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Updated: Jul 2

Salman Asif

The erudite and talented art critic, author and artist Aasim Akhtar puts on an exhibit at White Wall Art Gallery in Lahore, titled ‘Scarecrow’.

It is just as arcane as infinitely tempting to fathom: what kind of art encounters you when a consummate art critic and an accomplished essayist creates and exhibits it?

Aasim Akhtar’s solo exhibition ‘Scarecrow,’ being showcased at White Wall Gallery in Lahore, offers you one such exceptional opportunity of experiencing a riveting auditorium of his pencil line-drawings of inter-species middle-aged figures with raven heads. There are a few exceptions too, in this alluring landscape—illustrating a raven in a heightened state of vigilance, exoskeletal shapes; and a towering masculine figure firmly standing with his head thrown back, as if whispering into the ear of an obscure, thickly shaded human form, almost unnoticeably protruding out of the ribs of the first figure, bemusingly resonant of the character Gollum from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Lead pencil and graphite on paper


However, this is just the surface of a beguiling landscape of shifting meaning, context, and dimensions. Aasim Akhtar’s art, just as his writings, is watered from an eclectic reservoir of memory, lineage, language, literature, philosophy and his exuberantly cerebral fluency in visual and performing arts.

Lead pencil, graphite and conté on paper


Unmistakably evident in this series of avian-humanoid drawings, Aasim presents an equivalence of a visual ensemble that intersects his nurtured ability to minutely notice and discern things with an aesthetic perceptiveness that is further intensified by an unstoppable dialogue with myth, poetry, theatre, and discourse. Yet most critically these works, like none other of his preceding works, in their surge and scope, are sparked by a powerhouse, ravenous quest for meaning in a world increasingly squeezed out of depth and esotery. 

“Aasim Akhtar’s art, just as his writings, is watered from an eclectic reservoir of memory, lineage, language, literature, philosophy and his exuberantly cerebral fluency in visual and performing arts.”


Visually, Aasim Akhtar creates a thought-through framework of executing his drawings. His manifest desire for the economy of line means ensuring a hierarchy of importance allocated to each line. This also means him warding off any real or residual temptation for prescriptive drawing and limiting the functions of his figurative and geometric lines to conceive a form rather than an explanation of specific anatomical data. This clearly defines each line’s objective, drawn with an acute state of intention rather than being rolled out to fill a spatial void. And this is where his scrupulously crafted hierarchy of lines plays out. The super intense master lines are drawn to display clear pressure points while pulled with decisive force and intent. These are the definitive frontiers that frame the anatomy, define external contour, as well as inform the eye of what further to expect. The subservient lines intersect to produce from the subtlest to the densest gradations of shade and volume. In one of the drawings, an avian image is juxtaposed against a matrix of delicate non-figurative geometric lines that construct a certain centripetal pull holding back the principal image from floating on the white sheet. This is an exhaustive pursuit for precision at its calculating most.

Lead pencil and graphite on paper

Viewed through the prism of primordial human fascination with the allure of winged creatures and through the layered terrain of myth and wisdom traditions, Aasim’s birdmen seek their own punctum in point of time; navigate their own space, their own purpose and prowess. Still, it is rewarding to access Aasim’s birdmen within a continuum. From the bird-man hybrid sketches left by prehistoric artists some 18,000 years ago in Lascaux cave, to bird-headed gods or hybrid/avian humanoid entities from mythology, religion, tribal and ceremonial masks—Aasim Akhtar’s drawings of men with crow-heads create a stealthy lineage with a shared human sense of wonder. Whether it’s Horus, the Egyptian Pharaonic deity of healing with the head of a falcon; or the mythical bird-man creature Karuna from Hindu lore; the gold-coloured ‘Garuda’ with a human body adorning the wings and its face/beak of an eagle; or Karua of Japan, a mythical gigantic fire-breathing eagle-man; or the human faced winged mare Buraq from Islamic traditions—an extraordinary common thread lining through these references invariably represents longing, transcendence, journey, rebirth and resurrection.

The quest for longing, transcendence, journey, redemption—reappear in Farid al-din ‘Attar’s 13th-century allegory The Conference of Birds—the Mantiq al-Tayr. Attar’s multiplex, mystifying and nonconformist labyrinthine tale unfolded through intelligently conversing, scient birds and humans composes a haunting symphony of deep irrepressible love, self-consuming desire, enduring friendship, empathy, deception and selfless compassion. Conflating the spiritual with the corporal and forgiveness with fear—Attar’s story finds a natural iconoclastic ally in Aasim’s drawings in this series.

These works depicting mesomorphic legs in sharp contrast to bloated abdomens and shrivelled arms—together present an unsettling site and space for soliciting inconvenient refrains and discourses. For example, for how long and how much metamorphosis, are we as humans to scheme our lives through, amidst the wasteland of swamped and rooted-out visions of a saner world in nanoseconds; against relentlessly hysterical tides of erasure compensated by instantly available factoids. Aah! for how long one can continue to cling on to memory against this perpetual shrinkage of intergenerational tradition of memory and history; hold on to the eroding rock that once imbued hope in the darkest of times, before one is ground out and blown asunder?

Lead pencil, graphite and conté on paper

Yet at any rate, the yearning for a consciousness beyond the bourn of the known and the knowable expressed through Aasim Akhtar’s black lines wriggling on the white and terracotta sheets of paper call for another crucial consideration. Aasim Akhtar’s work of art is not presented for appreciation as a thing, but to be experienced as a performative presence.


This art is not identical to its stuff or objects and is not something beholden to what its demonstrable value or dimension. Just as a lover does not love skin and bones and just as a house dweller does not live in metal, wood and bricks, so too, this work does not seek appreciation of an object, or even that of a skill. This work conjures an investigation beyond the parts, the stuff, it is made of; an appreciation beyond its object-being to its proximal reality of performative presence, the place from where it reveals its bedazzling inner world, its enthralling inner sanctum.


 Salman Asif is an art historian, academic and a published author. He can be reached at




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