanted to do. I never had any puritanical or authoritarian upbringing.’
Solangi began as a bazaar painter in Khairpur, Sindh, painting away signboards, cinema posters and banners at Mehboob Painter’s. By 1999, he started taking lessons in drawing and painting from Mussarat Mirza – a well-established painter – at her studio in Sukkur, and claims to have found the most helpful and sympathetic person in her. Looking back on his time there he recognises the lasting benefit of the weekly still life composition, which left him free to arrange the objects in accordance with what he wanted to paint, later on. That is, to construct a painting within the square or rectangle of the canvas. But more than his art classes, he believes that what truly inspired him was the sustained experience of being under the tutelage of an ‘ustad’. The study that Solangi undertook there outside the prescribed art school curriculum cannot be underestimated.
When Solangi arrived in Lahore in 1999 to enroll in the undergraduate programme at the National College of Arts, he found Lahore enticing in contrast to the stifling austerity of his native abode. It was here that he continued to spend another two years working towards the postgraduate degree. He had the privilege to work under Ustad Saif-ur-Rehman – master of naqqashi.
In 2006, Solangi arrived in London on a three-month long stint at Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, where he learnt egg tempera from Aidan Hart, and gilding from Mark Mills. At the same time, he also learnt the dynamics of Islamic geometry from Keith Kritchlow.
What is evident in Solangi’s paintings is his distinctive interest in the problem of capturing the play of light and shade, and the sense of suspended time that it evokes – a set of obsessions that keep appearing in his fictional landscapes. As if to test his own powers of differentiation, Solangi often chooses subjects that have powerful inherent textures: the striated bark of a tree, the supple lotus, or the bed of periwinkle resembling the ridges of congealed lava.
The polarities of Aqeel Solangi’s art may seem extreme, ranging from a large body of work concerned with exploring the existential anguish of humanity in the face of modern history, to landscapes painted over the last decade or so that offer a celebratory vision of the universe. However, when observing the full scope of his pictures, it becomes clear that the artist’s radical perspective on things ultimately coheres, while acknowledging that there remain movingly complex ambiguities in all aspects and periods of his work. His way of painting, and our manner of responding to his paintings as spectators, involves creating a space in conditioned thoughts and reactions, so that in the silence of a moment, transcending time, nature can be perceived with urgent philosophical freshness and an attitude of awe.
If in modernity the art of the past is appreciated for its historical value, equally the pleasure we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it is invested, but also to its essential quality of being present. The experience of the temporality of modernity involves the self-consciousness of being in a passing present. This bespeaks a new sense of the ‘now’, the contemporaneity of present experience, something also to be found in Solangi’s work from Bath, England. The imperative that Solangi has followed is to reflect contemporary life around him in the speed of its passing, a speed of movement which calls for an equal speed of execution from the artist.
I will argue that Solangi’s conception of image making as a medium needs to be understood in the following ways: in relation to a crisis in the transmission of experience in modernity; in relation to the abandonment of the ‘expressive’ model of the picture with its distinction between appearance and essence; and in relation to an emphasis on the ordinary. In other words, the work considers the interplay of transparency and opacity, light and shadow, and visibility and invisibility.
Aqeel Solangi exhibition held at Chawkandi Art Gallery.