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Gypsum Magicians

When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming a sculptor. I would buy processed clay from the local art shop and spend hours trying to mould it into something, anything, that my parents would look at and be compelled to marvel at their child’s remarkable creative prowess. As the years went by, I grew up to understand that I wasn’t going to be the next Michelangelo after all. I didn’t have the patience or the flair to take up sculpture professionally for one, and none of my creations ever managed to enthuse anything more than a polite remark of appreciation or two, but my fascination with the art of replicating nature’s splendor to its last perfection continued to live on, and the prospect of meeting and viewing the works of reputable as well as up and coming sculptors still excites me to no ends.
I first heard descriptions of Shahid Hussain’s Baroque and Neoclassical work from an artist friend a few years ago, but never got down to seeing anything he had sculpted until much later when I ran into his son, Adel Hussain, who, at 24, is an aspiring sculptor himself and quite keen to follow in his father’s idyllic footsteps and contribute to his family’s tradition of crafting spectacular masterpieces that emanate a love for the human form. Adel emailed me a few photographs of his father’s commissioned projects, some of which dated back eighteen years when he first started working as a freelance artist, and it was suddenly evident that although I had heard tales this talented sculptor’s genius before, I had little idea how awe-inspiring and remarkably beautiful his creations actually were.
It was a revelation indeed; discovering this underrated maestro silently tucked away in a cozy neighborhood in old Karachi, taking commissions from a select clientele and never really craving for the addictive glare of publicity which quite frankly his work warrants. The bigger surprise, however, was the fact that Shahid’s late father, Nazir Hussain, who was enjoying a retired life in Lahore until recently, was also a particularly brilliant sculptor who produced many larger-than-life monuments and figures in his day, confirming the Hussains’ place as one of a kind father-son-grandson trio that is known among the local circles for creating pure gypsum magic.
Nazir graduated from NCA (previously known as Mayo School of Arts) in 1954, after which he worked in the film industry as a set designer for several years before moving down to Karachi where he teamed up with a close friend and opened Pakistan Art Institute, which a young, freshly-out-of-school Shahid later joined for a four year diploma course in sculpture and painting. Pakistan Art Institute was one of the few apposite art schools for the budding artists of Karachi in the 70s, but Shahid’s recollection of the time spent there is hardly that of a proper school because “my teacher was my own father and PAI was like a second home,” he reminisces with mixed emotion.
Taking a quick tour of his charmingly crammed home studio while listening to him go on about our societal downfall and the real value of art and culture to the incompetence of KESC and world politicians, one thing became reasonably apparent: Shahid Hussain is without doubt one from among the most gifted yet sadly uncelebrated artisans in Pakistan. What sets him apart from the other artistes I’ve met over the years, besides his extraordinary artistic flair and profound conversational ability of course is the man’s humility and refreshingly impenitent candor.
“I never got myself a proper education,” he declared up front, asking me to settle down in his warm and simple yet aesthetically able living room decorated with an assortment of his own works, indoor plants and an impressive ensemble of original art gifted to him by his friends and students. “But I realized very early on that I wanted to paint and sculpt, and stuck to my goal. And that’s what I think is more important…”
Contrary to his own beginnings and his father’s dedication to art and young artists, Shahid isn’t big on the idea of tampering creative minds by sending them to art schools. “Frankly, there should be no school for painting, poetry, sculpture, dance etc. The only real school for these talents is inside us, and this is what we call God’s gift. That poetic, artistic flair can be polished with help from good instructors, but it cannot be taught! Transferring one’s skill into another isn’t easy unless the student has that same talent hidden somewhere inside him as well.”
Adel, a comparatively reticent younger version of his father, seconded the provocative philosophy “A teacher can only dig out the treasure chest when he’s positive where it’s buried,” he added, “I went to NAPA for a couple of years and although I respect the institution and the teachers very much, I didn’t fit in, because frankly, I can’t function mechanically…A true artist doesn’t need to be taught or told what he can and can not do because it all comes to him naturally.”
Why the family never made it as main stream artists is beyond me, for their work is rich with the exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpretable detail that complements less realistic faces and an overall sense of purity and awe that is typical to Baroque sculpture of the seventeenth century. One of the main goals in Baroque art that differentiates it from others is the excessive emotion, exuberance and grandeur it depicts, and while Shahid’s work conforms to that in some ways, it also glows with the classical feminine silhouettes and romanticism of the Renaissance.
“My sculptures and reliefs are all evidently influenced by the Roman tradition which stands out over the centuries in its total glory and beauty. My decorative art and architectural ornaments on the other hand are all neoclassical. They reflect calm, serious subject matter presented with simple lines and a sense of order and purpose.” He explained.
Art serves as the major contributing factor in a person’s aesthetical development and being an artist myself, I strongly feel the lack thereof. People don’t realize the importance of visual appeal and aesthetics in everyday life. Art gives us the ability to make bricks with which we can raise platforms that elevate us as a society. “When a child opens his eyes in a place where all the streets are well designed and the houses are color coordinated with beautifully designed gardens, he is automatically inspired to propagate beauty. Inspiration plays a very important role in a person’s life, and if one feels it is missing, his society is to be blamed.”
Most nations preserve their history by commissioning great monuments and statues to revere their leaders and religious figures. They install them on roadsides so that everyone can appreciate and be inspired by them, and that’s what makes sculpture so fascinating. It’s often regarded as the purest, most beautiful form of art there is, but then it’s also quite overtly ostracized in Pakistan because of religious implications, which is understandable in a way, but sad too, for there’s absolutely no history of sculpture in our culture except maybe the bits we picked up from living among the Hindus and Buddhists pre partition.
“To attain intelligence is not an easy task, and a nation that bathes in pseudo pride can never give art and sculpture the status it requisites… I personally know a few people who claim they’re so pure that they don’t hang paintings on their walls; they don’t dance; sing; listen to music or enjoy poetry…how can a society develop with such insularity?” Shahid pointed out wryly.
His major concern for right now, however, is the lack of platforms for the younger, fresher lot of artists to exhibit and sell their work. It’s distressing to realize that every year hundreds of high spirited students graduate from Karachi University, National College of Arts, Karachi School of Arts and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture etc., and more than 98 percent of them get lost in the real world, never to be heard or seen from again. “These students don’t have a proper place to exhibit their paintings and sculptures because of a certain class of people that has a permanent hold on the media and art galleries…I recently went to a gallery to talk about an exhibition and they said they will entertain me only if I get them clients as well, when clearly it should be the other way around!”
One can only laugh these things off and hope for better times. A Pakistani Renaissance perhaps–a change that will inspire in us a love and respect for the arts and enable us to finally present Shahid with the praise and honor he so deserves, for he is not only an incredible craftsman coveting to make a difference though his art; he is an affectionate father and a devoted nationalist who will, in his own words, “if need be, gladly donate (my) 4th generation to the cause of art, sculpture and Pakistan!”