Does the present ever assume the form of a phantom that encroaches upon the past, becoming a source of curious haunting? Such thoughts immediately flit across one's mind regarding conceptual art by one of Pakistan's foremost contemporary artists, Mr. Shahkar Shah In his art, he examines the history of religions and portrays past predictions with the present situation in a subtle way. The work aptly embodies Shah's particular artistic approach that involves navigating the history of religions, human nature, and consequences. Shah is constantly searching for human peace and peace of mind itself. In some of his works, he takes old masters' paintings and blends them according to his own content namely (Copy of Picasso, Dali, Gauguin, and Hollow Cast ) His works which are deeply personal as well as global also include the memories of his childhood and the reflection of his present. Whether through his conceptual art or digital paintings, he takes the viewer from spoken words of political leaders to the unseen elements of life through his paintings which are happening today and very beautifully relates them with past and future, namely (Adam and Eve on the moon, oil on canvas) and ( we are the one, oil on canvas). He warns through his paintings that the speedy changes because of selfishness and ignorance of one human to another will destroy mankind, for example, he says 'X-Rated actress stop her children to become part of that profession, that means in certain age people are ignorant and think selfishly and that ignorance spreads like virus, she would fix her children but how about the other children who got infected with the virus, first we create problems and then try to solve them.
Referring to Hadith he adds that 'there are three degrees of opposition to injustice, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then feel it in heart and that is the weakest of faith.” [Muslim], he says I know what I am doing is the weakest form of all but at least I am not silent.
Mr. Shah was named “The Born Gypsy” because of his sudden disappearance from his social circle and coming back with some revolutionary work. With a background in Art from “National College of Arts Lahore” and study of Architecture Design from “Arlington University US”. Mr. Shah due to his mother's illness left studies and came back to Pakistan. Since then he has been very much attached with Art and Architecture with deep interest and passion. He is not teaching in any institution, but he is fully involved in grooming students that come from different Institutions of Art and Architecture. His constant support and encouragement to Pakistani Artists and his inspirational guidance for re-interpretation and experimentation have led him to produce extraordinary talent. Describing himself as a conceptual artist, he passionately speaks about myths, beliefs, rituals, human nature and manipulation of human minds within this evolving culture.
Shah mentions .“My art primarily draws upon my childhood memories, I was brought up in a very strict religious family. Even my relatives were against my painting and it was considered a sin.” He mentions, “You cannot develop your artwork without locating it on the canvas of experience. I go back at times to my childhood, mining those memories of living in peace and comparing it with these days' brutal situations. I do feel human kind is in progress in one way that they have become greater mind manipulators.
He elaborates “I feel all creatures are mind manipulators even nature has equipped some species to change their color for hunting, some animals camouflage themselves by changing their color to deceive the hunters or predators, the difference between animal and human is when an animal eats and fills their stomach it would not harm any other animal unless they are not hungry again. A human does not have an end to their hunger because the stomach is not the only problem, the problem is in the minds, greed, comparisons, jealousies, we are running a race without looking around us, like a horse wearing eye shades. Even if we say that human beings have evolved throughout ages, these particular habits still prevail in our genes and we still have a long way to be called 'a human' in a true sense. When I was a child, my parents always taught me, to be honest, and avoid lying, but as I grew up I discovered that truth they wanted me to speak was for them, because ninety percent society was full of liars and deceivers. We are living in a world of human manipulators (politics, media, product selling etc.) consciously or unconsciously we become part of it; in his paintings, he tried to unveil certain negative traits prevailing in the society. which are against humanity. The methods of manipulation keep evolving with the developments in the world. Where awareness is improving through globalization the human ways of manipulation are also improving.
Shah said “Humans should grow up but their emotions should remain the same as of a child” he smiled and said, “This is one impossible possibility to peace”. What was it that attracted Shahkar towards the world of art? Born in 1968 and grown up in Kohat, one of the smallest city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, he was constantly searching for a mode through which he best expresses his thoughts in a reflective fashion.
