It must be quite the reminder of home for a Kashmiri artist to walk on the streets and travel through the roads of Hangzhou, and to look beyond human structures onto a lake and to wander further onto the green hills of this city located in China’s Zhejiang province. Coincidentally, Su Shi, the 11th century poet, writer, calligrapher, aesthetic theorist, and civil servant of the Song Dynasty once wrote “Where better could I settle and find a home / Than such a place with peerless lake and hill?” about this city where he had arrived in 1071. Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo) would later be jailed and then exiled and go on to shape an entire genre of Classical Chinese poetry dedicated to verses about exile and dissent, while making historical contributions to Chinese travel literature. In fact, Su Shi’s mark on the city can best be felt on the causeway lined with willow trees—that bears his name till date—that he constructed along Hangzhou’s West Lake during his tenure as a civil servant. It is within such a city and such a setting that Kashmiri artist and painter Azim Hassan recently exhibited his first solo show titled 4 Shadows: A Solo Exhibition by Azim Hassan.
Azim Hassan in his studio
4 Shadows gathers a selection of oil on canvas and linen, gouache and pastel on paper works by Hassan, whose oeuvre is seen in four stages of a decade-long art practice divided into five main focal points, with the exhibition showcasing a variety of his most recent and earliest works displayed at Hangzhou’s Daye Art Gallery. Having been awarded the Chinese Government Scholarship for Master in Oil Painting in 2013, Azim has been living and working in Hangzhou since those MFA years, with sufficient time to absorb and refine his skill, knowledge and experience in one of the most wealthy and culturally relevant cities of China. This fact notwithstanding, Azim’s first solo exhibition includes a wide range of works but also centers significantly upon Kashmir, its everyday life, its troubled past, its overcast horizon, its people—their collective memory and their reality—and his native Anantnag.
Shadows figure prominently in such exhibited works, with early and more recent explorations in portraying darkness as well as light through colors that encompass the entirety of the frame. All this in a manner that draws any viewer in and sustains their gaze, their attention, and their engagement with the subjects and spaces portrayed within. While the works present depth consistently through a mature understanding of space, perspective, frame, foreground, background, texture, point of view, light, color and darkness, Hassan’s paintings completely engulf the viewer’s gaze to a point of hypnosis—sans the disorientation that hypnosis produces and sustains itself upon. Instead, one finds no point of escape from the frame nor any neutral space from which one can easily look away or become distracted from what is painted within. Whether one engages with the most recent works that show a greater refinement of the artist’s visual language or whether one looks at earlier works that show signs of a developing language, each artwork opens up a world, a set of memories, a range of emotions and a mood toned with an adept understanding of how to measure light and darkness through the skilled use of color.
One of the main features from Hassan’s 4 Shadows is the recent oil on linen painting The Dubb and the Nab (2021) that gathers a visual memory of his native Anantnag with a scene from a bazaar that easily belongs in the late 90s. In this painting, the prime indicator of that 90s era are the houses in the background built in a traditional Kashmiri style of architecture that has been lost with newer styles of construction taking over. The painting captures the visual history of such architecture in a prominent manner through the strong use of multiple hues of color along with the application of light and dark colors to accentuate the background composed by such houses and an ominous blue sky. In the foreground, a relatively busy marketplace is depicted, with the artist placing himself in the bottom left corner of the frame, holding the hand of a child (a cousin or a nephew perhaps) who is pointing to the flock of sheep guided forth by a Bakarwal.
The painting could return anyone from Anantnag to localities and areas like Kaedpore (Kadi Pora) or Reshi Bazar and is reminiscent of the houses from any lane or alleyway in many areas of Anantnag like Shirpora, Sarnal, Mattan, etc. while also appealing equally to those who remember Kashmir’s urban landscape from that era. Such houses were equipped with the daeb, the wooden balcony that extended outwards from the mud-plastered walls and consisted of a signature design that was in line with architecture driven to preserve sunlight and to create more space in a stylish manner, while keeping out the Himalayan cold during harsh winters. All the nostalgia notwithstanding, The Dubb and the Nab evokes an eerie sensation of calm, either before or after the storm that became the overarching violence that engulfed Kashmir through the years. In depicting a cloud-laden blue sky, the painting foretells the approach of a tempest that casts shadows over the populace of a Kashmiri village down below—acquiring a morose tone that many Kashmiris will identify with. Except for the little boy holding the artist’s hand on the lower left corner, the painting is peopled by Kashmiris who seem immersed in inner thought at the chowk of any village where a baazar has emerged. In addition, from women, men and elderly to children and adolescents, Kashmiris of all ages are represented in this painting. Azim recalls his childhood in Anantnag and his maternal uncle Arshid Hussain Baba’s great support and encouragement since an early age. It was his uncle Arshid who bought him his first art supplies in elementary school, upon seeing that as a child Azim had a predilection for drawing and sketching. Much of that childhood is encapsulated within The Dubb and the Nab.
