Lahore, Pakistan

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Radio Photo of Objects Unidentified, 1983, etching, 19 7⁄8 × 15 3⁄4”.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Radio Photo of Objects Unidentified, 1983, etching, 19 7⁄8 × 15 3⁄4”.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq

Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery

We see a ghostly gray-white rendition of what looks like a page from a Mughal manuscript. The calligraphic script, a lighter shade of pale, is illegible. The mock-up of the manuscript is contained within a gray-edged white border, which is in turn framed by another gray-edged white margin. A frame within a frame, framed by another frame, the painting draws us in, only to perplex us further. Where does the work begin and its border end? Is this a finished painting or a primed canvas waiting to become one? Untitled, 1989, was one of the enigmatic canvases on view at “Persistence of Vision: Zahoor ul Akhlaq in Retrospect.” Including paintings, prints, collages, sculptures, maquettes, and archival material made between 1965 and 1998, the exhibition, curated by Akhlaq’s daughter, Nurjahan Akhlaq, was the first solo show dedicated to the late artist at a major institution in Pakistan since his still unexplained murder, along with that of his eldest daughter, Jahanara, in 1999.

Nurjahan Akhlaq’s tribute to her father pivoted around the art of looking. Yet if we searched for meaning, we never found it in the usual places. The mixed-media collage Untitled, 1991, featured a portion of a picture frame hanging on a white wall. At the center of a snippet of grayish board is a large, painted eye, over which a smaller painted eye looms. A tiny hand can be seen under the eyes, which appear to be looking down at it. Examining the painting, we might begin to feel that the painted eyes are surveying us. Untitled does double duty: It is an artwork about looking at artworks, a literal (and metaphorical) peek into the construction of artifice. This, we realize, is art for art historians. It is not surprising, then, that Akhlaq was as famous for his pedagogy as he was for his art: He taught at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore for thirty-odd years, and was head of the department of fine art for twelve of them. Almost all the luminaries of contemporary Pakistani art were his students: Aisha Khalid, Imran Qureshi, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander. . . . The list goes on.

Akhlaq’s semifigurative, somewhat abstract works traverse a cross-cultural range of aesthetic conventions. Take the wooden structure Untitled, 1983, whose interlocking grids nod to Islamic geometry, Mughal friezes, and American Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism (don’t its dark tones recall one of Rothko’s somber compositions?). Ensconced within some of the sculpture’s square shelves (it doubles as a display cabinet) are minuscule prisms. Such works remind us that Akhlaq stimulated a revival of miniature painting at the NCA—with a twist, sometimes pushing the medium to its limits. Traditional miniatures are constructed via a grid. Within these small squares, a squirrel-hair brush is used to make tiny markings, which are repeated to generate figures and forms. So abstract designs conjure figurative narratives—from a distance. Moreover, even the most conventional miniatures are decorated by borders, whose floral motifs often intrude into the central image. Where does the frame end and the real work begin? Akhlaq draws upon miniature painting’s internal paradoxes and propels them into postmodern play. In the etching Radio Photo of Objects Unidentified, 1983, a cloud-like shape is embedded within a rectangle that slots into a grid. Tiny hands shoot out from the rectangle, as if begging us to help them escape. Where would they go? As his enigmatic, ethereal forms float by bewildered, earthbound viewers, we wonder if Akhlaq’s specter is watching us—and laughing.