He adds “When I was 11 years old I found art, I felt as if I had met a special friend who could talk what I feel. I stopped playing with my friends on the street. I was in my small room with my paints, brushes and 200-watt bulb. I felt Art is my friend for life.” The background of Mr. Shah's initial struggle is very important to tell here, He says “First I started sketching portraits on a 'chart paper' and the first portrait I made was of my elder brother. My elder brother who was my guide and my sisters were also a great help. My brother bought material from his pocket money and he appreciated me the most and told me to be careful of my father because he was a very religious person and he would stop me from painting. It was a general perception of the community that whoever paints will have to put life in it, but I couldn't get the logic. I thought I was appreciating creations of the Creator. I was certainly afraid of my father. I put a small woven bed under a big woven bed and put a bed sheet on a bigger woven bed in order to slide the painting and drop the sheet so that the painting could not be seen. Once I was painting for my favorite teachers farewell present which was after 4 days and the painting was near it's completion when suddenly my father entered the house and in a hurry I put the paints on the painting and as I slid the painting under the small woven bed, the white paint mixed with turpentine dropped on the finished painting. I cried all night, it was difficult to fix the same painting, so I requested my mother to let me work at night after my father has gone to sleep so that I can have more time to complete it, so I worked at night until my school time and then I used to go to school come back & sleep. In my family, no one knew about art, except for my brother. He brought me a calendar having old masters realistic paintings. The name of any artist was not mentioned. I started copying them. I didn't know how to make canvases, so my initial copies are painted on hardboard with oil paints.
I used to see prints of paintings in frame shops and wanted to know how these artists had painted those landscapes. One of my friend's father had a frame shop who told me that artist paints at the site. So I wanted to paint at site (imagine a place where there is no concept of art and art is taken as an element of sin.) I was afraid of my father because in small cities people know each other, if someone would tell my father about my painting he will not allow me to paint. So I requested my friend's father to lend me a print so that I could copy it at home. He said it belonged to someone and he had to frame it and get it ready in 15 days, so I promised him that I would return it in the given time. I had never painted a landscape before, so I requested my mother again. After the painting was completed (age 12). I put it outside to dry and I went to return the print. When I came back my mother told me that my father was standing in front of the painting and looking at it. I asked my mother, “Was my father angry at me?”, my mother said that she didn't go near him. So I went to the mosque thinking that my father will see me praying and will not be angry at me. While coming back from the mosque my father said “The tree buds were painted nicely” I felt like I was free then he said, “But don't paint faces because Allah will tell you to put soul in them.” I was 12 years of age and I always asked myself what I would say to Allah if he tells me to put soul in my paintings. I felt he would like me, as long as I am not being a mind manipulator against humanity”. Art is born from the inner necessity of the artist in an enigmatic, mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life; it becomes an independent subject, animated by a spiritual breath.
Q: What do you say about freedom of expressions?
Freedom of expression, freedom of speech, women rights, human rights, all these words are used politically. I support free thought but not freedom of expression. It is not always art, if you read a book by Joseph Goebbles Nazi propagandist to learn how easy it is to manipulate an entire country and you can also see creators of these words walk away from UNO when Ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad start his speech, on CNN Obama says it's a right of Israelis to have their native land back from Palestine, but they never think of giving their land back to Red Indians, where all the world gets the message of New World Order, but Dr. Zakir Naik is banned from England for preaching religion peacefully, where John. F Kennedy (JFK) and Martin Luther King are killed for their speech, then you see two faces of freedom of expression & speech, what I see is a non-neutral behavior of power in the name of freedom of speech. When reactions of people come against any exploitations, then these words are used.
There is a joke 'A king asks his minister what my people are doing, minister replies half of the population is into the relationships, the king asks what the other half is doing, minister replies, they are waiting for the first half when their relation will break and they will start their relations. King says “You are doing great keep them busy so that they don't see what we are doing.”
When cigarettes were created the manufacturers threw the packet on the streets those people who were watching movies of that time were easy to be manipulated because they were the first who learn to smoke from the movies and the tree of smokers started, now that freedom is considered a harmful act, but the cigarettes factories have not been shut down only the prices went up due to Government tax and (smoking causes cancer) came on the packet, people are free to take their decision, but if 500 people would come out in protest then they will be shut down by any Govt. I believe mankind have made monsters by their negligence. Freedom is a word used politically when it goes to the benefits of Manipulators then its fine, but when it goes against them people are killed. A human cannot be free so do an artist, there is no freedom in our own self, we restrict ourselves on certain stage for our own benefit, we give it a name of organizing ourselves but actually we put a limit on our freedom.
I always wanted to be free but in that freedom I wasted a lot of time, after judging myself I realized that I am becoming my own father, keeping eye on myself to manage my time to stop doing things which waste my time, but when my parents and teachers advised I did not want to listen because I wanted the freedom. freedom for what hmmm:)
Q: All your work is different from one another, after few paintings you change your style, why is that?
