Trails of the Lost Art of SADEQUAIN

Trails of the lost art of SadequainBy most estimates, Sadequain executed more than 15,000 pieces of artwork in his life — murals, paintings, drawings, and calligraphies. But he carelessly gave most of them away to institutions and individuals. In many cases, people walked away with significant numbers when they found Sadequain in high spirits, and often they were simply stolen as it has been reported in newspapers. In its relentless pursuit to catalog Sadequain’s paintings, murals, calligraphies, drawings, and poetry, the SADEQUAIN Foundation is planning a 12-volume catalog, comprising of more than 1,000 pages of text and 1,800 images, by far the largest catalog project on any artist of the country. To that end, this book is dedicated to chronicling the trail of significant pieces of Sadequain’s artwork that were ultimately tracked down in North America. The primary focus of this book is a large mural painted in 1966, titled “Pakistan,” which never saw a single sunrise in the country it was named after. It was ultimately found at a venue that did not match the one identified in Sadequain’s official biography. In other words, it did not belong where it was found. Another piece of work was a rare 1954 painting that was done in Quetta, which Sadequain gave as a gift to an American geologist working in Pakistan, and it later traveled from Quetta to Washington D.C. to North Carolina, to Kentucky, and finally to California. Similarly, the other pieces of artwork in this book have intriguing provenances and are duly recorded for the sake of art history.

For the sake of clarification, the term mural is used in this book for a set of large paintings, when assembled in the right sequence, form the complete mural. On occasions, the terms mural or painting are used interchangeably when they pertain to the discussion about the mural titled “Pakistan.”

Great civilizations and nations have survived the rigors of time because of, in great part, the resilience of their unique and distinguished cultures, and not the man-made boundaries that confined the land masses under their given names. Throughout the course of history, many artificial boundaries have been altered and so have been the names of countries that once identified the confines of those boundaries. Although the names of such stalwarts as the poets Firdausi, Ghalib, and Iqbal would transcend through the ages and forever be associated with the culture they defined, the names of the rulers of their periods would be nothing more than footnotes in the annals of history. This notion places a great deal of responsibility upon the artists and writers of any given period and region to honor the mission expected of them.

Dr. Akbar Naqvi, a recognized author, states in his book, IMAGE and IDENTITY, “If Sadequain had done nothing but his drawings, he would still be among the innovators of modern art in the country.” Building upon Dr. Naqvi’s statement, it can be boldly declared that if Sadequain had done nothing but his murals, he should be considered as the leading artist of not just the country but the region. Mural art is not everyone’s cup of tea. If executing a painting represented taking a single step, then executing a mural would be like running a marathon. And if executing a painting was like writing an essay, then executing a mural would be similar to writing a book.

True art captures the pulse of the national culture, but mural art, in particular, bears a special significance because it is usually displayed at public places, making it accessible to everyone regardless of class, education and ethnicity. Muralists have the advantage in reaching out to a much wider audience and they are not limited to studios or art galleries, making the murals as one of the most effective means of social communication. Mural art is as old as civilization and some of its oldest examples can be found in the form of wall engravings in various parts of the world, including the caves of Ellora in India and the pyramids in Egypt. This form of art attained the crescendo during the renaissance period, when Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

“Disciples be damned, it’s not interesting. It’s only the masters that matter, those who create,” said Pablo Picasso. Sadequain introduced mural art in Pakistan at a scale that had not been seen before and since. His murals spread along the length and breadth of the country and across the borders to India, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Sadequain, a self-proclaimed faqir, is known to have given away most of his paintings, calligraphies, and drawings to acquaintances and strangers. By rough estimates, his generosity amounted to several hundred million dollars. Additionally, he gave away numbers of wall and ceiling murals to public institutions. His benevolence is alien to our society and remains unmatched.

Sadequain’s monumental murals represent an unparalleled body of artistic genius of the region. His murals are tributes to scholars, writers, scientists, and hard working men and women — the backbones of society. His characters are not the kings and queens, or the rich and powerful. A muralist of great merit, his murals adorn the museum at the State Bank of Pakistan in Karachi (total of 12 paintings and murals), the Power House at the Mangla Dam, Lahore Museum’s entry hall ceiling and Islamic Gallery (total of nine murals), Punjab University (total of three murals), the Punjab Public Library, the ceiling of Frere Hall in Karachi, Aligarh Muslim University in India (total of two murals), Urdu Markaz in Delhi, Banaras Hindu University in India, the National Geophysical Research Institute of India, the Abu Dhabi Power House, the Pakistan International Airlines office in Paris, and the International Fair Pavilion in Lausanne, Switzerland (not on location now) just to name a few. All Sadequain’s murals are tributes to man’s constant quest to discover and develop his endless potential and high ideals. To put it in perspective, his work at the Indian Research Institute of Islamic Studies, if placed side-by-side, would cover more than 3,000 square feet of space. Out of a population of well over one billion on the subcontinent, he is the only artist from India or Pakistan whose works are on display at public places across the border in the rival countries.

Although an exact number of murals that he painted is not documented officially, a conservative estimate by the SADEQUAIN Foundation places their number at above 45. Because of Sadequain’s place in history as an artist, the significance of his mural art, and the fact that unlike most, he did not sell his artwork, but for the sake of national prestige donated it in the name of its citizens, it should therefore be treated as national treasure and preserved with honor. However, the reality is quite the opposite. At least one third of his murals have been destroyed, misappropriated, or neglected.

To get a measure of the gross negligence and how Sadequain’s art is being used and abused, the following news items from prominent Pakistani newspapers should sound alarming.

