A bright and crusty Sunday morning reaches the end of the famous Mian Mir bridge where it meets the Gymkhana club accompanied by lush green foliage inviting it to the side past it- the other side, the other world; a Narnia-like “other land”. Proceeding past the green infringement it is lead into this ‘other land’, woven by trees that have observed generations of people walk past them, catching simmering traces of sunlight peeping from behind leaves, casting magical golden illustrations on the grey gravel road. Colorful birds sing their rhythmic tunes flying over the historic “Chirria ghar” (zoo), the Alhamra Arts Complex, to the white Wapda House, the red bricked GPO, the famous Tollington Market and the very significant Lahore Museum, after which they meet a trio of red bricked buildings that stand close to one another. The enchanted presence of this road garbs sounds of all sorts- birds, people and bells from clock towers, all of which join together to celebrate the beaming end of the very famous; “Mall road”. It is here where it seems life never stops, as if it was always there, so alive and happening, so “now”, just as one remembers from its picture in their mind; only the picture isn’t still, it moves, like in the magical world of a Harry Potter book. It moves, it titters and it speaks a thousand stories, then, now; always.
All of its stories and the inescapable magic that surrounds it find occupancy in works- visual, written, moving of artists who have not been able to disremember its existence and it therefore resides in their canvases comfortably, coming into togetherness with other expressions from the artists’ varied experiences. In actuality, a Lahori finds his city ornamented with jewels that are worthy of capture. From historic landmarks left by the British rule all across Mall road, to unmatchable remnants of the Mughal Empire, from modern bridges whirling over colorful clogged markets to the odor of delightfully cooked foods; the whole city breathes a breath of its own. One artist whose works deliver this essence profoundly is a meticulous designer of patterns in space building around his truthful dialogue with the surroundings that bear him. His genuine and humble nature draws him closer to the organic environments he witnesses which have little or no fabrication much like his own personality. His works truly seize the essence of having lived around the mall road and old Lahore city and rising from the origins of these. From the quadrangles enfolded in Mughal gardens to allegories whispered in insinuations by Mughal emperors playing hide and seek, from flora and fauna bordering tales of fantasy to gimmicks whirling in mirroring patterns; his works truly reveal him as a master of local visual language- one he borrows from the Islamic traditions of art and rebuilds remarkably. He is the Lahori-convert from a Sahiwal origin, the honest, modest and ever-smiling; printmaker and teacher, Mohammad Atif Khan.
The relationship of the bird-chirping, very green old Lahore and Khan has now lasted over two decades and has accommodated itself within his splendid pieces of art every now and then. Time and again, we the Lahoris or Pakistanis to be just, are often rightly impugned for not owning to our rich history and protecting our heritage. However, khan is one of the few artists whose works reveal allegiance and thorough reverence for the history of his land and people. As of recently he furthered this relationship literally towards the end of the road at a junction, quite popularly known as the “Istanbul Chowk”. When one speaks of this junction, it is necessary to point out what an instinctual intersection of the modern, existing and breathing, as well as the bygone it is- exactly like khan’s pictorial enunciation, constituting the immovable and concrete as well as the impermanent and natural. Further, a splendid congregation of three highly renowned historical educational institutes too takes place here, namely the National College of Arts (NCA), Punjab University and Government College who befriend a slightly odd communion of ‘friends’ nearby- installations of model fighter planes and the very famous cannon or “tope” as commonly referred to for directional references to the NCA- “tope ke samnay wala college” (The college in front of the cannon). Where in addition to these edifices are individualistically dressed NCA-first year students, Punjab University groups enjoying breakfast and Ravians flaunting their maroon blazers, there it has also been a significant rendezvous spot for species of another kind- pigeons; many, several of which have enjoyed their daily conversations while feasting on grain dropped by passersby motorcyclists and people on foot. And it is these pigeons that became the very core for a public art project carried out by none other than the artist himself.