With such creative expositions of oil on canvas and linen and gouache and pastel on paper, multiple contested thematic undertones can be retrieved where what appears as serene may as well be equally seeped in sadness, giving way to a calm that is almost eerie—not in a horror-inducing otherworldly or spectral manner, but rather as a reminder of the silence that sets the tone to these paintings. In that mode of presentation, such a frozen silence in key works is entirely collective and entirely Kashmiri, inert, and restrained like the spaces, objects and subjects that are portrayed in the frame in works such as Waiting for Peace, Beyond the Broken, Boy by the Window Side, Chronicles of Kashmir and Street, among others. That the imagery and the scenes depicted appear frozen in time and contained within painted space is an understatement, given their reference to a Kashmir surrounded by mountains and trapped indefinitely by the overreaching geographies of its neighboring powers. However, Azim manages to diversify his subject matter by detaching beauty from sadness and melancholia, especially where women are depicted in works such as Kashir Kur (Kashmiri Girl), Balcony and other works focused on creative studies and portrayals of the body and space, to present a variation that is essential to his greater work as an artist and contemporary painter.
4 Shadows is perhaps the best artistic exposition of Azim’s work over the last ten years and the works that it presents to audiences can be classified into five core series that in one way or another are interrelated. These five are: Band Pather, Khilwatri, Chronicles of Kashmir, Conflict, and Body and Space. In the Band Pather series, Azim revisits the space of Kashmiri artistic tradition and its folklore by presenting portrayals of the dying art of folk theatre and performance, which dates back centuries and can be compared to the European Ministry of Jongleury (“Mester de juglaría” in Spanish), an artform that became prominent in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Kashmiri Band or “jester” in that sense is comparable to the “juglar” (jongleur or minstrel) not only in terms of the figures and roles at play, but also by the very fact that both are centered upon an oral tradition and theatrical performativity that is at the core of communicating back and forth with an audience.
Another series, Khilwatri, presents paintings made with oil on canvas depicting lotus leaves that remind of those adorning the surfaces of the Wular and the Dal lakes in Kashmir, but that could as easily be representations inspired from the West Lake in Hangzhou. Each of these works is painted as if looking onto them from a perfectly symmetrical bird’s eye view, from the top, but at a very close distance. The works evoke the sensation of such a proximity to water, and also of submergence with the lotus leaves as the only barricade halting one’s imagination from diving deep below the surface. The Khilwatri series is characterized by the serenity associated with lotus leaves on water, while a similar technique of painting with dark and light colors is used in a completely different way from another series that reflects on the condition of war and conflict. It is with this Khilwatri series that Azim shows variation early on in his thematic and stylistic range as a painter, with his works not only providing visual meditations on the human world but also on the majesty of the natural world that is oftentimes ignored or undermined.
While Khilwatri portrays matter and material far away from the human world of Kashmir, the works under Chronicles of Kashmir dive directly into everyday life in Azim’s birthplace, with fragmented visuals that will speak more concretely to the reality of his people. Each painting in this series drifts away from the literal and makes heavy use of synecdoche, where a part (i.e. the painting itself) represents something greater that can be considered a whole. For example, Chronicles of Kashmir II is presented with an opaque depiction of barbed wire to symbolize the structures of militarization that occupy the Kashmiri landscape and its urban spaces, where the lack of freedom is contrasted by the freedom with which the barbed wire in freely unravelling in the middle of the frame of the painting, occupying its very center.
Chronicles of Kashmir I – V
Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm, 2017
(Click on images to view full screen)
Similarly, Chronicles of Kashmir IV depicts a line of shops locked and with the shutters down to remind of routine curfews and shutdowns during broad daylight—again portrayed in a calculated manner through an apt use of colors, both dark and light, to create contrast between sunlight and shadow. Another example is Chronicles of Kashmir V, that shows a mountainous landscape composed by rocks and green grass, with opaque objects that are scattered through the bottom two thirds of the painting and that could be interpreted as pieces of plastic trash left behind by visitors or debris. In this case, which reflects the rare occasion when the artist actually paints a landscape, human destruction occupies the frame if the opaque multicolored objects are to be read as plastic bottles and bags or even debris left over from some destructive human-made event. Meanwhile, Chronicles of Kashmir III shows the distinctive ruins of the Martand Sun Temple located on the Kehribal hills of Anantnag, yet another site that reflects destruction and perseverance in one frame.
