Untitled, oil on canvas, signed and dated '65 upper right, on reverse inscribed M.Muzafar, also on reverse is an unfinished sketch of a seated figure (possibly a self-portrait), framed, 92 x 73.5cm (36 1/4 x 28 15/16in).
Provenance: Private collection, Pakistan; acquired by the current owner from the descendants of the late Mohammed Muzaffar, Karachi, who acquired the painting directly from the artist.
Published: Abdul Hamid Akhund et al, Sadequain: The Holy Sinner, Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi, 2002, p.188, plate 27, titled Mystic Figuration, 1965.
This lot embodies a classic example of a series of works branded by Sadequain Mystic Figurations and is characteristic of his mid-sixties style. The picture plane is crowded with an anthropomorphised cactus only superficially concealing its writhing human shape. Strong arms rise towards the heavens, while clearly defined large hands occlude what little light has penetrated the dark and moody background. Sharp thorns executed in rapid brush strokes render the form unapproachable, even dangerous.
A drawing of a seated male in profile (possibly Sadequain) is sketched out in three colours on the reverse, affording rare insight into the artist's creative process. Compositionally, the posture suggests a strong relationship to the reverse, but above all, it demonstrates the gradual metamorphosis of the cactus image from realistic representation towards abstraction. This, of course, brings to mind Picasso's famous quote: "There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality." Sadequain's admiration for Picasso is well documented.
This also suggests that solitary cactus images like this one not only mirror the artist's psycho-spiritual integration process throughout the 1960s, but may be considered self-portraits. An untitled painting from 1968 depicting a similar composition supports this theory (see, Akbar Naqvi Image and Identity, Karachi, 1998, p.426). Here, however, the cactus has melted, the lines have been smoothed, and the prickly thorns are absent. Two hands form the name of God, silhouetted against a warm burst of light, illustrating a moment of illumination. Sadequain's penchant for allegorically manipulating the cactus to convey emotional content, personal as well as social, is often stated; formally, it revolutionized his art practice, allowing the melding of eastern calligraphy and his investigation of the alif, the letter A, with modern art idioms, whilst setting the template for his idiosyncratic mannerist figures until the end of his career.
Sadequain came to Pakistan at the age of 18, displaced from his home in Amroha by the violent upheavals resulting from the partition of India. Already educated in calligraphy and art history with strong interest in literature, he settled comfortably into the burgeoning Karachi intellectual and creative milieu. Passionate left-wing political leanings embedded in Hindu/Islamic esoteric currents, his fondness for the 18th century poet Ghalib, who delighted in his reputation as a rake, and the roaming dervish Lal Shahbaz Qalandar most certainly informed his unorthodox life style.
From the mid-50s onward Sadequain filled commissions for murals and held several exhibitions. His star rose rapidly. His fame was sustained by legendary energy and phenomenal output - ultimately the artist was to create more than three dozen large murals, thousands of canvases, and works on paper including calligraphy and poetry. In 1958 his acquaintance, the customs officer Sulaiman Shah, arranged an extended stay at the Customs Rest House located near the sea on the edge of the dramatic desert landscape of Gadani, renowned for its dense covering of cacti. This period was pivotal for the development of the artist's mature practice. In lieu of rent, he executed the mural Smuggler and a series of works on canvas. Though not much material has survived from his year at Gadani, or at least has not been brought to public view since they were exhibited at the Karachi Arts Council in the eighties, personal statements by the artist indicate that there he embarked on the painful process of confronting his personal demons, a pre-requisite to spiritual evolution. The desiccated Gadani cacti were indentured as powerful iconographic vehicles. A quatrain, translated by Naqvi, describes the intensity of his experiences:
In the nameless wilderness when I met myself/I was trembling uncontrollably with fear/All around was the dance of fearful apparitions/A ghost was sitting on my head.
The symbolic language of the Sufi quest with its multi-dimensional iconography resides at the core of Islamic metaphysical poetry and much of its visual art. There is a long history of 'beauty' in all its permutations in the service of spiritual growth towards a union with the divine. A.R. Chughtai would not feel uncomfortable in this category. Whilst Sadequain certainly hails from the same tradition, his path (and art), however, was diametrically opposed. Instead, Sadequain held up a mirror to human weakness and moral corruption (his own and ours) whilst championing the poor and the spirit of tenacious upward struggle. He rarely demanded remuneration for his work, lived frugally and drank hardily.
A self-proclaimed fakir (literally meaning 'one who lives in poverty'), a title usually carried by initiates of a Sufi order, Sadequain is regarded by Naqvi to have brought the notion malamat to art. Malamati are spiritual seekers who deliberately draw blame and contempt upon themselves by violating basic tenets of religious and social laws. At the heart of this behaviour lay the idea that a perfect self in a non-perfect world corresponds to an asymmetrical relationship with the Divine.
Whether or not Sadequain regarded himself a member of this peripheral and antinomian Sufi school of thought, can, by definition, not be ascertained. As Ibn Arabi, the 12th/13th century mystic, pointed out, malamati are "those who know but are not known". One could nonetheless argue that the choice of the malamati path befitted both the time and the man, reflecting the zeitgeist of the 1960s both at home and in the world at large, whilst freeing the artist from any constraints creatively and socially
I would like to thank Dr. Salman Ahmad and Nour Aslam for helping with this entry.