A: For me, art is just like poetry, story-telling or a movie clip. It's a translation of an artist's observation on a canvas, where the content matters not the signature. I do realize that repeating one thing, again and again, shows the seriousness of the content and convinces the viewer. Sometimes I do paint in the same style as long as the content has some flavor left. I don't want to sacrifice subject for the sake of signature. Every subject has its own requirement. Even I change symbols every time because in certain context meaning of those symbols changes and contradicts with the content and I feel life is too short and I have to say a lot so if I would think about the signature I will waste time. So whatever bothers me, I try to translate it into paintings, I feel it's a right of everyone to be awaken I am trying to play my part by giving awareness to mankind through my work. Which gives me satisfaction and gives me a reason to exist.
Q: Why do you sign your painting at the back with a blood spot under your signature?
A: I don't want that my signature should distract the paintings content which is more important than my signature that's why I sign it in the back. A blood spot is a blood group which proves that once I existed on the earth and sometimes this existence also doesn't matter. It's also to give a sense of security and to avoid copying my work when I die, hahaha.
Q: Why were you seen absent from art for so long?
A: There were many reasons. One of them was that in 1991, I lost all my portfolio while travelling to America, may be in Cairo because I had a transit flight from there, which I never found I was depressed for a long time, I did a little work in America for an exhibition, but then I became part of the molding factory of life.
Q: What do you mean by molding factory of life?
A: I mean running after money without realizing the loss of being molded in a fight between requirements and urge.
Q: So you mean money is not important?
A: Well, money is very important as long as satisfaction comes with it. I don't want to die like Gauguin, but at the same time, I don't want to spend my life running for it. Leaving a name after death will live longer than the money I leave behind. Don't you think so? I believe we should keep an eye on us. Coming back to your first point, I have been working as an architect, but I felt restricted and frustrated. because people do not give a free hand as they give to the doctors. I was away from art but the process of thinking never stopped. While driving many times I have crossed red lights and stopped on the green, now you can understand that was into the process of creating, ha ha ha, Indirectly I was connected to art in the form of architecture, but it didn't give me inner satisfaction. Most of the people don't understand art, as they understand singing and acting, which are very direct forms of art. Art is also one of the things they want to understand the most. I have rarely met anyone who doesn't like art, but I have met many people who need help in understanding it that's why the comments are different and mostly negative. It happens with many other subjects as well and they close their minds when they feel things are below or beyond their understanding.
Q: I saw your thesis work (the transparent truth) on shadows which was done in 1997 and now some artist like Tim Noble or Kumi Yamashita are more known then you are. The world doesn't know that you are the inventor of that technique. Does that bother you?
A: No, I think it satisfies me and gives me more confidence that I was working in the right direction. In fact, it also amazes me that many people think alike in the world. Whoever slows down is left behind. Maybe I have worked in that medium before, I don't know but I like Tim Noble's & Kumi Yamashita's works more than mine of that time, but what I am working on now is more important for me.
Q: Do you think inventing a technique is more important or content?
A: Well, it depends. If technique goes with a content that's ideal, but sacrificing content for the sake of technique is not worth it, and to some extent technique limits vast content, it's my opinion. Techniques should be helping hand to the subject.
Q: Which artist and painting do you like most?
A: Now you are putting me in trouble. I love all the artists who think and work to pay the price of living on the earth and address them in their own ways. There is a huge list of artists, Among Pakistani Artists, Sadequain, Salima Hashmi, Qudus Mirza, Shazia Sikander, Rana Rashid, Imran Quraishi, Huma Mulji I am forgetting some names, in India I like the work of Tayyab Mehta, M. F Husain, and among internationally known artist, I love Picasso's Guernica, Jackson’s Pollock series. What an artist can paint when he does not find any solution for all the problems, Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans, Damien Hirst butterflies with blue background, it's a representation of New World Order I believe, Michel Basquiat, I love Banksy's work it could be direct in some cases but it touches your heart, and he challenges the inhumanity of human beings. The interesting thing is if anyone in Pakistan would have worked like Andy Warhol before Andy, he would have ended up in (Darbar) or would have left art, because viewer also gets the influence of judging art from the west, people in the west no doubt are very hardworking that's why they are leading the world, but people around the world are also producing phenomenal Art, more platforms are needed to project Artist from around the world.
Q: What do you think about death according to your sculpture (Death after experience)?
A: Death is the only thing which stops from working. That is there but it's not fair there is so little life to work, the only thing which disturbs me from death is not death itself, but the amount of knowledge and experience one takes with them after death which is a great loss. I wish technology could reach to the point where they can copy minds and keep them in libraries, so that whoever wants to feel Picasso could wear the helmet, get what he requires, then switch to Andy Warhol. Sometimes I want to experience death if I would have the choice of coming back and share it with the people. We see more people going towards religion in their old age, some because of fear of death and some after understanding. Maybe one day human will be standing in front of the Creator, and will say “We found You”.
