He stumbles out of bed at 1 a.m and almost sleepwalks to the studio on the rooftop. It doesn’t matter that the rest of Colombo is in deep slumber or that this is the first time he’s been able to catch some sleep in a week. Mueen Saheed’s got a paintbrush in his hand and [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A jeweller discovers the artist in him


He stumbles out of bed at 1 a.m and almost sleepwalks to the studio on the rooftop. It doesn’t matter that the rest of Colombo is in deep slumber or that this is the first time he’s been able to catch some sleep in a week. Mueen Saheed’s got a paintbrush in his hand and a canvas with endless possibilities in front of him.

His studio is bursting at the seams with the 100 paintings he will exhibit at his maiden art exhibition next week. Everywhere one looks, it is abstract-an explosion of colour and shapes and food for deep thought. Leaning into a painting for a closer look, he pulls us back. “Art is always best experienced from a distance,” he says. “Now take a look at that picture and tell me what you see?”

Mueen: Six years and a hundred paintings

What one sees is not easily put into words. “Art is when you put onto canvas what you cannot put into words,” says the artist and you cannot help but agree. What can seem like just a bunch of geometric squiggles at first glance will quickly blur and reform.

Therein lie the beauty of the art form; the infinite possibility for discovery it offers and the substantial food for thought in there. We’re looking at an untitled painting that Mueen will not sell because he’s rather attached to it himself.

Why? Because he keeps discovering things in that painting that even he was unaware of when painting it. Just a second earlier he has stumbled upon a bull’s head whilst navigating us through the complex shapes and patterns that occupy his canvas.

It’s this delightful possibility of discovery and thought that has had him bound to the canvas and brush since he began painting in 2006. A jeweller by profession, Mueen Saheed grew up in Trincomalee where the family jewellery business was based. He moved to Colombo to school at D.S. Senanayake College, aspiring to be a doctor. Ambitions were put on hold, however, when his father fell ill and he had to take over the family business.

In the early 80’s, in Europe on business, he ended spending the entire week museum-hopping in France. “I didn’t even know what I was doing,” he remembers. “I just knew that I was fascinated by all these great paintings.”Returning to Sri Lanka, he decided that the time was ripe for Sri Lanka to produce its own original designs, and embarked on a journey that would see him winning the prestigious Jewellers of America Jewel Award in 1996 and the Golden Apple Award for Innovation in the US in 2002. His brand, Billari Fine Jewellery (formerly Regent Fine Jewels) had garnered designer status in New York and other select markets and life was good.

But it was a trip to the Malaysian island of Langkawi in 2005 that changed his life. A friend introduced him to street artist Saali. “He was painting in this little shack when I came in and he told me to just pick up a brush and start painting.” Mueen had never painted before but was soon enrapt. The next evening, Mueen almost tripping over himself in his hurry to get there, was met with a closed door and an uncompromising Saali. “He said, ‘I won’t teach you. You must learn by yourself’. I was nonplussed.”

But he did as he was told. Back in Sri Lanka, he bought five large canvases, and painted as fancy took. Brush stroke upon brush stroke, layer upon layer of paint, shape upon shape-a strange brand of art emerged. Mueen took his work to an expert, with the intention of convincing the artist to mentor him. “He said the same thing,” he recalls. “He told me never to follow anyone-that I should just carry on with my work. That one day, when I have painted a hundred pictures, I will be an artist.”

That day has come. Mueen Saheed’s first hundred paintings will go on exhibition from November 2-4 at the Lionel Wendt. This is his first solo exhibition; he has exhibited and sold work in Malaysia before, but Sri Lanka is the one he is in nervous excitement about. The exhibition is titled ‘Soul Beats’. “All these paintings I have done with my soul,” he says. “The canvas keeps dragging me to it.” Abstract, for him, will always be the way of art. “It’s not easy to put into words exactly what abstract is. But you draw with your senses. Abstract is what you see, smell and taste on paper. And the beauty of it is that it speaks to us all in different languages.”

At just six years of age (in ‘Art Years’, the actual age being kept somewhat of a mystery), Mueen is the first to tell you that he is still an amateur. But make no mistake, his work is anything but amateurish. What does he hope to accomplish with his art? It’s very simple. “A smile. If I can put a smile on your face with my paintings, I’m more than happy. You smile because you see beauty, because you discover. And as humans that’s what we all aspire to, isn’t it?”

‘Soul Beats’, Mueen Saheed’s maiden art exhibition will be open from November 2-4 at the Lionel Wendt, Colombo from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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