As Salvador Dali famously said, a true artist is not one who is inspired but one who inspires others. This holds true for Raja Changez Sultan, a remarkable artist, writer and author of the book Shakarparian. He has created at least 5,000 paintings throughout his eminent career spanning nearly 50 years. Changez shares insight about his early life, mastered artistry and new painting series with Haider Rifaat
Give us your background.
I started painting 1967. I did my MFA and MSc in Communications and Writing from Columbia University. Before that, I studied in England at a boarding school as well as Lawrence College, Murree. I worked for the United Nations and came back to Pakistan to serve the government, mostly in the tourism sector. I was appointed Director General for Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) in Islamabad.
PNCA, being a fantastic institution, deals with artists, thinkers, writers, visual and performing arts and the country needs something like that, possibly in a more invigorated sense. The provinces have their own art councils but they are not quite active and barely contribute to the community of artists.
I believe that arts awareness in our country is not as revered as it is in India or Sri Lanka. If you are an artist or a thinker in such countries, the state machinery gives you a lot of respect and regard. In Pakistan, you are subject to serve their purposes and not contribute to the vision or direction of the country. Thus, there is a huge difference in perception.
â€œThe biggest problem many people have is the inability to communicate and express themselves and it eventually blocks them up in a neurotic or psychotic state of mindâ€
Which are some of the more significant art shows you have participated in?
Let me be honest here. I am not a member of a group. I do not belong to the Punjab or Karachi lot. I have an independent education and awareness of where my art has taken me. Yes, I have communicated with such individuals as Director General but I did not contribute to their group. My name was up for the Pride of Performance Award a few years ago but I practice my art irrespective of what other people do and what accolades are given. I do not believe in such things.
The government of Austria organized my notable exhibition at the Winter Palace (in Vienna). It was not open for exhibitions for the last 100 years but they made an exception for me. I have also had artistic displays in Switzerland, England, Singapore, India and so on. Having worked 16-17 hours a day throughout my life, I have never veered off the track.
You are unique in the country because your paintings are inspired by your poetry. Each poem has a corresponding painting. Describe your creative process.
â€œA woman subdivides more than a man does because when a woman gives birth to a child, a physical part of her becomes an extension of herâ€
The definition of aesthetics is how a person walks or talks, and a part of that translates into certain things that you may end up doing, be it painting, writing or any form of creativity. A part of his or her personality becomes an aesthetic, a signature that a person carries throughout his or her life. Being able to refine and define that aspect of yourself is what arts is all about.
When I paint, I always think in terms of series, not something that starts today and finishes tomorrow but something that starts today and stays with me for the rest of my life. It is pointless to invest my energy for three days on a one of a kind painting and work on something else the next day.
â€œThe importance given to a man sacrificing himself is one in many centuries but a woman is put on a cross every dayâ€
The first series I started to paint was the Divided Self. It came about because I had been working in mental hospitals in the United States and using creative therapy to help mental patients. The biggest problem many people have is the inability to communicate and express themselves and it eventually blocks them up in a neurotic or psychotic state of mind. There are so many personalities in us; some push us forward while others hold us back.
To find a visual representation of the Divided Self, I had to do a lot of thinking on how to approach the subject. One should know that it is an invariable representation of the same person but different aspects of a person. Even today, many people ask, why it is mostly women? It is because a woman subdivides more than a man does because when a woman gives birth to a child, a physical part of her becomes an extension of her. A man, however, ends up narrowing his perspective. A woman further splits; her subtotal will be herself and all the people she loves, especially her children.
I write on similar themes and paint them. The second series I took on was Himalayan Odyssey, which was about a series of mountains. It is based on my experiences traveling different mountain ranges. A part of them became a part of me. It makes sense when I paint about mountains because I have had a long-term interaction with them.
The themes of your paintings range from such diverse topics as politics to female beauty but your style of course is similar. Describe your painting style. What other themes have you tackled?
The most recent series I have been working on is the Crucifixion of Eve. The philosophy behind it is simple; from Adam and Eveâ€™s time to the present, a woman has had to bear the brunt of responsibility of the world, whether it is childbirth or looking after generations. The importance given to a man sacrificing himself is one in many centuries but a woman is put on a cross every day. We give respect to a woman when we think of our mother or sister but generally, we do not regard woman the way we should. So, I replaced Christ with Eve on the cross in my latest painting as it made more sense. More or less, my painting style is a blend of expressionism and impressionism.
A Greek term meaning a dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art
The Himalayan Odyssey
In these silent wastes
Only spirits roam
Searching an elusive peace,
The primal union of man and stone!
An art critic wrote that your â€œwork is linked in its various moods by a sense of timelessness, a fantasy that remains to haunt the viewers memory.â€ What does this sense of timelessness represent? What feelings in the viewer do you seek to evoke?
People have used art for different purposes. Today, if I start painting Nanga Parbat, it is making it as regional as it can be. To me, a mountain is something common and so is a woman. When you paint images that are universal, they never age and may never transcend to an expected level. I will not paint something that makes a woman belong to a specific era. If I do that, it takes the universality away from the image.
If you aim for universality of art, you build bridges to bring people together. You are not looking for differences that separate them. There are different approaches that people assume and people do not wish to think about such things. I do, because it is easy for me to build a bridge than a castle. The timelessness aspect comes in only if you are dealing with permanent thoughts; mountains, rivers and a flowerâ€™s body are timeless.
â€œMy painting style is a blend of expressionism and impressionismâ€
The selection of imagery used defines the kind of work you do. Every individual has a set of responses to art. I would never want anyone to feel some way about my art. If I have done justice to my piece, I will be more interested in what I am capable of doing.
Your paintings have an otherworldly element to them, i.e. bathed in mist. How do you achieve this effect? Do you use thin washes of paint? Tell us about your technique.
Yes, I use thin washes of paint. I always look for my own solutions. I do not live with other peopleâ€™s work. I always find what I am capable of doing, not what others have done or not done. I use cloth to make a brush as opposed to using a conventional thick brush. The control on the canvas is much more freeing and you can create more textural effect with it.
A majority of artists add paint to the canvas and they create their images that way. I, on the other hand, mightÂ put paint on a canvas but I would often remove it to create images out of the same canvas. So, it is almost a reverse application of paint.
â€œIf you aim for universality of art, you build bridges to bring people together. You are not looking for differences that separate themâ€
Who are some of the more avid and notable collectors of your work?
There are many people but I wonâ€™t take names as it draws emphasis to them. What people buy or donâ€™t buy will never define your art. I have been lucky that I never had to compromise my work to suit someone elseâ€™s purpose.
Tell us about your latest series?
The latest one is Crucifixion of Eve. I will complete the next three or five paintings in a year or so. I may exhibit them when I have at least forty paintings made. It is a slightly controversial subject so one has to be careful with it; however, it is better to keep doing what you do best.
Photography by Haider Rifaat