Mian Ijaz ul Hassan and His Protest Art

Art, although symbolic, can be the perfect device to convey a message, a social one, a political one. And can be a clearer way of channeling society than many other forms of communication. Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, a Pakistani artist, has been using this device tirelessly to its limits and has been censored, imprisoned, and even tortured for it.

A Most Turbulent Decade

Pakistan went through immensely turbulent times in the 1970s; starting the decade with its first democratic elections but soon followed by the Bangladesh Liberation War which was the result of Pakistan’s culturally suppressive policies over the Bengali people of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and fathered the following atrocities. This also caused yet another war between Pakistan and India. The decade ended with a coup in 1977 that transitioned the country back into a military dictatorship. It was in this coup that along with many people, numerous artists and activists were detained, arrested, and put into jails. Hassan was just one of those people that were imprisoned.

 

The Art of Protesting

Mian Ijaz ul Hassan was born in 1940, seven years before Pakistan became an independent country, and was educated first in Aitchison College in Lahore; then Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, and University of Cambridge. Later in the 1960s, he joined the National College of Arts back in Lahore. All of his life, he lived in an environment full of social and political aggression, oppression, death, authoritarianism and stood up to fight against it for the sake of freedom.

He worked on both realistic and abstract paintings but the main element of his art has always been politics. For him, politics is inevitable and inseparable from art. He protested against Vietnam War in his college days, he stood up against the military regime. He painted about Bengali people and Vietnamese people and their sufferings. The Bangladesh Liberation War and the suffering of the Bengali people affected him deeply, but it was the Vietnam Wat that fuelled his aggressive approach in his protest paintings.

Painting and Politics

Vietnam War was the dominant influence of Hassan’s works in the 1970s. In That! (Bang) he combines a poster image of the famous Pakistani screen actress Firdous and a Vietnamese guerrilla mother with her baby. Hassan borrows the figure of the guerrilla mother from the Chinese artist, Lin Jun who became an famous image and symbol of Anti-Vietnam War protests. Hassan, juxtaposing two different women from two different societies to emphasize the exploitation of women either by war-torn societies or cinematic cultures.

Similar contrasts are seen in his works during this period such as The Riffle Butt in which a Vietnamese woman is seen beaten by a riffle butt next to a line of women in saris and bikinis. While the rest of the canvas is in color, the Vietnamese woman is in black and white. We only see the barrel of the rifle on her head and the perpetrator’s tightfisted hand. In a sense, the women in color become the butt of the rifle, or to put it differently, the society that created those women for their exploitation is the riffle butt, that is, the perpetrator of this atrocity. From another standpoint, this is a good example of demonstrating how societies look at women: a victim to the spectator.

Behind the Bars

Following the coup of 1977, Hassan was arrested, blindfolded and a noose was tightened around his neck. He spent a month in solitary confinement and was threatened and tortured. The famous prison of Naukher, Lahore, and its distress deeply impacted his art. His cynic New Year Banquet shows a barbed wire in the shape of a flower.

The ironic usage of barbed wire represents the devious acts of the military regime. It’s not merely about his detention, it’s about a political oppression which Hassan responds with strong satirical symbolism. Nevertheless, his imprisonment affected him deeply. He sketched the view through his window at Naukher, a view seen behind bars. 

Those bars reverberated in later works such as Glass Cage and The Jaman in the Backyard.  The bars cut the scenes full of foliage and greenery in three or four pieces and heavily resemble to view from a prison cell. Even from a prison window, the beautiful landscape lays beyond the eye to give a chilling feeling to the human soul, a feeling that is the ultimate goal of this artist’s endeavors: hope!

Branching Out

Greenery holds a special place in Hassan’s art. He interprets the landscape in a manner that is neither classical nor modern. Trees are Hassan’s most common characteristics. The thin trees with dry branches twisting up with fresh leaves remind him of his people and their sufferings. Whenever any one of its branches was cut, several fresh shoots would grow in its place, becoming a symbol of people’s everlasting strength (Naqvi, 1998).

Whether from a prison cell or through a window, those beautiful scenes go beyond pleasuring the eye or demonstrating its painter’s masterful skills. Hassan is quite successful at finding the political underline in everything, even in beauty. 

Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, Scuffle, 2012, oil on canvas, Personal collection

Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, one of Pakistan’s most prolific and acclaimed artists, spent his life between the intertwining lines of art, life, and politics; and successfully combine them in his oeuvre. He still paints with an open eye for the society whether it’s a brutal protest or a national tragedy, but always pointing ahead towards hope, both for his people and for the world.

Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, Fasal-e-gul Ayee Ya Ajal Ayee, (Is it Death or Hope for Spring), 2008, oil on canvas, Collection Mr. Asif Ali Zardari

Sources

Ijazulhassan.com. 2021. [online] Available at: <http://www.ijazulhassan.com/> [Accessed 4 February 2021]

Imran, M., Chawla, M. and Awan, S., 2017. A History of Visual Art in Pakistan: Studying the Resistance Against Zia-ul-Haq’s Military Regime. Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, 54(2), pp.225-238

Naqvi, A., 1998. Image and identity. Karachi: Oxford University Press.The Independent, November 20th, 2007. Protest Pictures.Wille, S., 2015. Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place. Delhi: Routledge.

Figures

Bangladesh Saga Triptych, 1973, oil on board, Personal Collection ijazulhassan.com

Mai Lai, 1974, oil on board, Collection: Mian Humayun Naseer Sheikh, Lahore ijazulhassan.com

Thah! (Bang), 1974, oil on canvas, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan artsandculture.google.com

 The Rifle Butt, 1974, oil on canvas, Collection of David Roberts, London aiconcontemporary.com

New Year Bouquet, 1981, oil on canvas, Collection: Mrs. Meena Rehman ijazulhassan.com

View Through Window Naukher, 1976, pen on paper, Collection: Dr. Mian Ahmed Hassan ijazulhassan.com

Glass Cage, 1979, oil on canvas Collection: Gisele Butt, Lahore ijazulhassan.com

The Jaman in the Backyard, 1980, oil on canvas, Collection: Ghulam Fareed Uddin Riaz ijazulhassan.com

 An Old Anar, 1981, oil on canvas, Collection: Nasreen and Anees Haider Shah ijazulhassan.com

Roadside Tree, 1999, oil on canvas, Collection: Mr. & Mrs. Hyder Ali Baber ijazulhassan.com

Laburnum, and Impending Strom, 1983, oil on canvas, Collection: Pakistan Embassy New Delhi, India ijazulhassan.com

Laburnum the Lahore Canal, 1991, oil on canvas, Collection: Moni and Mian Khursheed, Kasuri Lahore ijazulhassan.com

Scuffle, 2012, oil on canvas, Personal collection ijazulhassan.com

Fasal-e-Jul Ayee Ya Ajal Ayee, (Is it Death or Hope for Spring), 2008, oil on canvas, Collection: Mr. Asif Ali Zardari ijazulhassan.com