Artist with a mission
Best known for his haunting images of Partition, Pakistani painter Jimmy Engineer shares his wealth to create a more humane world.
Very few artists have succeeded in capturing the shattering experience of one of the largest and most violent migrations in history, when partition engineered by British colonial powers brought Pakistan and India into being six decades ago.
Viewing Pakistani painter Jimmy Engineer’s exhibition recently in Bangkok, one could feel the pain and agony experienced by the 20 million who migrated in 1947, with nearly a million killed in an orgy of sectarian brutality.
Among his most memorable images is “The Last Burning Train of 1947”, based on the incident in which a train laden with murdered migrants was set afire and allowed to continue to its destination.
The works inspired by Partition secured Mr Engineer’s reputation as an artist, and he has gone on to express himself on many other subjects while also pursuing philanthropy. His exhibition in Bangkok was part of a global tour that also includes showings in Singapore and Canada.
A humble and unassuming man dressed in a traditional kurta, Jimmy Engineer does not look an art titan whose works can fetch up to 80 million baht.
“The most expensive painting that I’ve sold was 1.6 million pounds, which people at the Versace project (in Dubai) took up,” the 59-year-old artist tells me over coffee at a local Starbucks.
The payment in Dubai was in the form of cash and property, and he says that most of his other paintings go for around $150,000 and can fetch up to $800,000.
Mr Engineer is quick to point out that few of the funds go to him, as he makes it a point to donate a large portion of the revenues he makes from the sale of his paintings to charities around the world. Among the beneficiaries was the charity of Mother Teresa, who asked to meet the artist after learning of his generosity.
“Seventy percent of whatever I have earned in the more than 40 years in this profession, I have donated to various causes,” he says, adding that even today he lives in rented accommodation.
His own philanthropic interests focus on helping the less fortunate in Pakistan, especially children with special needs. He has staged countless walkathons and other charitable events to raise awareness and funds for children’s charities.
Although his paintings are now part of the ultra-luxurious Palazzo Versace in Dubai, where he was commissioned to create abstract works, his own life is far more modest.
“I live a very frugal life but I have sold paintings worth millions of pounds and all my
[unsold] paintings are in my studio and my studio has high security,” he says, describing a three-layered door system with two steel doors and a wooden one.
“If someone is looking to steal, I say there is not just one metal door but one inside as well,” he says with a hearty laugh.
His paintings, which hang in museums, private homes and collections, deal with varying subjects, from Partition to abstract works to a series that celebrates the diversity of architecture from across the world.
Born into a humble family that he describes as middle class, Mr Engineer dropped out of school in his last year at university, hoping that fate would point him toward his destiny.
A lineal descendant of the Zoroastrian community, whose surnames usually indicate what profession the head of the family follows, Mr Engineer said his community was one of the least affected from the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.
Born in Balochistan seven years after Partition, he began painting at a very young age, demonstrating a passion that was nurtured by a neighbour, a scriptwriter and movie director. He gave the young painter one of three garages to use as a studio and store his works.
His early works, large and highly detailed canvases, quickly attracted notice.
“I got an early break in my career because I used to paint huge paintings and the media took notice and people started to fancy my paintings,” he recalls, adding that many writers were following his work and the media exposure was valuable. “They followed me and trusted my ability.”
A lot of people were also jealous of his success, he admits, but any publicity is good in his view. “Even bad publicity is good for me as it helps me get noticed, so I take things positively.”
His first really big break came with the Partition series, which he says was inspired by dreams he had in the 1970s.
“I was very disturbed and in 1974-75 I would see these bullock carts, and it was strange that I was not even born during Partition, but I had to get this out of my system and therefore started drawing it,” he explains.
The result was a series of big canvases, most measuring around five by 7.5 feet or larger. There came a time in the 1980s, however, when he left a painting called “The Burning Train” incomplete as he says the “inspiration” that was driving him had somehow vanished and the dreams had stopped.
He went on to create another “burning train” painting but the first one was left incomplete with lots of red colour, reflecting the shocking incident on which it was based.
“These works, I think, were for the people who created the country on both sides, but they never saw the creation of the new country. I was paying tribute to these people who were martyred.”
More than six decades after Partition, he says, these paintings generate strong emotions among the families who remember those who suffered during the migration.
And while Mr Engineer’s own family has settled in Houston, Texas, he remains a committed Pakistani citizen and makes a point of signing himself “servant of Pakistan” on documents.
The Wednesday child of the family says his family is well settled in Texas with his brother prospering in business while his sister is a paralegal officer.
“My younger brother is a businessman in the US and he has a Lamborghini and I’m happy for him, but I don’t want all that,” he says.
For his part, Mr Engineer says he will let down his country despite the negative perception that some people have about it.
“I do agree with you that people have a very negative view of Pakistan, but I say positive things about my country no matter what the issue is about,” he stresses.
In more recent years he has been reflecting on the broader human community, using his “architectural series” of paintings to deliver his message. The works mix various architectural styles from around the world in to the point where the images appear seamless.
The series was first planned in 2000, and the artist completed a total of 54 preliminary sketches over a period of three years.
“I studied the various architectures of countries from India, Pakistan, Yemen, Mexico, Turkey, Egypt and others,” he explains. “I studied the buildings and made sketches, and in the three years it took me to draw those canvases they came to be called ‘Harmony of Peace’, because I believed that if buildings can be composed perfectly and can be at peace, then the people also can be at peace.”
It took him 13 years to transform these sketches into paintings, which people from all over the world have gone to Pakistan to view. The images are so true to life that some viewers believe the works are photographic collages and not painted works.
Prints of some of the works in the architectural series were included in the exhibition in Bangkok. They show the type of painstaking attention to detail that many people these days believe is not possible without the help of computers.
Over his long career Mr Engineer has produced an estimated 3,000 paintings, but he believes the best is yet to come.
“I still feel that I still have to create work of my life in the future, learning from the various travels that I am doing these days,” he says.
“Now that I have done so many other works on architecture, there is one that needs to be done for this region, be it Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia or other countries in this part of the world.”