In terms of chronological order, a precursor to the Chronicles of Kashmir series that focusses on explorations of objects and space is Azim’s Conflict series, that centers more directly upon depictions of the grieving and traumatized human subject and body. Most of these works are produced in 2016, a year that weighs heavily upon the collective memory of people from Azim’s homeland. 2016 goes down in Kashmiri history as one of the most violent years where more than 140 Kashmiris, a majority of them youngsters and some children and elderly, were killed by Indian state forces during a cycle of protests with simultaneously running curfews and a lengthy government-enforced internet shutdown after the killing of rebel militant leader Burhan Muzzafar Wani. Subtlety and solitude characterize these paintings that integrate hints and signs of violence and grief that are delicately interspersed within each frame.
Boy by the Window Side is perhaps the most recognizable one from the collection because it became iconic in representing the violence of 2016 with its haunting subtlety in depicting a young Kashmiri subject looking out of a shattered window while holding onto a blinded cat. The subtlety in the frame presents a dignity that such violence attempts to disrupt but fails in the portrayal of perseverance, survival and grace that sets the tone of this painting, with its image widely shared on social media from 2016 onwards. The Kashmiri subjects in this Conflict series are poised in silence, in solitude and in a perpetual wait that is felt all too profoundly by the people of Kashmir. These subjects are injured, hurt, or grieving, but standing firmly in the foreground of a darkness painted to contrast with their illuminated posture. Grief, struggle, fragility, and persistence are to be recognized in the demeanor of the young and vulnerable Kashmiri subjects at the center of these paintings. Oddly, the artist painted this series during those horrific seven months of violence and curfew that resulted in the killings of over 140 civilians with more than 17,000 Kashmiris injured in just four months—resulting in the first reported mass blinding (by pellet guns) in the history of humankind. That Azim Hassan chose to paint the Kashmiri subject in such a subtle manner only contrasts with the routine violence of those days and as a result speaks louder of those days—with depictions that scream through the cracks to break through an enforced silence.
While the Chronicles of Kashmir series focuses on explorations of outside space, objects, and landscape with visuals of sites known to Kashmiris, the Conflict series is entirely driven by explorations of the Kashmiri subject through portraiture and depictions of gesture and body. While reflecting art as a device for documentation, both these series contain works that operate as conduits of expression where (otherwise) an imposed silence or the inability to convey deeply-embedded emotions such as grief, pain and sadness remain affixed with conditions of alienation and dispossession—where lies prevail and dominate while truth is forced into becoming unspeakable and unpronounceable. In this regard, a statement by the Portuguese-British painter and printmaker Paula Rego comes to mind when she claims, “The greatest problem all my life has been the inability to speak my mind – to speak the truth […]. Therefore the flight into storytelling. You paint to fight injustice.”
It is interesting to see a shift in the artist’s use of color and variations in contrast, darkness, and light as his subject matter shifts focus from his native Kashmir to other environs. This is most notable in the Body and Space series of paintings that focus on the human figure, with an emphasis on physicality within space. Lucian Freud once said “As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.” In a similar manner, the Body and Space series of works, mostly consisting of oil on canvas project beauty depicted within the quotidian space with the same visceral rawness that is smoothened out by the glossy texture that oil on canvas is able to accomplish. All in all, this series offers yet another facet of Azim Hassan’s artistic practice, adding to his greater range as a contemporary painter.
Oil on Canvas, 50 x 50 cm, 2015
(Click on image to view full screen)
Lastly, in Still Life – I, Hassan adopts the centuries-old tradition of painting inanimate objects, but with a Kashmiri stroke. Here, instead of a tablecloth for the depictions of textile and texture, the artist shows a Kashmiri variation of the Tabriz carpet upon which the copper base of a Jajeer rests next to a plate of indigenous Kashmiri apples and oranges brought from somewhere else. Next to these is a Kaeni shawl with a turquoise-colored base in front of which we see a potted plant. The painting traces its roots to a style of painting that has been predominantly European and Western, with the artist introducing objects that are discretely Kashmiri, perhaps in a bid to pay homage to a long legacy of traditional Kashmiri arts and crafts.
