It is a fact that stories of immense success and glory seldom emanate out of mediocrity. Their origins are infrequently found in normalcy and mundaneness; and never in reluctance and nonchalance. They would always be extraordinary, crucial, and exceptionally memorable. Perchance that is how it is with humans or God’s way too, that the extraordinary only blooms out of something sheer-something extensive and often these “somethings” bear some sort of heaviness, some portion of pain, some absorption of exemplary patience. When a soul emerges from within calamities, he’s invincible and intrepid mutually. The power of ambition grows in him each fleeting minute so much so that it becomes all he survives on. From great pasts, emerge great presents and from such greatness emerges great heroes. Many of these heroes belong to the battlefield, others in workspaces more tangible and some of these belong to places that are in fact often not celebrated with derogatory heroism- like that of the arts. Despite the ubiquitous notion, the greatest heroes are tucked away in our art history and our art present, reason being that they are passionate fighters who overcome obstacles that are not just thrown at them but at their choice of work for art really hasn’t been able to ‘convince’ many as have more mainstream fields of science and math. Such a hero is a man who has served as a facilitator for the thousands of young adults who dreamed to become an artist. He has helped them at a time when they have only one yearning, to become an artist and get admitted into the esteemed NCA. It is him who has held their hands literally and straightened the crooked lines their drawing sheets received from them. For them, he has been the one who taught them to feel the bones within skin that was so ordinarily overlooked each day. He has been the one who has taught them how to render flesh where veins adjoin it. He has been the one to give their eyes a new vision, their hands a new skill and their minds a distinct way to think. Their drawing boards befriended them because of the acquaintance he had offered. He has been the inspiration of such and so many more- the one man they have all looked up to- the one man whose presence tensed their muscles out of unparalleled respect but whose thorough and honest critique has only ever left every student of his wanting to better themselves. He has been the one and only, a mentor of thousands, a stairway, an opening and a hope of countless into the art world, he is the only one, Sir R.M. Naeem.
Many of us may have heard his inspirational story earlier but it’s the kind that never gets old and such that is found intriguing to whom it is unknown. The city of Mirpur Khas which becomes the south eastern gateway to Sindh and was once a cradle of Buddhism before the advent of Islam, inhabited the talented R.M. Naeem whom art had found at a very young age. Belonging to a lower middle class family, Naeem worked several laborious jobs to contribute a share in the household setup. At the tender age of 10, unlike the children we often see lazing in front of the television sets, Naeem was seen immersed in weaving carpets, painting cinema boards and also, walls in architectural places like mosques and temples etc while managing his studies alongside as was deemed necessary by his family. However, the arduousness of this hard work never bothered the artist. He is known to have believed that he learnt it the right way, in a hard core manner which in turn made the idea of “ease” seem degradable and an unethical criteria to him. His first master, Syed Jamil Ahmed from whom he learnt the art of painting cinema boards, is someone the artist has talked of with great veneration and credits him for having taught him the very best. From here on, the artist in him knew his true calling was not a doctoral profession that was ideally implied for him in his surroundings. “I was born for something else; it was art.”, says the artist. Soon, his passion and belief staunchly made this announcement to his family who had like most families, a conventional dream for their hard working son in mind but supported his opinion nonetheless. A miracle or rather a sign from God followed this event in the form of a newspaper cutting that found its way to Naeem’s brother through a friend or “an angel” who handed it to Naeem. It read the words as if from an alternative world, “National College of Arts- Admissions open now”. Something so enormous gleamed from within Naeem that his entirety lit up in that moment. He knew, it was his God who had listened and prodded him to his destined future. He set of on his journey to Lahore which met a disturbing conflict but despite that he went. In the aftermath of a bomb blast that happened in Saddar in 1986, the post had dispersed and thus the interview dates became unknown to Naeem making him reach Lahore on the very day of the interviews at NCA. Regardless of sheer insistence, the artist could not convince the panel to give him consideration. However, Naeem’s dream was undefeatable and he continued to practice his art for another year after which he applied to the NCA and effortlessly claimed his spot in the batch that joined NCA in 1989.
