Lady amidst mountain cacti, oil on canvas, framed, 181 x 90.4cm (71 1/4 x 35 9/16in).
Provenance: Collection of the late Mr Mohammed Muzaffar, Karachi: acquired directly from the artist, and thence by descent.
Published: Abdul Hamid Akhund et al, Sadequain: The Holy Sinner, Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi, 2002, nos. 8 and 9, p.168 and 169, illustrated, titled Genesis: Lady amidst Mountain Cacti, circa 1957.
Genesis: Lady Amidst Mountain Cacti embodies an early example of Sadequain´s many self-referential allegories. Typically, the iconography of the work is multi-layered, amalgamating personal and universal myths whilst alluding to a private, that is, real, event. The inclusion of portraiture, however, is rare.
The painting is dominated by an image of the Greek goddess Hestia delicately swinging her attribute, the vessel (in this instance a lamp) containing the eternal hearth fire. Elaborate Greek drapery preserves the modesty of this virgin goddess, whilst the face, incongruously, belongs to a young European woman. An enigmatic smile on her lips, she gazes into the distance whilst emerging unscathed from the dense and desiccated brambles of Gadani cacti. Sadequain´s identification with this forbidding plant and its iconographic functions are well known. "The wilderness I live in is full of thorns/I am one with every bush" he informs us in a quatrain (See Akbar Naqvi, Image and Identity: Fifty Years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan, 1998, p.439, note 51 from Sadequain's Rubaiat, p.82.).
Research indicates that the Lady depicts a young woman attached to the Austrian embassy during the late 1950s, who visited the artist at his studio on numerous occasions (Mr Salman Ahmed, Sadequain Foundation, California). The fact that Sadequain remained a bachelor until his death at the age of 57 and was notoriously incapable of leading a conventional life-style only adds to the mystery of this lot. The choice of allegorical figure implies that the relationship was never consummated. Only a vague promise remains; a yearning for beauty, love and, above all, for Home.
The drama is set against a lake and mountain landscape, rendered in quick, tortured lines and jabs. There is a sense of awkwardness, and, despite the use of perspective in the background, a feeling of claustrophobia. Indeed, the primary vehicle driving Sadequain´s visual vocabulary, as well as his emotional content, is line. Naqvi even goes so far as to regard line as "a moral as well as an aesthetic agent" of Sadequain´s art practice (Naqvi, op. cit. 1998, p.378).
Intriguingly, the identical figure reappears in a pen and ink drawing titled The Living Picture from 1970, corroborating her association with Hestia (From the series Society and the Successful Man. See Abdul Hamid Akhund et al, Sadequain:The Holy Sinner, Karachi, 2002, p.98, illustrated). Executed with characteristic fluidity and vigour, the goddess strikes exactly the same pose as in the painting, each fold faithfully reproduced. The setting, though, has changed. Caught in the moment of turning away from two men placed between blank canvases, the scene can easily be read as representing Hestia´s finest hour. Both Poseidon (the nude Sadequain) and Apollo (a handsome model in academic robes) fell in love with her, but, in order to avoid a quarrel she chose virginity, forsaking all men. Her symbol, fire, connects her to worship and rituals older than history. Considering the political climate in Pakistan at the time, it might also be of interest that Zeus granted to Hestia all sacrifices made in the name of peace.
Sadequain was an artist driven to investigate and illustrate the shadow side of the human psyche with rare understanding. He was often called malamati, or holy sinner, to appropriate the title of the weighty collection of works published by the Mohatta Palace Museum in 2002, and was forever drawn to the space between appearance and reality as the locus of truth. Lady Amidst Mountain Cacti epitomizes this tension. Ultimately, the viewer is offered two choices. A third, the unification of opposites into a cohesive whole, sadly remains just beyond reach.