People of the Book (A Painter’s Creed )
Scrolling through news and social media, catching up on the terrible events of the world and smiling at cute stuff has become a form of daily prayer. My tracking pad doubles as a worry bead over which I pass my hand, muttering, whispering, hoping and fearing as I contemplate the twists and turns of the Syrian conflict, Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, #MeToo, Yemen, the continued rise of the far right in Europe, Brazil and all the ecological stuff.
The world is getting worse and there seems little I can do. I wish, I hope, I sometimes post things for people whom I think think like me. I snarl at my screen.
If only there were no screen to snarl at I might feel I had more agencysince I would perhaps be living according to my scale; flesh, tables, doors, windows, stairs and streets.
One bonus from being on line is that I know I am not alone. It seems that the need for solidarity, for agency, for some kind of hopeful ontology in the face of new challenges is weighing down on 99% of the world.
I switch off my computer and in the black reflection of the screen I see the room I am sitting in. Paint tubes, brushes in jars, palettes piled up, rags and turpentine: a technological landscape that has not changed much in 500 years. This is the reality that I had temporarily scrolled into oblivion. In the middle of the screen is a face, not quite sharp under dust and smudges. I see myself through a glass darkly- a phrase from St. Paul memorised in childhood.
I turn around to look at the paintingI am working on.
White painted light and colour burst through the open doorway of a vaulted silo. In the foreground a silhouetted arc of folding chairs beckons an audience to linger before the spectacle of three ghostly horseman encircling a black figure bent down on one knee. The painting is part document and part hallucination. The chairs and the horseman are a memory of a visit I made to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan in 1992. At that point 3.5 million Afghanis displaced by the 1980-88 Russian war and its confused political aftermath lived in such camps in North Pakistan. A chance encounter in a cafe in Peshawar got me a ride up to the Afghan border alongside aid workers and landmine clearers where we paid to spectate at a game of Buz Kashi. Two dozen or more horsemen charged so close to where we sat that I worried they might trample us. Fear fires the imagination. Instead of the headless goat carcass that typically serves as a ball in Buz Kashi, in the painting I have a inserted the black kneeling figure of a sword swallower. I never swallowed a sword but I often sang for my supper. This is the hallucinatory part where the thrill of a street performance involving risk and the precarity and sacrifice of an artist’s life have coalesced.
There is pleasure to be had making something with your hands, drawing lines, mixing colours, constructing a picture out of remembered encounters and pursuing spontaneous sensations. Colours and lines are mysterious phenomenon that work on the nervous system like music. Painting holds time in a strange way, quite different from memory.
The public spectacle of the refugee camp was replaced several days later with a more intimate but no less intense one that taught me something new about painting. It was yet another chance encounter that had led me to a small concrete room on the outskirts of Peshawar. Overhead a beleaugered strip light flickered and a narrow pane of tinted glass - the only window in the room and placed too high up in the wall to see out of- aimed a dart of yellow winter light at two blue and silver oriental cushions. Against the adjacent wall a dozen small paintings were propped in a row. The paintings looked as if they had been done by a seven year old child. They were mostly landscapes; waterfalls, forests, a man and a woman in a rowing boat, rainbows, children running - all rendered in unmixed anxious daubs of raw colour. I had been standing alone with the paintings for about ten minutes while my host made tea on a gas burner in the cupboard that served as his kitchen. It was a classic studio visit feeling. Tension, what to say- if anything at all? Be direct? ‘It’s good for people to have their illusions shattered’. Be nurturing? ‘Painting requires time, many bad ones before the good come’.
Abdullah Aziz came in grinning with two handleless little cups half filled with green tea. He was around forty years old. There was a crack at the lip facing me and I turned it round before pressing my mouth to the smooth side to take a sip and play for time before speaking. The man’s eyes had not left my face. He was desperate for a reaction.
The context was bizarre. We had met the previous day when he stood by me as I drew portraits of people working at the post office counter whilst they searched the poste restante in vain for a letter I was expecting. He had followed me to a restaurant, had insisted on buying me lunch, invited me here. I almost hadn’t survived the bus journey across town when a surly young ticket seller tried to drag me from the bus and make me me kneel on the pavement to pray with the other male passengers when the bus made an unscheduled stop at a mosque. I resisted the young man’s tug on my sleeve saying in broken Urdu ‘I am not a Muslim!’, but - since declarations of atheism in that part of the world can provoke fury - added, ‘ my God is your God’. This salvatory reference was picked up by an old whitebeard sitting opposite who told the youth to lay off, reminding him that I belonged to the ‘people of the book’ – the book in question being the common texts of revelation found in the Torah, Bible and Koran. He let go of my sleeve and as he did so he hissed the word ‘Kaffir’ – infidel in my face.
