Complex inkjet prints and large-scale public installations capture artist’s colourful world of the heart.
Pakistani artist Atif Khan’s iconography traces its lineage back to the aesthetically rich Mughal empire while providing a contemporary twist.
Atif Khan’s detailed work employs existing or found images that provide a fresh narrative on a traditional art form. As Khan told Art Radar, he combines imagery from the Mughal Empire (1524-1752), which was responsible for such monuments as the Taj Mahal and the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, with his very own contemporary compositions:
The use of Mughal iconography in my work expands the time zone of my canvas, from the present day to a few hundred years in the past, which help the viewers to free their minds from the limitations of the real time and enter an imaginary world.
To construct my compositions on the basis of my own storyline, I work with fractions of existing or found images, created by others. I borrow these fractions of images not only from Mughal miniature paintings but also from the famous Pakistani truck art and all type of printed materials i.e. books, posters, currency notes etc. I do a kind of recycling of images; even though I extensively incorporate the found images in my work, my compositions are entirely new and very much of my own, which suggests new meanings to the viewers.
Atif Khan was born in Sahiwal, a small city in central Punjab, Pakistan in 1972. The artist graduated with distinction from the prestigious National College of Arts Lahore (NCA Lahore) in 1997 and was awarded the UNESCO-ASHBURG Bursary. He has participated in a residency at Darat-al-Funun in Amman, Jordan and has recently seen his work at the Aga Khan Museum, Islamic Museum of Australia and Sharjah Art Museum. The artist currently lives and works in Lahore, where he runs the Cowasjee Print Studio, a part of the Department of Fine Art at NCA Lahore.
As a graduate from NCA Lahore, Khan joins an internationally recognised roster of artists such as Imran Qureshi, Faiza Butt, Humaira Abid and Aisha Khalid, all of whom combine traditional techniques with contemporary “conceptual practices”.
New school tech
Khan’s practice embraces modern-day technology in the form of an Epson 9000 series printer, which uses Ultrachrome archival inks. Each creation is printed on Hahnemühle archival papers. These tools enable Khan to unlock his creativity and result in a very high-quality product, as the artist relayed in a recent interview with Art Radar:
I did my first ever Photoshop course in 2004. So I was familiar with the process and the technique long ago but I used it only to make the photo-collages for my photo-etchings. In 2008, I created my first ever inkjet print, when I was working as an artist-in-residence at the London Print Studio in the United Kingdom.
The archival quality, high-end inkjet printing with ten colours, provided me unlimited opportunity to explore the colourful imaginary world inside my heart. Graphic designers also use the same tools to create their work, so the challenge I set for myself, was to avoid the feeling of a printed poster and I think, I’m quite successful and have achieved that goal.
The protagonists and heroes of Khan’s works are born from the past, and as seen in the work One on One, include silhouettes of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the II and Mughal Queen Nurjahan (King Jahangir’s wife). The bulk of the artist’s work, however, depict fictitious kings and rulers. In his Landscape of the Heart series, Khan highlights the escapades of a king, dressed in finery. In one particular work of the series, Landscape of the Heart IV, the king is seen rowing a heart across a blood-red sea, with waves eerily similar to the heart rate on an EKG machine. This particular series, as the artist told Art Radar, relates to humanity’s quest for wisdom in an ever-confusing and bewildering world:
Landscape of the Heart tells the story of a king, who undertakes a journey to find his heart. He hears the angels who guide him on his quest, which takes him to faraway lands, by road and sea. It is when he understands that much of what we seek in life is already found within us, he returns home with his new-found wisdom. In essence, my work presents the transformation of the soul and enlightenment but on the other hand the use of direct and recognizable visual elements also point towards the social and political issues around us, in a subtle way.
Alongside these figures are often found lush forests, spectacular gardens, startled birds and tempestuous clouds, perhaps a result of the environ and historic city in which Khan dwells. In a work called The Lost Garden II, which was part of a group exhibition at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum called “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan”, Khan masterfully utilises the traditional visual culture and Islamic aesthetic principles from the Mughal Period to a subtle take on what Khan says is the “royal attitude and concerns of our ruling class, which is rapidly damaging the social fabric of the society”.
Pigeons and Peace
In addition to Khan’s multilayered works on paper, the artist has also completed several large-scale public installations tying in past and present. One of these pieces called A City within a city, is a massive, 40 foot tall birdhouse rising above Lahore’s frenetic Istanbul Chowk. This installation was awarded to Khan from the Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF), in collaboration with Commissioner of Lahore and Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA, Lahore) in 2015 and highlights over 400 hand-crafted birdhouses.
A City within a city is very much a site-specific piece. As Khan relayed to art critic Shameen Arshad in an interview on e-journal The Missing Slate, the history around this location is important, as it is “surrounded by age-old educational institutions” and is near three war memorials and as such, represents an intersection where past and present, war and peace collide:
In such an environment, I found a very interesting activity that shows the real nature of the people of Lahore, which is all about love. I observed that some common people brought grain and water and put them to the roadside at the Chowk Istanbul every day. As a result, hundreds of wild pigeons who live in the nearby trees and the holes of the old buildings gathered over there to feed themselves. This activity from the common people of Lahore is completely in contrast with the war machines installed in the same area by different governments to ‘please’ the people.
War machines are always used as the symbol of destruction and killing, on the other hand, pigeons are a global symbol of peace and love. This comparison reminded me of my own artwork ‘Landscape of the heart’ (2012). In that artwork, a Mughal king is standing on a Roman column and shooting the birds, swarming around a tree. This artwork helped me come up with the idea of a giant tree-like form, and the presence of pigeons at this site led me to think about the pigeonholes. Thus, I chose to combine these two elements to create a new form. One element came from my own art practice, and the other evolved in response to the site, but both reflect the feeling and meaning of shelter and peace.
This feeling of hopeful optimism is echoed in the artist’s interactions with talented young artists at NCA Lahore and as Khan told Art Radar, he feels the future is indeed bright for Pakistani artists, with one wise caveat:
I learned from my students, not to give up the urge to experiment with new materials and not to suspend the struggle to expand the visual vocabulary. I really have high hopes from Pakistani contemporary artists, many of them whom are already doing great work in their respective fields. Artists who live and work in Pakistan like Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Rashid Rana along with many other brilliant artists, played a significant role in getting the world’s attention towards Pakistan and showed the path to fellow artists. There is no question about the ability and the talent in the new generation of artists and students as well but they should learn the lesson of patience and hard work because the path to sustainable success is never short.
- Stylization and synthesis: Pakistan’s Irfan Hasan – artist profile – December 2015 – watercolour works burst with inspiration from Europe’s Renaissance and Neoclassical masters
- Visualising taboo: Emerging Pakistani sculptor Humaira Abid – interview – July 2015 – sculptor uses the finest woods to explore forbidden topics
- “Hedonistic popstars and Muslim youth”: interview with Pakistani artist Faiza Butt – April 2015 – London-based artist mixes bubblegum colours with controversial issues for fresh look on modern-day life
- Turning tradition on its head: Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi – interview – May 2014 – 2 of Pakistan’s most well-known neo-miniaturists break boundaries through use of traditional techniques
- 11 influential South Asian neo-miniaturists – January 2014 – Art Radar looks at the best artists from the Indian subcontinent reinterpreting the miniature tradition
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