Openly defying capitalism, he was imprisoned three times for his beliefs and as a member of the Pakistani Communist party. Imam was released from prison in 1952 and moved to Lahore, where he was under almost constant police surveillance, which pushed him to move to London for almost eleven years. His time in prison, along with his socialist tendencies allowed him to continue to create a dialogue between what was occurring politically in Pakistan and his idealised vision of what could be.
“Ali Imam spent his days and nights with the workers, sharing their hardships and understanding how history and economics are linked together and how politics and culture should represent the interest of suffering humanity. The so-called Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case dealt a fatal blow to the progressive, revolutionary movement in Pakistan. Ali Imam turned to his first love i.e. art, but with a difference. He drew his inspiration from downtrodden humanity” (Prof. K. Masud, ‘Ali Imam – My Student Who Became My Teacher’, Pakistanartreview.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Aug. 2016).
Imam’s strong political view is perfectly encapsulated in this striking work, which was created during his time in London, where it has remained since. This work is a perfect example of the Rouault tradition with the strong use of colour and outline. The layers of oil are thickly applied, with deep colours, hearkening to a stained-glass window. The juxtaposition of the prodigious manner in which he presents his figures is at odds with the seemingly menial task of ploughing the field. Imam here is elevating the plight of the working class, whom he believed truly represented a culture and people.
Following this stint, Imam moved back to Pakistan and founded the Indus Gallery in Karachi in 1971. It remains, to date, one of the longest running galleries in Pakistan. Taking the name from the river that supported one of the oldest settlements in South Asia – Imam set up the Indus Gallery to play a pivotal role in purchasing and supporting Pakistani art and artists. “I decided to come back to Pakistan and be helpful to those who are more gifted and more talented than me, and to create a climate of work where I could be a sort of guidance and help…” (S. Ali Imam quoted in M. Husain, Ali Imam: Man of the Arts, Foundation for Museum of Modern Art, Karachi, 2003, p. 59).
Imam’s wife, Shahnaz recalls that “[h]e had a sense of mission about the gallery, and took great pains to transform it into a rendezvous, a meeting point, where painters, sculptors, craftsmen, critics, teachers, students, antique enthusiasts and collectors — both initiated and uninitiated — came together to share their thoughts, feelings and emotions about the arts, literature and, life in general. The Indus thus became a hub of cultural activity, an oasis amid the vast desert of cultural apathy. It sustained us — and like-minded friends — through the most tormenting of times Karachi has ever known. The gallery today is a living testimony to the lifetime of courageous contribution Imam Sahib has made to the promotion of art in this country…. Indus has always been proud of the company it has kept and nurtured over the years, and as names of most of the participants to this exhibit suggest — Sadequain, Gulgee, Tassadaq Sohail, Zahoorul Akhlaque, Mansure Aye, Ajmal Husain, Nahid Raza, and many others …” (S. Imam, 'A Tribute to Imam Saheb', Pakistanartreview.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 31 Aug. 2016).
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