Reporting in its edition of May 18, 2008, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation stated:

Sources on condition of anonymity told that 4 precious and highly artistic paintings of Sadequain, highlighting the issues of starvation in Africa, illustration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poetry Bol Keh Lab Azad Haen Tarey, depiction of the struggle of Iranian students and the painting titled, “Spider Web,” have been stolen. Three paintings are reported to be of 11 x 5 feet, and one measured at 5 x 4 feet. But surprisingly the matter was not brought to the knowledge of the higher officials at the City District Government of Karachi (CDGK). The DCO Karachi has also not been informed, due to which the issue of stolen paintings is still lying in abeyance and no action has been taken so far for the recovery of the paintings.

The four paintings referenced in the article were stolen from the historic Frere Hall in Karachi. Its second floor is named Galerie Sadequain and it houses one of the most stupendous ceiling murals, which Sadequain could not finish before he passed away.

In its edition of May 23, 2009, the newspaper The News filed the following report:

The local art market has witnessed a boom exclusively for a few art galleries that have outfoxed older establishments with their rapid commercial success. Their prosperity is directly linked to the clandestine sale of forged artworks in the garb of authentic masterpieces, local artists claimed. The video made available to media outlets shows the accused showing nothing short of a replica of the genius Sadequain, with his fake signature dating back to 1987. “There are very few people who deal in such kind of art works. I deal in both original and fake ones,” the accused proudly told the police officer in disguise. Pretending to play a middleman brokering a deal with a fictitious Dubai-based investor, played by the policeman, the sting operator had the art dealer record his entire pitch. This led to an arrest in December last year, but in a unique Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) case, the accused was granted bail.

Another headline in The News, dated March 11, 2010 read, “Sadequain painted the world’s largest painting, but where is it?” The newspaper further reported:

Painted by Sadequain in record 24 hours, the 240 feet calligraphy of the verse Surah-e-Yasin has disappeared into thin air. Even the Sadequain Foundation has no information about the whereabouts of what was probably the longest painting in the world even though it was not so documented in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In an effort to stem the trend of neglect of the vast volume of work that Sadequain entrusted to a number of institutions and scores of individuals, the SADEQUAIN Foundation is striving to raise the awareness of this travesty. The Foundation is a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to discover, preserve, and promote the art of Sadequain. To that end, the Foundation holds regular exhibitions of Sadequain’s works and conducts seminars at museums and universities to raise awareness about Sadequain’s prodigious palette. Many pieces of previously lost works have been located through exhaustive searches all over the world, in countries as far flung as Austria, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, Singapore, the USA and more.

The Foundation takes comfort from a recent report dated January 27, 2010 in The News that reads:

Acting on the directives of the President, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) has started working on a Rs. 30.65 million project, under which all expensive artworks acquired by government departments and the country’s missions abroad are being registered. The objective of the project, which focuses on preparation of a national database of artworks, is to maintain a record of paintings, sculptures and other artworks acquired by the government to promote public awareness about the national treasure spread across the country and abroad, and to enable the masses to use the material for reference. The project will entail a survey of all government departments throughout the country for registration of paintings, sculptures and other artworks in their possession. The information thus gathered will be compiled in the shape of a catalogue, which will be re-designed for hosting on a website, where it will be available for reference, record and public access. Liaison will be maintained with the listed government departments so that the data can be upgraded on a regular basis.

In addition to the protective actions that are being planned by the government as mentioned above, the Foundation suggests that all artworks found at the government institutions should also be subject to audit to establish their lineage and that they were acquired by legitimate means. In case the artifacts were found to have been acquired through illegitimate means, they should be returned to the rightful owners. Also, in case the artifacts are found missing, then an inquiry should be conducted to trace them and those found guilty must be held accountable.

This book consists of seven sections. Section One, titled Art or Craft?, is a synopsis of various forms of visual art in reference to Sadequain’s approach to his art. Section Two, titled Sadequain on Art, presents Sadequain’s approach to his art in his own words. By quoting from poetry composed by Sadequain, this section touches upon four different topics; Situation, Motivation, Rendition, and Destination. Situation describes the circumstances of the society as Sadequain saw and felt compelled to comment on it. Motivation describes what inspired him to paint and write based on his observations and perceptions. Rendition is an analysis of how he chose his subjects and composed them in his work. Destination is his vision of how he perceived his work and how and where he wanted his work to be displayed. Section Three, titled Picking Up the Pieces, walks the reader through step-by-step events that finally led the SADEQUAIN Foundation to the discovery of Sadequain’s 36 x 9-feet mural, titled “Pakistan,” at a venue where it now resides, unknown to the rest of the world. To keep it in perspective, Section Four, titled Sadequain: Conscience of the Nation, is an overview of the depth and breadth of Sadequain’s genius and vast oeuvre. Section Five, titled Sadequain’s Mural Named Pakistan, is a description and analysis of the seven individual panels of the mural that the Foundation discovered. It is the Foundation’s assessment that the mural originally consisted of nine panels and two of the nine are now missing. Section Six, titled A Painful Question, ponders if the seven separate panels found at the Pakistan’s High Commission in Ottawa constitute the complete mural or perhaps some panels have gone missing. Section Seven, titled Women at the Well – Cinderella Discovered, is a brief description of the journey across the globe of the painting, “Women at the Well,” before it was discovered by the Foundation in the United States and subsequently acquired by its new owner. Although, Sadequain is perhaps the most talked about and written about artist of the country, very little has been reported about his life and work of the 1950s, therefore, this painting deserves a special mention as being one of the rarest of his works. Section Eight, titled Sadequain, provides a glimpse of his broad oeuvre to the reader for a quick reference.