Artists cannot control what reviewers say about their art. Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian of September 27, 2017 saying that Khan is an ‘Islamic artist’. We cannot even begin to fathom this uninformed epithet. He goes on to call him “an artist who is creating something stupendous and unique: perhaps the greatest abstract art of our time”. High praise indeed but the following sentence is patronizing and condescending as Jones talks of Khan’s ‘spirituality’ and says “That same spiritual intensity blazes in the paintings of Rothko and Mondrian – two great abstract artists with whom Khan, as his art grows in grandeur and complexity, deserves to be compared.’
Deserves to be compared? Of course for a western critic, there can be no higher accolade than a comparison with abstract modernists. It gets better. On the Manchester Art Gallery page, Waqas Khan is said to have made his drawings ‘while he is in a trance-like state’.
When art is not framed for the public, reviews and comments like this are inevitable. Waqas Khan’s conversation with Fareda Khan, Head of Special Projects, Manchester Museums and Galleries Partnership was filmed during his exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery from September 2017 to February 2018. Khan inserts herself into the interview so obtrusively that about five minutes into the talk, one is bored and ready to leave. She says she wants to ‘unpack’ the Urdu phrase in neon Khush Amdeed that greets visitors as they enter the gallery. But we wait patiently for about ten minutes of rambling until the artist finally has a chance to speak. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. An artist who cannot articulate the ideas in his work or their experiential provenance is not at all unusual and he is never to be taken to task for the fact that English is not his first language. In fact, it is not bothersome at all. What is annoying however, is the nagging doubt that the artist doesn’t quite know why he paints the things he does. In truth, even that irksome detail can be overlooked if we consider that Khan’s work speaks for itself and his spectacular works are a pleasure-filled experience in which one soars, sashays and glides and circles and tangos, as if in a narcotic induced shamanistic dance around a primeval fire.
So, what is that hesitation about Waqas Khan’s work that continues to plague us? Where does it come from? Khan speaks about the notion that every individual space and environ he works within, motivates him to construct his extraordinary works of art. He says it is a fundamentally existential engagement that drives him. All this is fine. We have no problem with the explanation at a theoretical level. John Dewey talks about the process of art as a juncture at which the ‘doing’ and the ‘undergoing’ meet to produce art but what makes it significant and valuable is the ‘new vision’ that the artist brings to the table and in its absence he only ‘acts mechanically and repeats some old model fixed like a blueprint in his mind’. Dewey clinches the thought when he says ‘An incredible amount of observation and of the kind of intelligence that is exercised in perception of qualitative relations characterizes creative work in art’.
What then can we define as Khan’s ‘new vision’? If we deconstruct the paintings themselves, they exude a willingness on the artist’s part to interact with microcosms and then step back and validate a larger macrocosm. The panoply and effusion of lines and dots create a landscape that is very much inhabited by intuition and even emotion, characterized by the rents and tears of disruption, but holding together almost tenuously due to a realization, understanding and awareness of subjective human interaction. The rhythmic patterning created by repetition is Khan’s tour de force and in fact is, well… beautiful. The ‘b’ word that had previously come to be known in the postmodern world of art as antithetical to dialectical dissemination has reemerged to take its place among other discourses on art without detraction. Alexander Alberro in the book Beauty, one of the series of Documents of Contemporary Art published by Whitechapel Gallery says: “It is important to note that recent pleas for a renewal of beauty locate the pursuit of fairness, truth and justice firmly within the realm of abstract ideals. For while contemporary theorists of the beautiful keenly emphasize the link between judgments of beauty and moral judgments, at the same time they posit an art of immanence and contingency that seeks to demystify the work of art as beauty’s greatest enemy”. That we can unabashedly and unapologetically revel in the sensuousness of Khan’s work is a relief. But it is not enough. Doubt returns.
When the artist Mohammad Talpur created his oeuvre titled Leeka, also using a multitude of fine lines to create markings of psychological and emotional territories like the ebb and flow of tides he told his viewers how he once traced with his finger the flight of a bird and the line created became the basis of his rhythmic exultations. In this simple evidentiary tale of evolution, Talpur explained and uplifted his entire practice. Without delving into the complexities of the Platonic ‘Idea’ and keeping in mind the multifarious interpretations, insights and materials that constitute art praxes around the world, we may try and search for a similar ‘Idea’ in Khan’s work to see where it leads us. We then find what has been the cause of some of the fog that the work is engulfed in. Khan explains repeatedly in statements accompanying his work that he is a ‘Sufi’ artist, a self-created epithet that in fact has no place in any type of art in any part of the world. He uses this label to collate the notion of repetition and peacefulness; though one is a material response and the other emotional, with the Sufi theology of seeking divine truth through Dhikr or repetitive chanting. This is an appellation that Khan has used for the sake of expediency, especially since the western world has lately become enamored of any idea related to Sufism and its foremost proponent Rumi, discarding other important Sufi philosophers and thinkers like Ghazali. This fascination is more poignant because it acts as a panacea to what is labelled as rabid Saudi Wahabism and the root of most problems concerned with terrorism. It is true that the gentleness and more liberal components of Sufi practice would do wonders to heal the wounds cast by extremism and fundamentalism in the world. But artists have no authority to make up nomenclature for their use when it is convenient to them.
So far, no rounded critique of Waqas Khan’s work has surfaced so this analysis might come as a rude shock to the artist. But artists should also remember that a lack of detraction may well become the single most debilitating factor in the life and career of the artist. A plethora of laudatory and congratulatory analyses without critical discourse never helps the artist. In fact it can grate on the psyche.
But Waqas Khan is not entirely to blame for misdirected reviewers. He was picked up by Sabrina Amrani gallery in Madrid, Spain and they have published two monographs on him which must have undoubtedly given the artist the heady bliss of success early in his career. They have probably created the appellation of Sufi artist as a convenient and catchy phrase to sell the works more opportunely. Early success can do wonders for an artist or it can stultify them. The struggle of young artists forges them to be more focused, more single-minded in their pursuit. Let us hope that Waqas Khan is able to rise above the fray of good reviews and fly higher.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]