Poverty is my reality but I overcome the odds to follow my passion, says printmaker Mahboob Ali
A class assignment of making a woodcut during a foundation course at the National College of Arts (NCA) in 1968 became the lifetime romance for Mahboob Ali, the only Pakistani printmaker practising this tough genre for almost five decades.
Born into a working family of Bhati Gate, he was gifted with an artist’s eye and passion to draw. He would volunteer for anyone in the neighbourhood to make drawings and presentation charts to be displayed in schools.
“My family could not afford to buy me art material. It was quiet an excitement to work for others and playing with the art materials which I could not buy myself. My father realised my passion and encouraged me to become a professional artist,” Mahboob recalls.
“I enjoyed studio works at the NCA but being from a humble academic background, it was tough for me to cope with the theoretical subjects which were taught in English,” he says.
But he overcame his hurdles and graduated from the art college. He has been working as a professional designer to earn for living and to carry on his studio practices as a printmaker since his graduation in 1972. He stands tall among his contemporaries with 25 solo shows to his credit.
“In the beginning I struggled to learn the skill. We were taught to make single colour prints in the college. The multicoloured woodcut by Japanese and American artists inspired me to make coloured prints. They looked wonderful to us but we didn’t have materials and tools to create the colourful works.”
The wood used for the purpose was very expensive and rarely available and woodcut tools were also not available and Mahboob had to struggle to get them.
“I copied the design from an art book and went to an old artisan skilled in making wood carving tools at Mochi Gate. An intelligent craftsman, he was kind enough to make a set of very fine tools for me and I am using the same tools till date,” he recalls.
Creating multicoloured woodcuts needs a lot of hard work as it involves carving the image again on another wood plate to get the other colour printed. He kept on honing his skills and made the prints employing up to eight colours.
“I came across work of an American printmaker which was executed using 36 colours. It was a landscape in which 13 colours were used only to create the clouds and sky. It made a lasting impression on my mind. I took the challenge and keep working hard, increasing the colours in my prints and over the years I succeeded in creating prints employing up to 100 colours in a print, portraying life in the Walled City of Lahore,” he claims.
During the process, Mahboob has been ridiculed and criticised for his craze to excel in the field which is not rewarding financially.
“Every artist has his own circumstances. Poverty is my reality but I have learnt to overcome all odds to follow my passion. I do calligraphy and commercial paintings besides my labourious designing jobs to finance my studio practices as a printmaker,” he said in a determined tone.
Mahboob has conducted numerous workshops to pass on his art to the young students. He is always looking for young artists to follow the tradition and he visits art institutions to sharing my skills.
Working with a wide range of colours by mixing the graphic inks he creates an illusion of depth in his visuals which attracts the viewer. The life in and around the Walled City remains the mainstay of his work.
Working patiently with very unforgiving mediums, from carving the image to getting the print, Mahboob skillfully manages the colour harmony in his prints. His sound understanding of light and its shades on the surroundings creates a dramatic effect. The dark shadows and sharp light in the narrow streets of the Walled City evoke a sense of nostalgia for the place where he spent his childhood.
Originally published in Dawn, June 4th, 2017