The first time I came across Sadequain’s art I was struck by its ugliness. It was bold, unsettling, melancholy, crude, full of Catholic guilt and Sufi catharsis, a close-fisted invitation to intimacy, impossible to look away from, and to me beautiful. His work is marked by glaring repetition – often the same calligraphy, the same palette, the same forms. But each piece feels like a reshuffling of cards – producing something entirely unique but nostalgic of all the others.
I’d always wanted to appreciate art. I liked it well enough but in the way you like the sound of a song you don’t understand. True appreciation I thought only came with an understanding of everything the work represented – seeing it through the kaleidoscope of history, culture, politics, philosophy the artist was capturing.
At the same time, I wanted to keep it all at arm’s length. Every piece of art was a sort of rorschach test, a temperature taking – every disinterested contemplation telling me more about me. I worried that maybe it wouldn’t seem so profound when you knew exactly what it all meant, that the path to erudition would be paved with a loss of affect.
Seeing Sadequain’s work changed my mind. Even though I loved and hated some of his pieces in equal measure – I wanted to understand it, to have the measure of its ingredients, even if it meant its ultimate disempowerment.
I wasn’t Ahab-like in my pursuit of art history scholarship but I gradually learnt what fauvism did with colours, what cubism did with perception, what Dadaism did with irony. How each startist, from Rembrandt to Baldessari, rejected some part of what came before them, whether it was Newman’s zips, Pollock’s drips or Weiwei’s pips.
That Pakistani artists like Sadequain followed the malamati tradition – showing outwardly that they were separated from God, rejecting any pretension of being anything but a sinner, when inwardly they were in union with Him, glorifying the transgression involved in such a ruse, finding virtue in the paradox through their work.
The purpose of art is to move us. In this it is inherently subversive, whether as a mirror of our own fears – allaying them or annoying them – it provides social commentary in some form. But what about when it doesn’t? I learnt that Sadequain was close to the state and became the Islamic artist of Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan – his compromise with the elite dictators of the era stands in stark contrast with his work which focused on the powerless. Naqvi defends his choice by stating that this was not hypocrisy, rather ‘he knew how to live in peace with the enemies of the people in order to expose them.’ But there’s no evidence that he did expose them; through his work or otherwise. In a piece where he does condemn tyrannic rule, he directs his anger towards the tyranny of colonialism by Western powers instead of at home.
I looked at Sadequain’s paintings after knowing this – they were no different to before, but to me they were far less. Like a promise of revolution that instead delivered submission. Should the artist matter to the art appreciator? If his art was about resisting tyranny, should it matter that he as an artist embraced a tyrant?
If art’s role is in challenging supremacy – of time, materialism, or brutality – whether it’s Warhol’s pop art critique of unthinking consumption or Picasso’s powerful homage to the tragedies of war in Guernica – then what happens when the artist concedes? Can compromised art ever be great?
Art which is supported by the state or which supports a regime is powerless in its obeisance. For instance, the Pakistani miltablishment’s funding of films such as Waar or even Noor Jehan singing jingoistic songs to encourage young men to give their lives in conflict. The Nazis realised the power of art and held propagandist displays of “degenerate” art in museums – believing the best way to turn people against something was to ridicule it.
In contrast, artists who have given power the middle finger live on in posterity. Diego Rivera’s mural at the Rockefeller Center was removed after a controversy erupted over the fact that it contained a portrait of Lenin. When Rivera was asked by Nelson Rockefeller to remove the portrait, Rivera refused and was paid and dismissed. He used the money to repaint the mural in Mexico City. But like any censored piece, the story of the original mural’s removal thrives as an ode to Rivera’s integrity.
I keep on going back to Sadequain’s work. I want to have the same visceral reaction to it I did the first time but I can’t. His work still renders me speechless but it’s hard to contemplate that any piece of art isn’t inherently autobiographical. Perhaps it’s unfair to insist artists be the canary in the mine or do a Rivera in the face of might. But after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And as the proverb’s flattered beholder, I can unfairly demand heroism from the creator.