Gallery  June 3, 2019  Megan D Robinson

Retracing the Steps of a Sufi Poet: An Artist Embraces Extreme Conditions

© Azam Studio, Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook, now on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London

London-based artist Nasser Azam is a modern day Renaissance man. He creates genre-bending paintings, sculptures, and multi-media installations that run the gamut stylistically from abstraction to Cubism to realism. His 12-meter bronze statue Athena is the tallest bronze sculpture in the UK. Azam was even officially commissioned to paint Malala Yousafzai’s portrait for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. Perhaps the most interesting works done by Azam are his performance painting series, Zero Gravity and Antarctica, which involved artistic expeditions into extreme environments. 

“The concept of ‘performance painting’ was about exploring a way of creating an image determined by the environment, rather than a set of pre-planned ideas—the idea that the subject of a painting can be the physical situation in which it was painted,” Azam explains. “To me, it was a different way of connecting with the audience—where they can identify with the idea of putting themselves in that situation as they view the painting. In addition, I wanted to explore creativity in unnatural environments, where typically . . . you would think only of survival.”

Courtesy of the artist © Azam Studio

Nasser Azam, Before The Moon Sets II, 2019, oil and spray paint on canvas

When working in his performance painting series, Azam had to grapple with difficulties presented by lack of gravity and acute cold. “I couldn't use paint in Zero Gravity as it would have floated so, I ended up using oil sticks. For Antarctica, we had to make special anti-freezing paints, which I tested in the freezers of the Billingsgate fish market prior to the trip.” He found it fascinating that the myriad shades of white in Antarctica gave him a different perspective on color, and was intrigued that the scientists at the Russian base in Antarctica “openly embraced what I was doing.” 

Born in Jhelum, Pakistan in 1963, Azam moved to London with his parents in 1970. A luminary in the art world since the 1980s, Azam has a new series of large scale abstract paintings at the Saatchi Gallery that were also created in a unique and challenging location. The exhibition, Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook, runs May 30 to June 10. Inspired by the Sufi saint and poet Mian Muhammad Bakhsh (1830-1907), whose poetic fantasy epic made Lake Saiful Malook famous, Azam visited the lake high in the Pakistani mountains to create his new series. Azam, born in the same city as Bakhsh, explores ancestral connections in Saiful Malook. “This series is about going back to my roots to create art,” he says, rather than directly interpreting the poem. The resulting works are an artistic response to his visit, referencing the themes in the poem that personally resonated.

Nasser Azam and the team on the Saiful Malook lake, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam and the team on the Saiful Malook lake, August 2018

Nasser Azam painting close-up, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam painting close-up, August 2018

Nasser Azam painting on the bank of Saiful Malook lake, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam painting on the bank of Saiful Malook lake, August 2018

Nasser Azam painting on the mountain, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam painting on the mountain, August 2018

Nasser Azam painting on the rock, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam painting on the rock, August 2018

Nasser Azam and the team on the Saiful Malook lake, August 2018
© Azam Studio Photo by Souvid Datta

Nasser Azam and the team on the Saiful Malook lake, August 2018

Along for the journey were British Indian brothers, composer Soumik Datta and photographer and filmmaker Souvid Datta. As the poem was originally popularized by “the mesmerizing music of Nushret Fateh Ali Khan, who had translated the poem into song,” Azam wanted to visit the lake with a musician. He says finding the right musician was probably his biggest challenge, but felt Soumik Datta “was a perfect partner for the project.” Soumik knew and appreciated the area’s rich cultural traditions, and had extensive musical documentary experience. “It was good to work with a composer who is well versed with the region and his art form,” Azam says. “Given both our artistic temperaments, it was a blessing that we were working in an environment where we couldn't just leave when we clashed!” 

Courtesy of the artist © Azam Studio

Nasser Azam, Higher Than Angels, 2018, oil and spray paint on canvas

The main difference was creative style: “I generally respond quickly to the environment and can create work impromptu, which I was able to do in different locations around the lake. For Soumik, the trip was more a case of research and development, and gathering raw sounds and materials from which he will make an album. We still plan to do an immersive show at a later stage.” Azam adds there were also logistical challenges in working at a remote site on the Pakistani/Indian border. “The lake is heavily guarded and we had to attain special permission to visit at the night of the full moon,” an integral time within the poem, so imperative for the project.

Azam says he enjoys the creative revelations that come from painting in these kinds of situations, dealing with environmental and time constraints. Azam feels, “art is about the close and detailed observation of the natural world, where knowledge comes from looking and experiencing and not through any theory.” 

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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