Q: You told me these days you are working on a mystery series of paintings, what is the story behind it?
A: Yes, it's a combination of paintings they could be two, three, four or maximum nine parts, the series is called Mystery Friends. No one will know what it will become until the puzzle is solved, I will display one painting each of one series in my exhibition. Two or nine different parts of a painting mean two or nine different people who can interact with each other to solve the mystery of the painting, the purpose is to develop relation between similar thoughts of human beings.
Q: What is your opinion about politics & politicians? I know it's an irrelevant question from an artist but you have painted on socio-political issues.
A: It's a very difficult job if it's done honestly, then few people would be interested in politics. I never liked politics and politicians, but one cannot remain blind, deaf and silent when I see my life and future in those hands of such corrupt people. In Pakistan, our politicians are enslaved to some international agenda, where corruption is acceptable but not their sincerity for their people. So the groups are formed on the basis of profit sharing. No matter how big blunders these leaders make, their profit enslaves are there, to cover it up. I will give an example, let's suppose our politicians borrow 100% loans from international banks to run the country. People pay the markups in the shape of tax, and things become expensive. Then 30% to 40% goes back to international banks in the shape of politician's own money which is earned through corruption. Indirectly international banks have to pay 70% or 60% to make people of the Pakistan 100% (debtor) plus the markups, so no one would like sincere leaders. Sincere leaders are manipulated or eliminated. Unfortunately, Pakistan was never independent and we have an ‘independence day’ for showing the world. First subcontinent was ruled by many westerners, after independence we are ruled by their employees. Their skin color is same like us but their actions are not. I think we must find answers why Quaid-e-Azam was poisoned? Why was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hanged? Why we have more Mir Jaffars and Mir Sadiqs than Tipu Sultans? We need to understand that under which circumstances or pressure our leaders change their sincerity. Is it only the money which they would not take with them when they die, are they looting for their generation which they know that they don't have time to go to their father’s grave and pray how would their children have time, then why do a person become greedy in his older age, just to have few years fun they let their people to be in slaved by others, otherwise its a life threatening job like John Perkins writes in his book (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) The corrupt politicians make Pakistan as their trading business. Our leaders are indirectly under the control of unseen leaders and the leaders who are sincere and truly want to free the country again, are unwanted.
Q: What do you say about the life and how peace is possible?
A: “Greed doesn't let peace prevail”. Greed is the key which is inbuilt. Greed gives the reason of effort and change, but at the same time greed doesn't let peace prevail, so the power seekers always have the opportunity to use human against human because of their greed, mankind is never satisfied with their life. They want to live someone else's life, and life itself is complicated if we don't make it simple. Once I asked a question to 100 different people, “After death if you get a chance of coming back and repeat your life again, would you like to come back? Not a single person said that we would like to come and repeat our life, but when I asked them which life would you prefer to live if you come back, they all wanted to live someone else’s life, which they thought are better than theirs, but those better people also wanted to live someone else’s life. Many people seek satisfaction while making themselves unsatisfied, many seek satisfaction in money, some seek in power and forget humanity as Jimmy Hendrix said. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”, some feel “In search of peace for all, one loves to lose his peace.”
I believe this time the slavery would be unseen and slavery cannot win hearts, if slavery is considered peaceful then there will be peace, I fear the future, because in the past, stories of hating each other were in books and were less hurting, but future will be in videos, how would someone forgive killings of their loved ones so how the peace would be possible.
I do question my self what makes Rachel Corrie to take a stand for the right of other human being and give her life? What makes Major General Smedley Butler to speak the truth against world biggest bankers? Why John Perkins writers of (Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) has to say the truth? What is it that makes Musa (AS) Moses to leave luxury life and live in mountains? What makes Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) to leave his prince life and go into the jungle? What is it that Osama bin Laden leaves his luxury life that most of the people urge and run all their life and he goes into the mountains? Do they all want more than what they had or their is something else why some people can't ignore like many and spend their life like others? What is it that provokes someone to say the truth?
Q: What do you think about the history written by mankind?
A: Non-neutral and frustrated, can we speak the truth today as we know it will be history tomorrow. I think not. Maybe that's why the art has emerged to express your frustrations so that few could understand. When we technically lie or twist our words we are considered men of today but when we stick to the truth we are considered stupid or extremist. Many artists paint what is needed today, but not the truth. Today we can understand how the histories have been written, whatever we have learned in the past throughout our history books has never been neutral, and it can't be in the future.