Naeem and his unusual and unique background of crucially hard labor oriented work made NCA’s reputed tough academic expectations and routine appear rather easy to him. Belonging to a humble background, Naeem found the atmosphere at NCA worlds apart from what he had known but that ‘fear’ of being different never coerced him. He befriended those who too accepted their deficits and realized the need to fill them. Instead of being consumed by them as complexes, they positively learnt from teachers and inmates who had experiences and teachings to gleefully offer. He earned his living throughout his years at the College and jokes that after returning from his job 2 or 3 am in the night, he often slept with his shoes on as he found only a couple of hours to sleep before the alarm announced that it was time to get ready for college and up he used to go. This practice was frequently made fun of but did not bother the seething artist that resided within those hardships as his goal was clear. He had committed to establish himself not through a social appearance or persona but as an artist who had come from his background and in turn open a gateway to his people, the people of Mirpur Khas to see that indeed there was a profession other than medicine or engineering that too brought success –it was Art. During his years at NCA, that goal was achieved and many people joined NCA from Mirpur Khas and the practice continues to date. After four years of excellence in his academics at the institute and a distinction awarded to him in thesis, he was offered to join NCA as a teacher by his professors and despite his lack of inclination for the offer his conventional-self joined the institute out of thorough respect and faith that ‘what the elders are saying must be right’. Since 1993 to date, R.M. Naeem has been teaching drawing and painting to foundation years and major years at the NCA.
However when one talks of him, the most riveting aspect of his multifold personality as an artist has to be the masterful art works that are his creations. The fables within the artist’s one of a kind paintings engage his viewer on a different level. They speak an individualistic language of their own- one that seems to be originating from mysticism, meditation, deliberate and evolutionary thought and concern and definitely not out of superficiality. When one comes into visual contact with Naeem’s paintings, the effect is the kind that one experiences standing in Louvre or Sistine Chapel witnessing masterpieces of men that are known as “Masters” of Art for centuries. Such is the depth that resides within works that belong to R.M. Naeem. This resemblance may well be because of the long hours of consistent hard work and effort without which Naeem believes nothing can be achieved. “There is no shortcut to art- one must undergo a process- the laborious, the better; even if it lasts for years but one must engage with their art at such great lengths in order for it to truthfully grow and reach the stage where it may finally have fully blossomed”, says the strong willed artist.
His soft treatment of paint, the choice of color palette and the overall haziness that the works embody make it further reminiscent of the sfumato of Leonardo Da Vinci. Just as the master’s subjects were treated with a suppleness in paint application, no harsh lines or outlines, we find Naeem’s characters clothed in the same softness. His paintings dispose a sense of tranquility, an air of calmness and an exemplary blending of paint with of course unmatched achievement in drawing his figures. The interesting part about Naeem’s psychology of learning skill and technique and equipping oneself to become an artist who is well rounded and can perform as a sculptor or a printmaker or a ceramist and not only a painter actually matches the philosophy that prevailed the renaissance in times when the masters practiced their art. Much like the apprenticeship Naeem had under his mentor Syed Jameel Ahmed where Naeem as a young boy painted everything from Cinema boards and sign boards to mosques to temples as did Leonardo with his apprentice Verrochio where he learnt skills of painting, sculpture as well as engineering and architectural know how. It is a firm belief withheld by Naeem that one should be a master of all, and the medium he chooses to work in should be a choice of his not what he is compelled to do out of minimal experience and skill. Thus getting popular internationally or treating his art as a business have been the last things on his mind. Instead, exploration, sheer practice of all mediums of art and discovering his strengths and polishing them rigorously were what consumed Naeem’s years as an artist. Alongside his ambition to pass on his knowledge to the youth of Pakistan, an in particular those individuals who had a great urge to learn and belonged to far flung rural areas of the country paved the way to the initiation of his studio in 1994 where throngs of children learn drawing to date as well as the international residency program that he initiated a couple of years back which takes place there, are both a powerful witness of his urge to share and spread art and its accessibility not just practice it for his own pleasure.
Thematically, his paintings leave one in another-worldly feel. The androgynous figures that have stalled his canvases for over two decades now are a creation of his, to intentionally reject recognizable gender forms in order to refrain from assumed notions and stereotypes. He had wanted to create a figure that seemed belonging to the subcontinent and one that was beyond all religious, gender, societal affiliations and possessing a being of its own. This character he thought, would be submissive and in a way passive, dictating peace and harmonizing with his usual monochromatic palettes. As a given rule, Naeem’s human figures have always demonstrated an excruciating perfection; the kind that one can look at for hours unblinkingly. The implausible detail that these embody make them look like real humans and not representations of them. To date, the artist has considered figurative works as most challenging and says he has practiced them for years and has felt it is the kind of subject which must be practiced infinitely.
Concerns of Naeem’s works lie around messages of commonality, possessing what lies common within us instead of differences which he says are ironically addressed more and are thus sensationalized. However, to the artist his characters must be able to exist in any time, have the power to relate meaning to anyone while having depths of connotations to them at the same time which becomes their intellectual explication.