In November of 2015 after dedicated hard work of three and a half months put in by a team of committed carpenters, painters, welders, other technicians and one artist, the Istanbul Chowk bearing all of its already heaving significance became home to another monumental erection. It stood tall at 40 feet but indicated peaceful symbolism as compared to its counterpart war machines. This was to the relief of Lahoris not another meaningless commission by the government for beautification purposes but in fact an envisioned Public Art piece by an artist. Public Art has hardly ever been witnessed within the City or the Country for that matter, with the exception of a piece or two here and there. Thus to bridge the gap present between art and public spaces an open call to artists from the Lahore biennale foundation (LBF) in collaboration with Commissioner of Lahore and Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA, LHR) was made which resulted in proposals flying in from all artistic corners of the country and eventually landed within the hands of the down to earth artist that Mohammad Atif Khan is.
“City within a city” as named by its creator-the new grace of the Istanbul Chowk, was conceived to offer to this spot a nature adaptive, peace-loving message that the chowk and otherwise the city acknowledges daily- Lahoris and their much known hospitality which in this case they extended daily to hundreds of pigeons. To Khan, this was the real essence of Lahore and its people which needed to be highlighted across a junction of such eminence instead of installations that made negative implications. This wasn’t Khan’s first time with a project of such kind. Earlier the same year, “One and other”, a colossal art installation which was commissioned to him by the Agha Khan Museum, Toronto, earned him deserving appreciation and applause. The size, meticulous design and craftsmanship of that larger than life stamp carved in Diar wood for its high durability and resistance to weather left viewers gaping at it in awe. This massive 800 kg, 8.5 ft. long stamp that remained on display for a span of 2.5 years at the museum shows Khan’s signature “ants” crawling onto its face to form an octagonal flower common to Khan’s penchant for geometry which is ever inclusive in his art. It was then that this milestone was followed by the conception and eventual execution of “City within a City”- an abstract tree comprising 425 plywood birdhouses that is pleasingly viewed by everyone who drives past it.
However, on one of the opposing sides of where this ‘tree’ stands today is where this story first began. It was there that the artist once used to everyday walk into the premises of his college- the NCA, to receive a professional training at the Cowasjee Print Studio, which to this day becomes home to a handful of to-be-printmakers each year. In 1997, it proudly graduated him-one of its most efficient and hardworking occupants, to the world outside of its timeworn yet homely presence. It was Atif Khan’s very simple nature and his ever- embraced joyous personality that lit the insides of the studio with a light that he brought with him. As a teacher, this “power” of his transcended to his students who thoroughly revel in, the age old meticulous printmaking techniques introducing themselves clothed in the exuberance and animation of Khan’s character.
Printmaking with its press machine, acid baths and specified printing paper is known to become an arduous choice of profession to adapt to. Initially Khan too struggled with this problem but the adept and hardworking printmaker in him soon found his way to work without a press. This made him a pioneering printmaker in techniques that he devised to ease his printing process. Khan was an avid worker in the printmaking technique of photo etching that involved making a collage of the image on Photoshop and then printing the image onto a clear photographic film after which through UV exposure, the image is transferred to the plate and then etched. Khan used the same process to produce stamps which permitted him to print on any size, no matter how large, for the press no longer limited him. This new found technique gave him ample space to experiment and thus his images were transported beyond the paper- to floors, walls and rooftops.
