Can there be some other elements common in Mohammad Ali Talpur and Ghulam Muhammad (GM) besides the presence of script in their work?
Both Talpur and GM are having their two-person exhibition ‘2×2’ from Feb 23-March 10, 2018 at Rohtas 2, in collaboration with the Lahore Literary Festival. The two artists came to Lahore from Sindh and Balochistan to study art and then stayed back. They are teaching at different art institutes in Lahore. Both have earned success, recognition and respect as artists. Talpur has shown at important venues including his recent solo show at Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London and GM has become the first Pakistani artist to have won the prestigious Jameel Art Prize.
The two artists are using calligraphy but they are not the only ones; calligraphy has been a popular pursuit amongst several artists in our surroundings. Traditionally, in Muslim societies, elegant writing was considered perhaps the most sublime activity, producing exquisite examples of pictorial objects. However, it was not ‘art’ in the sense we employ today to describe works which may have a utilitarian aspect but are primarily appreciated for their aesthetic qualities.
In the traditional practice of calligraphy, function blended with form because a manuscript was prepared for conveying someone’s text: word of God, a piece of poetry, fragment of a story, a proverb etc. This ‘message’ had to be communicated in a clear, coherent and comprehensive manner. Thus, there was no abstract or stylised calligraphy. The nearest one could find was the Khat-e-Shakista in which words were inscribed as if scrawled; yet the script was legible.
Not only in calligraphy but also in Islamic art, every form of expression contained meaning. Patterns in carpet, motifs on pottery, geometry in architecture, all were some sort of codes that referred to the relationship between the man’s soul and the divine. So when a devotee read sacred lines inscribed by a calligrapher, he not only knew the content of what was uttered by the creator but experienced a sense of sublime while setting his eyes on the contours of words. Those letters were executed in black or some other colour, but more than these extraneous details, it was the flow of the pen that levitated a reader from his usual settings to have a taste of transcendence — connecting with the Other.
Language, whether beautiful or coarse in its written form, serves to bring the other closer to us. When we think, we think in words and indulge in a system of sounds and formations, shared by a community that converses in the same vocabulary. In many cultures tongue is interchangeable with language, thus the organ which emits sound, and sounds which formulate a system of meaning are one and the same (like zuban in Urdu).
One feels that Mohammad Ali Talpur, even when he is writing something that is not legible, manages to convey the essence of spoken word. This is not dissimilar to our present situation. When we read the text message or email of a person we know intimately, their voice starts reverberating in our heads. The font, size and style of text disappear and the tone of the speaker overtakes.
In Talpur’s works on display, one feels the artist is not really interested in the content of his text but in how it would sound in the ears of our eyes. Flowing lines, broken shapes, abrupt patches, sparse marks, all contribute towards a page that can be visualised but not verbalised. Yet it is a language. Like a speaker who can say more with the variation of tone, pitch, and pauses than what bare words could mean, his lines drawn on paper offer multiple interpretations.
Conforming to the format of a page, the works of Mohammad Ali Talpur (all titled Alif Series) are almost transcriptions of a spoken script. Written in a speedy manner, these marks resonate the texture of language, and seeing this body of work one realises how the artist is split into two sections. One part wants to enjoy moving his hand with a loaded pen on a paper the way he fancies and ventures into new vistas while the other side of his practice is careful, calculated and controlled with hard edge lines and shapes. Still a viewer feels disoriented while looking at his tightly constructed canvases.
A similar sensation is invoked in the work of GM who uses the pages of Urdu books, cuts them and puts these stripes in the scheme of warp and weft used in weaving. Thin lines of papers with traces of printed words suggest the presence of a text, but soon it disappears through the collage of other lines. Thus what a viewer finds is a mesh of words, split, overlapped, hidden and superimposed on top of each other.
GM in his present work seems to be flirting with a new idea — by making his textile-like weave not within a confined square or a rectangle but in an open form with bands of small paper coming out into a white background. Often these deceive a viewer to be a chair or any other item for man’s physical usage that has its metaphorical implication too. But, after a long look, one becomes exhausted seeing small variations of the same format, formula and method.
The two artists share many aspects, even though one suspects they have had not more than a few formal encounters. These meetings lead to social interactions with many artists. Interestingly, the world of art if ruled by written English is populated by spoken Urdu. Artists, who feel at a loss due to domination of English, revert to their own language — Urdu or any other.
Both artists participating in ‘2×2’ have used this situation to dismantle the hegemony of language — not one language — but the language itself in comparison to and contradiction of one’s pictorial perception.
Even though the two artists have tried to move beyond the lineage of language, both seem stuck in its allurement. Even if GM is decomposing it physically or Talpur disarranging it emotionally, their works at the exhibition do not appear starkly different from the artists’ recognised and reclaimed manner of working. You can call these their techniques but these can be safety devices too.
Probably, the choice of written text is a major factor for introducing less change in their pictorial practices because no matter how much you move, you cannot go beyond the limitation of a pen, a paper or a style.