Of his recent exhibits like "Affirmed connection" and the two person show with miniature painter Waseem Ahmed, the viewers witnessed art works that broke free from Naeem's anonymous figure and moved almost entirely towards a representation of his self portrait alongside others. In affirmed connection, all canvases displayed an amalgam of super realistic figures painted against contradictory imagery such a signs, symbols and other variations that became contrasting entitites to the figures that as per Naeem's promised visuals have been painted to impeccability in what we may call an "R.M-ian" style. Horizontal shafts painted in primary reds and blues, representations lent from chapters we find in chemistry books like atomic and molecular structures, as well as road signs all took part in the visual play that the artist so well composedly directed. A larger number of these paintings represented the artist's self portrait clothedin a variety of personas. In one depiction he was Jesus, in another a bearded man with a prayer cap at once discernable as a Mullah. In others he wore a turban, in one he supported long moustaches. Very modestly he became the Messiah, the terrorist or the cleric, the strategest, the capitalist. The intended whisper of 'I am all, all is I" that was delegated to the works could be clearly heard and was therefore a successful attempt as the artist represented himself a 'citizen of the world'. The straightforward commentary suggested how within, we are all the same and it is only the labels and the titles that are ever evolving and changing, or forever remaining.
In the two person show with colleague and friend Waseem Ahmed, the viewers found walls of the gallery covered in paintings by the artist that made for a splendid surprise. The audience who had came to rejoice the pleasant murkiness of Naeem's signature monochromatic pallette were encountered by subliminal colors as green opal and yellow against the promised testimonial of his immaculately painted figures. As intriguing as the colors, were the characters that held center stage against their bold backdrops. The most identifiable of these was the representation of the famous "head of Buddha"- possibly driven from the historical emminence of Buddhism in the present site of Naeem's home. The less recognizable were the female entities that held important stature in paintings "Super woman" and "Connected i and ii". The overall commentary remained to be about the notion of being victims of terrorism, sectarianism and hopelessness all though painted in streaks of hope, freedom and harmony.
In the state of affairs that our country is struck by, it is people like R.M. Naeem that choose to see the positive and negate misleading myths and falsified narratives. His remarkable ongoing journey is but a true testament of what a real artist is, much like the geniuses from the past. His belief in owing to his homeland his blood and sweat is what ties him sincerely to the preachings his chronicles preach- of love, of hope, of positivity and humanity. From his earliest days to present he has continually fought a battle for his freedom fighters that hid away in their houses for the fear of being trodden upon by those that did not believe in their dreams and in fact rejected the very idea of it. He has been their messenger in the dark ages who brought to them the light of art; he has been to them the guide who has held their hands and shown them the path; he is to them all, and all to him is them. R.M. Naeem, the teacher, the painter, the light.
R.M. Naeem (b 1968, Mirpurkhas) lives and works in Lahore. He completed his BFA in 1993 with distinction from the National College of Arts Lahore and started teaching as assistant professor at NCA. Through his career, he has held eleven solo shows in Pakistan and abroad and curated numerous shows. Since 1994 he has offered drawing, counselling, and teaching at his studio STUDIO RM. In 2008 he initiated the Studio RM (International) Residency programme in Lahore.
Awards that he has been honored with include National Excellence Award at the 8th National Exhibition of Visual Arts, organized by Pakistan National Council of Arts, at Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore, Pakistan in 2003 and Award of Honour in annual 9th All Punjab Painting & Graphic Art. Exhibition organized by Punjab Council of Arts, Lahore Pakistan. During the course of his career, he has attended Twelve various art camps and residencies abroad alongside onducting various art workshops.
Important shows include:
Two Person show with Waseem Ahned, Lahore 2017, Affirm Connection, Gallery 39K Lahore, Art Melbourne, 2012, Affordable art fair Singapore, 2012; Art expo Malaysia, 2010; Slick Art Fair Paris, 2010; 2005 Group show of Indian and Pakistani painters at India International Club,Delhi, india, 2004 8th Asian Biennale, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2003 One Man Show Titled “Mystic Ritual” Canvas Art Gallery Karachi , Pakistan, 2003 One Man Show Titled “Mystic Ritual” Ejaz Gallery Lahore, Pakistan, 2002 Another journey, contemporary art from Pakistan, Oslo, Norway, 2002 Break on Through to the Other Side: Contemporary Art from Pakistan" Curated by Joan Fabian On-Line exhibition: www.arttexnet.com I salon (Texas, U.S.A.), 2002 Interrogating Diversity, Betty Rymer Gallery, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. U.S.A..