An interview with Jimmy Engineer


May 25, 2008

JIMMY ENGINEER’S quiet, unassuming manner belies the mammoth social work he has undertaken and the wealth of thought-provoking artwork he has painstakingly created.

The Pakistani artist and humanitarian is in Dubai for an exhibition of sixty-five limited edition prints of his paintings, which will be showcased at Avari Hotel, Dubai, from May 22 to 24.

He was born on August 13, 1954 in Pakistan to a Parsi family and turned to professional art in 1976. He paints on a variety of themes including architecture, landscapes, philosophy; what won him acclaim nationally as well as internationally was his paintings on the 1947 partition that led to the creation of Pakistan.

Jimmy is a peaceful crusader for the oppressed, disabled, impoverished and unfortunate sections of society and has adopted a novel way of creating awareness about causes close to his heart – walking. His walks have taken him over the length and breadth of Pakistan in pursuit of diverse objectives in the context of promotion of human rights and human dignity and enhancement of the quality of life.

In 1988 he became the first Pakistani artist to win the prestigious National Endowment of the Arts Award, USA.

Many of your paintings focus on the 1947 partition that led to the creation of Pakistan. Why did you choose this subject?

No artist can paint the partition unless he or she is motivated or spiritually guided. In 1973 I started dreaming about massacres, bloodshed, burning trains, burning villages and people being killed. I did not understand at that time. But I am the follower of Sufi Barkat Ali, one of the revered Sufis, who passed away in 1996. He was a friend; I used to sit and talk to him and he told me it’s something to do with the partition. So I said, why am I getting all these dreams? Then he said, ‘Maybe nature wants you to portray them on canvas.’ So in 1974 I started my first painting of the partition, and I realised that as I painted I would feel very relaxed. As soon as I left painting and went back to sleep I would again get those visions. From 1974-1981 I used to get these visions and I made about eight to ten paintings on the subject. I had no intention of creating any ill-feelings towards any community. Through these paintings, I wanted the younger generation to understand the extent of suffering that took place – whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, they all suffered. I wanted them to understand that this is what happened and we should move forward. Nature inspired me to paint them, and it was through nature, not any conscious effort of mine, that these paintings began to be seen everywhere – in newspapers, magazines, in documentaries etc. It was a tribute to all those people – the men, women and children, who lost their lives during the course of this partition. One more thing I would like to mention is that these paintings are not gruesome, they also portray hope. It was a very challenging subject, which I never actually saw with my own eyes, and it wasn’t easy.

Your architectural paintings feature many structures taken together as a group, or blending in with each other. Why did you use this technique and what does it signify?

I believe that art has to be creative – you have to do something unique, something other people haven’t done before. I essentially put these structures together to show unity. When architectural examples from different countries are put together it shows unity of building. If there can be unity of building there can be unity of people also and this is my message. For example in the painting of the tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam – it is one tomb but multiplied – I have tried to show that the voice of Sufism is spreading. I believe that paintings should touch the viewers in some way. I think my paintings speak for themselves. Everything depicts hope and unity, even the ones about war and partition. There’s one called ‘Humanity bleeds War or Terrorism’ – in everything I show some kind of hope; I don’t believe in hopelessness, because I interact with nature. Most of the time my energy comes from nature. I’m not listening to outer voices; I’m listening to my inner voice.

Tell us about the social causes you support and the awareness programmes and walks you have organised. What is the purpose of these walks?

In 1994 I walked 4700 kilometres in one year – I visited villages and towns all over Pakistan because I wanted to understand the poverty and suffering of people by seeing it with my own eyes. How can one alleviate these sufferings, I wondered? I also wanted to discipline myself by living like that. I met a lot of people and I came to understand why people are suffering. Help does not reach the poor. Hospitals and schools are made in big areas. Now for these people in the rural areas it’s not easy to travel. So they get no help. Through this walk I promoted awareness of the concepts of mobile schools, mobile hospitals. Reaching out to the people is important – you have to reach out to the sufferer, you can’t expect the sufferer to come to you. Walking is significant because even in biblical and historical times, when people wanted to spread a message, they walked. I help orphans, children in jails, widows in jails, special children of all kinds. I visited many institutions for special children – mentally and physically challenged – and I realised that just being there was not enough. I wanted to change their lives. Some people found being seen in public with special children embarrassing, even if they were their own. I wanted to do away with this ‘embarrassment.’ In 2001, I launched ‘Fun and Food for Special Children’, and took about 150 blind children out to a restaurant in a village in Pakistan, and was very encouraged when I saw their happiness and the fact that they were enjoying themselves. In seven years I have done more than 110 programmes for special children, my objective being to encourage awareness of these children. One of my walks that was very important was in 2001, when during tension at the Indo-Pak border, I carried the flags of India and Pakistan on my chest and walked from Islamabad to the Wagah border to promote peace. At that time I said, ‘Friendship will come between India and Pakistan when our hearts and minds are pure.’
Do you think art can be used as an instrument of social change?

Art can motivate people provided it is inspirational. Most of my works are inspirational. I want to inspire the younger generation to do big things, better things and encourage an overall attitude of positivity. With art you can inspire a whole nation. Till today I have never exhibited or sold at commercial galleries, I was not dependent on art critics or anybody, and yet managed to establish myself because I am dependent on nature. I am in tune with nature, that’s where my energy comes from.

What are your views on censorship in art? Do you think an artist should be restricted in any way?

I wouldn’t say there is any censorship, only fanatics – in every country. In the USA, I have seen people burning paintings. The other issue is, why should people use religion to hurt other people’s feelings? An artist is free to do whatever he wants to do, but he should be prepared for the consequences. Sometimes artists for example Salvador Dali and Picasso use drama to create a kind of sensationalism. The artist has a right to create, but he should be prepared for what comes next – the effect could be positive or negative. Many artists use sensationalism without the slightest idea of what the consequences could be – and in the end they are sad at having done it because they understand that living in their own country is more important. An artist should be sensitive to people’s emotions also. I could have also painted the partition in a controversial manner but I didn’t. It runs both ways – the people should try and understand artists as well.
What do you think of Dubai’s burgeoning art scene?

I think the rulers of this country have taken a good step by setting up museums and cultural centres. People from all over the world enjoy coming to Dubai and they tire of malls and shopping sometimes. But they should feature more artists from all over the world, instead of just focusing on local artists.
How do you plan to change people’s perceptions of your country?

I have started travelling a lot, and I do shows all over with my limited edition prints, as well as giving lectures at universities – all to change perceptions. I believe that the Western media is very unfair because they do not portray our cultural activities, poets and writers but concentrate on the negative aspects. It’s a sad thing. The knowledge Westerners have about us is very limited – in fact of any of the Asian countries. They don’t know that our cultures are old, vast, qualitative and diversified.

Tell us about your upcoming exhibition in Dubai.

In this exhibition, there are 65 prints of my original paintings, out of which around 30 are of architectural paintings. I have done architecture from India, Uzbekistan, some of the Middle Eastern countries, China. This exhibition has taken me eight years to complete. I always strive towards excellence. I still consider myself to be a student. I am a pupil of nature till today. This is my philosophy; I’m still learning. I would like to thank Byram Avari for hosting my exhibition at the Avari Hotel.