4 Shadows as an essential exhibition provides a significant introduction to Azim Hassan’s decade-long art practice that is still under a constant process of development, change and growth. It is an ideal starting point to engaging with contemporary Kashmiri figurative art that allows viewers and enthusiasts to trace the story of Kashmiri contemporary painting back to a long line of Kashmiri artists who started experimenting with variations of modernism in their unique way especially since the 1950s. In terms of style, technique, medium and thematic undertones, some prominent Kashmiri predecessors include Dina Nath Walli, Bansi Parimu, Veer Munshi, and Suhail Naqshbandi among several others. One could equally argue and situate Hassan’s work in relation to a long line of Chinese painters like Xin Dongwang, Liu Xiaodong, Gao Hong and Shi Xinji among several others who innovated upon Western styles of painting from a Chinese perspective—making great advances in figurative realism and neo-realism while also adapting styles and techniques from les Fauves.
The fact that Azim Hassan—as an artist—operates between Anantnag (Kashmir) and the spaces of contemporary Chinese art—particularly from Hangzhou—allows us to think of his work as a point of convergence that bridges multiple contemporary traditions of painting and visual art. Interestingly, the manner in which Western modernism entered Kashmir is similar to its entry into China during the 20th century, with the mid-80s and 90s bringing forth a new generation of painters and visual artists whose work is somewhat connected to the Kashmiri artistic lineage that Azim Hassan belongs to—with this young artist on a creative trajectory geared towards producing some interesting and meaningful art in the years to come, as the works in his 4 Shadows solo exhibition already show.
Nagam, Kokernag, Anantnag, Kashmir
Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, 2015
(Click on image to view full screen)
Responding to Azim Hassan’s 4 Shadows exhibition, three of his professors from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou have provided a few words on his days as a student in the Masters in Oil Painting program. The prestigious China Academy of Art (also translated as “China National Academy of Fine Arts”) was founded in 1928 on the banks of the famous West Lake in Hangzhou, as the first art-centric university in China—with several other campuses opened to host other departments of study and specialization and distinguished faculty and alumni who have taken Chinese art to international heights.
Professor He Hongzhou on Azim’s work:
In my memory, Azim in the class always casts the melancholy in his calm eyes onto canvas and paper.
At first, I thought that Azim’s melancholic stare was brought about by the change in his painting style. But after a long time passed, the melancholy in his eyes always lingered on his face. Later, in his self-selected theme creations, there were constant expressions of war and conflict in his work, and these creative themes were directly related to his own experience. In our creative teaching, we often encourage everyone to dig out their deepest feelings as the subject matter for creative work and exploration.
Azim, who is from Kashmir, must have been full of nostalgia for his birthplace. Because of this, his hometown figures prominently in his works. The depictions of his “past life” to convey human stories set their focus on the expressions manifest in his “present life” as his hometown has been harassed by the war. As a result, I can’t help but speculate about the true source of his melancholic look—worrying about the future of his birthplace. Early on, Azim did not directly portray people in his creations. He used a series of paintings to depict corners and fragments emerging from the conflicts of war. In the fragmented view, we can see the barbed wire used to create isolation, the bricks and shingles as remains from the conflict, the corners with closed doors and the projections of bicycle wheels of passers-by. Azim used a relatively realistic oil painting technique to make this group of works that have a strong appeal in form, color, and light performance, allowing people to truly feel the silent narration of war and conflict that are inexorably linked to his life.
Professor Sun Jinggang on Azim’s work:
Everyone who has experienced pain would probably have a large shadow looming over their hearts. It’s worth mentioning that he [Azim] paints what he witnessed in his hometown, which is not limited only to ruins, trauma, and pain, but also extends to his painting the survivors’ longing for peace. Azim is a narrator who perceives beautiful things in life and an artist who depicts “brightness” amidst the darkness.
Professor Jiang Liang on Azim’s work:
At an early stage, he [Azim] studied and created art in Kashmir. The subjects of his paintings include scenes of crowded streets, door and window figures, folk dances, lotus leaves, etc. At that time, his paintings were thick and solid in volume and density, and he used realistic techniques to express his love for his birthplace under turmoil and his desire for peace.
In recent years, Azim came to Hangzhou, China, to study, create and produce work. His painting subjects have evolved towards depictions of landscapes, partial life scenes and partial bodies. The colors in his works began to become brighter, the pictures were less bitter and heavy, and more fluid and poetic.
Being far away from his birthplace did not make Azim gradually forget his origins, but instead contributed to amplifying his distant memories and longings. If his early paintings were more about directly depicting scenes and characters in his hometown while expressing direct and strong feelings, now he has more indirect experience of the same through time and space, which makes his experience of his hometown merge into subconscious memories that manifest in later works. Such memories melt into life. Distance has made his artistic feelings become more real and profound—because art is not only a reflection of reality, but also a transcendence of reality.
I sincerely wish his beautiful Kashmir everlasting peace.