Now in Abdullah Aziz’ room I felt safe again amongst these paintings although I thought they were truly awful. I was comforted by the sight of his palette and brushes and tubes of acrylic paint piled up in a corner. We spoke a mixture of Urdu and English as he explained how sad the situation in Afghanistan was and how these pictures were a vision of a better future. I think I guessed all that before he opened his mouth. I politely said they were very nice then asked him if this was‘all’ he did? Sit in this miserable room and paint?
From a shelf in the kitchen he fished out a floppy photo album with pictures in polythene sleeves.
Standing before me he appeared Chaplinesque in his patched western style suit jacket under which he wore the national dress of Afghanistan: a matching baggy grey shalwar trousers and long qamis tunic. In the photograph here he was again but in blue surgical scrubs standing beside a child whose leg was ripped open from the knee to the ankle. Another photograph had him standing beside a doctor who was busy operating on the abdomen of another child. I flick through the book. It was full of images of mostly children with hideous wounds. I could barely look at them. The vividness of their gore was petrifying.
-Landmines, he says.
-So you are a surgeon?
-No, surgeon’s assistant. Then sometimes in emergency situations I am the surgeon, when the real doctor is not available.
-You trained for this?
-No I learned through looking. Two weeks in Afghanistan helping mine victims, two weeks in Peshawar painting.
Amateur painter and amateur surgeon.
He still wanted to know what I thought of his paintings, he geninely wanted my reaction. I cautiously suggested mixing his colours a bit more, but I was uwilling to pass judgement further. This man was the epitome of human goodness in the face of human suffering. Half his life was a waking nightmare that had not stripped him of his dignity, of his ability to be kind, nor of agency.
As I saw it then, his paintings were not (yet) good but he seemed to me to be a saint.
He walked me to where the buses sped past with their scruffy young ticket sellers hanging out at terrifying angles as they shouted destinations and swooped down to snatch potential passengers hesitating on the street and drag them on board without the bus ever coming to a halt. Aziz helped me identify the minibus that would take me home. I never saw him again.
On the bus I thought about how Abdullah Aziz’ paintings were inert tokens of his desire for a more beautiful, more peaceful world. For him painting waterfalls and rainbows was the comforting antithesis of gathering bodyparts from the wake of exploded landmines or stitching limbs back together. His goodness however, did not exhonorate his paintings from the qualitative judgements of art history, in the same way that my scrolling through the world online as a relief from the solitary activity of painting does not excuse me from my own wordly responsibilities beyond my studio.
Being hauled in through the open doorway by the second ticket seller brought to mind the first who had called me Kaffir. He had placed me in the sub-class of the non believer, irredeemable, worthy of hate, possibly expendable. The Arabic term Kaffir means veil: since the eyes of the non-believer are screened from the sight of God. When I said ‘my God is your God’, it was a white lie to escape a violent escalation but it was not untrue. I was trying to get across town on public transport and did not possess the vocabulary to explain that I was a lapsed Catholic who had given up praying to paint because art had replaced religion as my spiritual activity. I belonged to the people of the book as much as anyone who reads with a question about the meaning of things in their heart. That year I was living a parallel life in Russian literature inspired by Wittgenstein’s comment that all of philosophy is contained in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who in their different ways take religion and peel off its theological envelope to reveal the inner workings of morality and ethics, of civilsation and culture. In my pocket was a copy of ‘The Idiot’ whose main character Prince Lev was Dostoevsky’s attempt to create a ‘completely beautiful human being’, a paragon of virtue battered by circumstance and possibly doomed. He was the literary archetype of the thing that Aziz was in real life. I might have gone on to point out to the ticket seller that by unpicking the threads of literature all the way back to their source we find kinship and shared origins with those who might otherwise claim to be our enemy, but I sensed my efforts would be for naught. Fervent believers cannot tolerate comparisons between mythology and religion even though the archetypes and heroes of both overlap under different names and generate subsequent protagonists and narratives like Russian dolls one inside the other. It was of course the Russians who had planted all those landmines in Afghanistan in the dying years of the Soviet Empire and the broken Urdu I spoke came courtesy of a friendship with an family of Pakistani immigrants in Glasgow- itself a legacy of Empire and a colonial past. War and colonialism. How can an artist respond to such events and not feel crushed by them, by their violence, and by the fear they induce? Artists look for subject matter in the world as well as analyzing how they are subject to the world and ultimately objects within it. It was an artist turned war correspondant who suggested I visit Peshawar. Like Aziz he was in the studio and in the field. Then only in the field. And here are the central questions. What should an artist do? How and where should they work?
