Painters brush up on majesty of Pakistan’s mountains

Three artists, who'd never been to the country before, spent 10 days capturing its beautiful and brutal landscapes for Dubai exhibition

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Last year, three artists travelled across Pakistan to capture the country’s majestic landscapes.

From golden lavender sunsets and rocky banks against imposing mountains, to cerulean blue waters and enveloping, ethereal clouds, each of the artists' impressions of Pakistan’s countryside are on display at a new exhibition at Dubai's ICD Brookfield Place.

Titled The North, the exhibition, in partnership with Dastaangoi Gallery’s residency programme, aims to showcase the diversity of the country's landscapes and the varying perspectives of the three painters – Saara Knapp, Phoebe Stewart Carter and Louis Szapary.

“Whenever you think of Pakistan, you don't necessarily think of these mountains, you don't think of nature,” Amad Mian, curator of The North and Dastaangoi Gallery's co-founder, tells The National.

“We wanted to create a bridge between the West and the East, between Pakistan and other parts of the world.”

Mian also wanted the artists to capture the natural landscape as it slowly changes due to the impact of climate change. Last year's floods, which claimed the lives of more than 1,700 and affected 2.2 million more, occurred only weeks before the residency began.

Knapp, Stewart Carter and Szapary travelled across Pakistan over 10 days in September last year. Accompanied by Mian, their journey began in Batakundi, a town in the Kaghan Valley, before heading to Hunza, a mountainous valley in the northern part of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Along the way, they passed villages such as Nagar and Gulmit, and explored landmarks from Attabad Lake and Passu Glacier to Rakaposhi, a mountain of the Karakoram range.

Throughout the journey, they stopped to sketch or paint the scenes, sights and histories of a country none of them had visited before.

“As an Austrian, I have an affinity for mountains, and Pakistan has some of the most gigantic and magnificent mountains and landscapes in the world,” says Szapary, whose two paintings in the exhibition illustrate his fascination with atmosphere and light.

“I'm used to big mountains in Europe but the mountains in Pakistan that we saw are literally twice as high. And the intensity of everything was quite overwhelming.”

His paintings, Passu Glacier and Passu Cones at Sunset show a unique combination of capturing detail and the vastness of nature – a tricky combination to balance.

“I love these two things and they are the most difficult things to reconcile,” he says. “Putting a lot of detail on the mountain, but still making it feel like it's far, that's the most difficult part – and the most interesting part too.”

The artists created little sketches and quick paintings while on the road. These studies were then used to create the larger works for the exhibition.

“It becomes something that almost transcends a single moment, it becomes like a grander feeling of a place,” says Knapp.

“It's impression but impression with intention. It's not only reactive; there has to be some kind of thought behind it.”

The Finnish-American artist’s style is captivating. Her two works, Attabad Lake at the Golden Hour and A Portrait of Rakaposhi Mountain, reveal her ability to recreate a landscape and are a representation of an existing place and her impression of it.

“The water was incredibly challenging because I wasn't using a specific moment of time,” she says of Attabad Lake at the Golden Hour.

“I ended up reading a lot about the reflections of water, how light would travel through water, at what angle and different techniques in order to make it look closer to you in the foreground and farther away in the background.”

Stewart Carter also painted a piece titled Attabad Lake, though from a different perspective.

Nestled in the distance between the mountains, golden light spilling in the background, the lake has a ghostly glow, acting as a focal point for the eye of the viewer to settle on.

The lake was a touch point for both artists due its recent history.

Attabad Lake was formed in 2010 as a result of a landslide, which destroyed several villages and displaced thousands. Today, it attracts many tourists from across the country and region, but for Stewart Carter, its unsettling history was a reminder of the contrasts that lie behind Pakistan’s countryside.

“It was a beautiful trip, but there was always that feeling in the background that a lot of these places are disappearing,” she says.

“Attabad Lake is this most amazing lake with this incredible blue. I've never seen anything like it. You have this weird juxtaposition of beauty, and then a little bit of horror.”

Stewart Carter’s other work, Path to Passu Glacier, reveals her keen eye and interest in the varied types of landscapes that exist in the region.

“It was incredible when you see these varied landscapes, completely hidden from what I knew," she says. "A lot of people in the West do not know how beautiful it is there."

The North is running at ICD Brookfield Place, Dubai, until September 23

Updated: September 03, 2023, 3:01 AM