Wonderful examples of this technique include pieces like the giant 5 by 7 feet long “Crawling Carpet” which is hand-stamped with ink on archival paper and smaller pieces like “Love letter” and “A book reopened” that measure 42 x 30 inches and 30 x 40 inches respectively. In 2010, the artist produced a diptych “Time lag i and ii” in which Khan’s hand stamped ants slithered around several color-printed “laddoos” (a local sweet) that formed the shape of the crescent and star in each of the two pieces, personifying the ‘sweet’ crescent and star on the Pakistani flag and the ants connoting to ‘outside invasion’. Other hand stampings include a very compelling series in which flies and ants are repeatedly stamped to constitute text that reads “Intezar farmaiye”, the linear pattern which used to appear on TV pre-transmission as well as a controversial world map called “Order of the day”. These interesting pieces with a sly smirk remind one of the PTV and STN days where the TV transmission started only at a specific time before which the screen showed “Makhhian”-a grey buzzing screen, possibly the reason to Khan’s choice of flies as well. The artist’s first hand stamping directly on floor was for a group show at Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery, NCA in 2010 followed by 3 pieces in 2011 at Gandhara Art space, Karachi for a show called “Whitewash”.
However, the stampings were not the only “triumph” which Khan’s creations enjoyed. In fact, during his residency at the London Print Studio, he came across the idea of creating his image on the design software he already worked on for his photo collages and then printing the image with the help of a high-tech printer. This modern day transfer was exactly the solution needed to replace the printing technique through a printing press and thus in 2010 his first inkjet print came into being. Seven years later, he has mastered this process as was exemplified in his most recent two person show “Silent conversations” in Karachi displaying magical illustrations hand-worked by the artist on computer manifesting the best of modern day technology in art. The entire exhibit revealed pieces that communicated emulating visuals caught in oval forms. Works called “Fragmentation I, II, III” are oeuvres that embrace Khan’s signature polychrome outlandish birds, fish that roamed about in strict repetitive oval formations and a central form of tree which became inspiration for the structure of “City within a city”. All these merge into three concentric ovals one over the other. In some, the sky above hovers about in stylized miniature-art clouds roaring in dark greys, navy blues and blacks. Underneath these, the base develops with repetitive schematic pools of water. A diptych called “Labyrinth I, II” embody small pools of the same stylized water within a labyrinthine formation reminding one of the famous Mughal Gardens which possessed water pools across the entire architectural setting.
These are the artist’s contributions in our printmaking world and his talents have been rewarded aptly in a series of artist’s residencies and workshops that have been awarded to him over the years. In 1998, Darat-Al-Funun in Amman, Jordan offered him an artists’ residency which he successfully completely and shortly later received the UNESCO-ASHBURG Bursary for Artists in 1999. The artistic travels and accomplishments however, did not end here for during 2005-6 Swansea Print Workshop in Wales invited him for a residency and the London Print Studio and the Glasgow Print Studio in 2008, all adorning his practice as a seasoned printmaker. These travels embraced Khan’s individualistic designs and nurtured his already fine skills while paving way for him to explore beyond his existing knowledge, all of which he brought back with him to his country and gifted as travel tales to his students when he joined NCA as a Printmaking instructor in 2005.
From the beginning, Khan’s pictorial dialect has been one where his protagonists are not disfigured entities or abstract forms, but are in fact usually Mughal emperors riding their imperial horses around phantasmagorical lands created by the artist himself. His genuine and spirited being speaks a language very native, very ours. Apart from his contributions on paper, the central figures gallop around the principals of Islamic Art- geometry and symmetry. Unlike many artists whose works do not speak of their pedigrees and can be mistaken for being from any other part of the world, Khan’s works announce their belonging to the subcontinent. His vividly defined borders become vulnerable to a familiar symmetry that Islamic Art has always been credited for. From his ink jet prints, to his hand stamped formations on paper and grounds, to his simplistic narratives, to his public art piece, to his simple adoption of elements that encircle him all make a eulogy to the artist. The running waters of the Mughal gardens, clouds derived from Persian miniature, clusters of green trees as seen throughout the Mall road and eccentric multicolored exotic birds flying in flocks just like the pigeons of the Istanbul Chowk all reside in Khan’s canvases which are a testimony to the artist’s loyalty to his land and his history lending khan’s work the individualistic appeal it bears and makes it at once recognizable as the Artist’s. Such is the truthful world of Atif khan with incorporations of a treasured past and an vibrant present making for a future that we all will witness and be gloriously a part of.