There are no longer schools for artists to be part of, the absence of solidarity of style or material has given over to a kind of search for a political and intellectual common spaces, whose ethical compass leads one through the social sciences rather than the history of art. This tendency has in part emerged in response to absent voices - other than those of the white men of offical art history. Contemporary art has its hands full as it seeks to include the entire world in a space that is heterotopic like a medieval souk or caravanserai, whose itinerant international polyglots trade ideas and objects and storytellers seek to enthrall audiences with tales of alternative histories, future utopias and new politics
After the encounter with Aziz and the run-in with the ticket seller I made my peace with painting even if doubts about it being the right kind of technology for communicating with the modern world often arose. These doubts would persist on and off for decades with one foot in the studio and another in the wider world. In the end I decided to make it a life. I concluded that painting was my prayer replacement, a means of engaging with history, an act of solidarity with strangers, if carried out in this devotional way it was enough of a contribution to the world. Like Abdullah Aziz. I needed a veil to throw over the unbearable violence of the world I needed to shield my eyes by throwing a protective illusion around me like a waking dream that keeps the knowledge of the futility of existence and the inevitability of death at bay.
In the end, I believe in the possibility of pictures and objects that can punch a hole in time and space. I believe in the artwork as a stumbling block in the path of resignation that sees life as a metabolic game of survival with no meaning. To that extent, and contrary to the anxiety I feel from the hours spent before screens and the information I can never retain from them and the time lost that I will never regain from them, I am for a syncretic art that brings contradiction and difference together in a holding structure of heterogeneity rather than in an endlessly uncoiling spring of encyclopaedic analysis.
The old man who came to my aid on the bus and acknowledged me as belonging to the People of the Book was referring to the ‘Spider’ chapter in the Koran- so named for the spider who had spun a web over the mouth of a cave to veil the prophet Muhammad from his persecutors in the early years of Islam. My white bearded saviour had opened up a gap of ambiguity in my own words through which I scuttled. Was this spider not also Arachne the beautiful and talented weaver from Ovid’s Metamorphosis? There is always space for new names, new languages new histories whose experiences are also translatable as myth. Pasolini knew this when he filmed Oresteia in Africa.
If we read, if we write, we are people of the book, unconscious painters.
When we write we weave the weft of our transcient and finite lives through the warp of a world that pre and post dates us. We weave memory through history, literature, poetry and music. And what we write with, all our letters and cyphers were first pictures: the letter A began as an ox, the S as a snake. M is the Egyptian hieroglyph of a wave pronounced ‘ma’: the ancient semitic sound for both mother and water. This is ultimately our common origin both physically and metaphorically, since in the womb we were curled up contentedly in water and assume that position under the grip of fear and trauma.
Art and religion rose up from the same corner of the caves our ancestors inhabited. Our perspectives then in the bronze age and before were with regard to our fellow creatures, to the land and to the sea, to the forest, mountains and to the sky and the stars. This was enough to construct epic poetry and paint Lascaux. Later came chairs and cities.
To live is to write in water. When we draw we write on sand. Painting is wet and amorphous like the sea itself. It still fits us well even if in the present era, it is at low tide. In the caves of Lascaux alongside the wall paintings were found great quantities of pigments prepared and carefully stored 17,000 years ago. Paint in its origins is the very earth and its minerals ground and mixed with water or spit. I should not have been surprised to find painters in Afghanistan, since Afghanistan is the country of that most precious of blues, of lapis lazuli- ‘ultra marine’- from across the sea.
Mark Sadler , November 2018