Persistence of Vision: Zahoor ul Akhlaq

Works by a pivotal figure in Pakistani postmodern art are on display in Lahore - in an intimate show curated by his daughter.

Radio Photos of Objects Unidentified, etching, 50.5 x 40 cm (plate size), 1983. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. This work is from a series about the nuclear threat to humankind. A small foetus can be seen in the figure, representing human life at risk, with what appears to be an impending cloud lurking behind the image.

Radio Photos of Objects Unidentified, etching, 50.5 x 40 cm (plate size), 1983. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. This work is from a series about the nuclear threat to humankind. A small foetus can be seen in the figure, representing human life at risk, with what appears to be an impending cloud lurking behind the image.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq was never pinned down to one medium. He brought his work to the cusp of the contemporary for mainstream art historians - yet his experimental style renders his work difficult to categorise. Trained first in Lahore and then in London, he worked in a postcolonial moment of political and social upheaval. As such, he was always interested in his own cultural background, integrating traditional regional techniques into his own contemporary style, in order to bring them into the present.

Now, an intimate exhibition at the Lahore National College of Arts curated by his daughter, the artist Nurjahan Akhlaq, explores the varying mediums he employed, demonstrating his immense talent in painting, etching, sculpture with varying material, and mixed media. “I really wanted to showcase the diversity of media that he used,” she says, “and also show unfinished experiments or drawings from the archive, since I have been going through and digitising material in it.”

Untitled, mixed metal hexagon approx. 13 x 8 x 4 c, 1982. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Untitled, mixed metal hexagon approx. 13 x 8 x 4 c, 1982. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq was tragically murdered, along with his daughter Jahanara, in Lahore in 1999. For Nurjahan, this exhibition serves to remind viewers of her father’s bravery and innovative artistic risks. “I think for someone as cerebral as Akhlaq, the unfinished aspect and the experimentation is almost just as important as showing finished works,” she argues. “It gives some insight into his mind and his process. He strove to be true to himself and his cultural background - but at the same time he was very fond of reading, travelling and staying informed on the art trends of the time globally. So his works are a reflection of who he was as a person, his ideas, beliefs and interests.”

Untitled, wooden grid shelf with prisms 62 x 62 x .6cm, 1983. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Untitled, wooden grid shelf with prisms 62 x 62 x .6cm, 1983. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Untitled, Viscosity print 14.5 x 24 cm (plate size), c 1966. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Untitled, Viscosity print 14.5 x 24 cm (plate size), c 1966. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

The collection on display demonstrates Akhlaq’s interest in the two-dimensional and his rejection of the three point perspective, encouraging the viewer to conceptualise space. His sculptures further ask the audience to configure the relation between these shapes and the space around them. Persistence of Vision is certainly an accurate title of the show, as the gaze of the viewer was clearly of great significance to Akhlaq.

An example of Akhlaq rendering traditional processes contemporary is his inclusion of the grid technique, which was traditionally used for proportion in Mughal miniature paintings. The artists’s exposure to the extensive Persian and Mughal miniature collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is said to have nurtured his interest in this technique. In turn, his miniature paintings came to influence the contemporary generation of so-called “neominiature” artists such as Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Shahzia Sikander, and Saira Wasim. “Akhlaq never taught miniature painting,” Nurjahan explains - “but he was an advocate of students using traditional arts as an inspiration to create contemporary art. So miniatures would only have been one of those traditional arts.”

Sunless Days II, collograph, 72.5 x 100 cm, 1991. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. Here Akhlaq takes from a traditional form  takhti  - a wooden tablet used to practice Urdu calligraphy

Sunless Days II, collograph, 72.5 x 100 cm, 1991. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. Here Akhlaq takes from a traditional form takhti - a wooden tablet used to practice Urdu calligraphy

Untitled, oil and graphite on board, 91.5 c 122 cmm, 1981. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. The grid technique employed here was traditionally used for proportion in Mughal miniature paintings.

Untitled, oil and graphite on board, 91.5 c 122 cmm, 1981. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck. The grid technique employed here was traditionally used for proportion in Mughal miniature paintings.

Many of Akhlaq’s are also concerned with the socio-political context around him - for example, Radio Photo of Objects Unidentified (1983), from a series commissioned by Borgeson Gallery in Sweden, examines the nuclear threat to humankind.

But for his daughter, one of the most enduring things about the artist’s work is his emphasis on medium and form. “I sometimes wonder what he would think about the contemporary miniature movement. I don't think he was nostalgic about culture, as in reviving something old. Rather he sought to look at tradition and culture in order to move forward and to be contemporary.”

Untitled, Mixed media on board 50.8 x 76.2 cm c. 1970. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.

Untitled, Mixed media on board 50.8 x 76.2 cm c. 1970. Courtesy of Nurjahan Akhlaq. Photography Asif Khan & Richard Seck.


Olivia Burt