Now our children's curriculum comes from Oxford & Cambridge Universities in which Tipu Sultan is a villain. In our times he was a hero, is it happening unconsciously I don't think so? Every culture has its own limitations and some cannot be changed so fast. I know it costs less to bomb them, than to educate them, and what is it good to change. Where JFK's speech tells that he is a leader but he himself is not free, the system which wants to dissolve all the religions, which wants to divide nations and then families so that their generations could rule forever, now the history books are changing again to fulfill new world requirements, master minds know that most of parents are too busy in earning which is also essential but they are unaware of their generations’ distraction. It’s important for the parents to know what's going on in the world today.
Q: What was your reaction on 9/11 incident?
A: My first reaction was that it's a movie. When I realized it's not, then I was worried about the people inside and for their families, because it's not one person who dies it's a whole family that shatters. It's very painful to realize what a person would be going through in those few seconds while jumping from the window. it was such an inhumane act that no one can forgive, and it should be investigated again by all the nations and the culprit should be brought in front of all humanity without playing any politics on that event.
Q: Tell me about your most happy and disturbing moment in life?
A: This era is the most disturbing era of the history, events that never happened before, are happening. Since 9/11, after Afghanistan, Libya, we saw Iraq being bombarded live on TV, we saw Hillary Clinton Smiles on death of Muammar Gaddafi, but the most disturbing moment was when Palestinians were being bombarded and people were sitting on a small mountain and watching it live , if the mankind put themselves in each other's places, at least this kind of inhumane act human wouldn't do. Just a small deep thought can fix things. If you were born in my place and I were born at yours ”What kind of feeling would you have?”
Q: You had atheist thoughts and then you came back to Islam. Why?
A: I was an Atheist to its extreme (Naozobila). Actually, we want things instantly from Allah. We are very important to ourselves, so we think Allah should listen to us right away. When it does not happen, some become rebellious and it's easier to become rebellious with Allah because we don't see any instant reaction from Allah, like getting fired from a job or getting slapped from Allah, so in our young age due to many religious prohibited things, which in long run benefits us but we don't realize and we do things which we like to do we find logics and reasons so that we should not feel guilty of doing anything bad. I realized that the distances of thoughts that we cover by ourselves takes more time but it's stronger than blindly following the faith. There were many things I couldn't understand about religion or I used to take them negatively, it was not that religion was wrong but it was my lack of understanding. Thinking process is just like exploring a tree we start from the trunk then we go into the branches when we explore one branch then we go to the other branch. It varies from person to person which branch he wants to explore that could be religious, non-religious, science, visual art or any other profession, but for that, life is too short to explore all the branches, so we take help of books or guidance. When we are in the process of enjoying we don't want to see the branch of religion because religion acts like parents and parents would not let their child destroy himself but NWO agenda is to free you and there is a great reason behind it.
Q: What made you come back to Islam and why you did not choose any other religion?
A: In the beginning, I felt Islam ( Naozobila) is a brutal religion, like much of the west media portrays I liked Buddhism because I felt that this religion takes care of every living being, and they just eat leaves and vegetables, but when I realized that trees are also alive, then there was not much choice left for mankind, even drinking milk is taking share of a calf, eating fruit also effects on reproduction. I believe it's easier to become an atheist than a religious person. I used to think that it was easy for Allah to send one religion from the beginning so that the religious differences would not have been there, now I feel religion was same from the beginning but we changed it, sometimes in love, sometimes in hatred, and sometimes due to political reasons like it's happening today.
Q: Thank you for your time we have talked less about art but it was fun understanding you if there is any message you want to give to your audience?
A: In the beginning, I felt Islam ( Naozobila) is a brutal religion, like much of the west media portrays I liked Buddhism because I felt that this religion takes care of every living being, and they just eat leaves and vegetables, but when I realized that trees are also alive, then there was not much choice left for mankind, even drinking milk is taking share of a calf, eating fruit also effects on reproduction.
I believe it's easier to become an atheist than a religious person. I used to think that it was easy for Allah to send one religion from the beginning so that the religious differences would not have been there, now I feel religion was same from the beginning but we changed it, sometimes in love, sometimes in hatred, and sometimes due to political reasons like it's happening today.
Do whatever you want to do, think whatever you want to think, but be conscious that unconsciously you are not hurting or manipulating anyone and being an artist is easy but being committed to art is difficult, whatever you say through art will remain forever so say something which you truly believe in.