IN the ’60s, modernist art by non-Western artists was considered as coming from the margins. Even if the artists were residing, practicing and exhibiting in leading art centres like London, their art was not thought worthy of consideration within the modernist canon. Amongst artists of Pakistani origin an immediate example of this discrimination is the case of an almost forgotten modernist, Anwar Jalal Shemza. His contemporaries in the UK then, Avinash Chandra, Iqbal Geoffery, Ahmed Parvez and Francis Newton Souza were other significant South Asian modernists who were also marginalised.
Shemza is little known to later generation artists and enthusiasts in Pakistan as he returned to Britain in 1961 and worked and painted there till his death in 1985. Today, as old colonial attitudes that dominated the London art scene are being challenged, art history is being reconsidered. Efforts to revisit Shemza’s oeuvre for fresh historical, intellectual and artistic inquiry initiated some years ago are now bearing fruit. In 2012 his paintings went on display as part of the permanent collection at Tate Britain.
In Oct 2015 Tate Britain opened its new season of BP Spotlights, a series of regularly changing free displays, which include a selection of works by Shemza. Accompanying this exhibition is the publication Anwar Jalal Shemza, edited by the artist and art history professor at Cornell University, Ifthikhar Dadi. Carrying researched pieces by Dadi; London-based artist Shezad Dawood; Rachel Garfield, associate professor of art at the University of Reading; Courtney J. Martin, assistant professor of history of art and architecture at Brown University; and Hammad Nasar, head of research and programmes at Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive, this monograph centres on resurrecting Shemza by repositioning him in the modernist canon and bringing him into dialogue with contemporary artists.
Based on the study of Shemza’s writings and a significant part of his art, Dadi’s essay traces his career developments with reference to calligraphic abstraction. By situating him in the two worlds he inhabited: Lahore where he grew up and originally belonged to, and London (later Stafford) his adopted home from the ’60s till his death in 1985, Dadi taps into the sensibility that fired his creativity.
Born in Simla, India, in 1928 to a Kashmiri-Punjabi family who owned a carpet and military embroidery business in Ludhiana, Shemza attended high school in Lahore. After a year at university read-ing Persian, Arabic and philosophy he switched to the Mayo School of Arts upon realising his true vocation. His art during 1944-47 was influenced by the late Bengal School style prevalent then.
After graduating in 1947, Shemza set up a commercial design studio and taught at various schools and colleges in Lahore till he left for further studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 1956. It is common knowledge that Shemza, who became the founding member of the Lahore Art Circle in 1952, along with like-minded contemporaries, inclined towards modernism and abstraction. Lesser known is his intimate association with the Urdu literary intelligentsia. From the late ’40s until the mid-50s he published several novels in Urdu, edited the journal Ehsas for three years, wrote and performed a number of Urdu plays, and contributed poetry to several publications.
“I remember leaving the room a few minutes before the lecture ﬁnished, and sitting on a bench outside. As the students came out, I looked at all their faces; they seemed so contented and self-satisﬁed. ... All day restlessness sent me from place to place, until I found myself in the Egyptian Section at the British Museum. For the ﬁrst time in England, I felt really at home. No longer was the answer simply to begin again; the search was for my own identity. ‘Who was I?’ The simple answer was: ‘A Pakistani’” — Excerpt from the book, Shemza’s letter in the essay ‘Calligraphic Abstraction’
On arrival in London, Shemza, a buoyant “post-colonial intellectual” and celebrated artist with several successful solos to his credit, was soon hit by the shock of the new. Other than cultural alien-ation it was Slade professor and prominent art historian Ernst Gombrich’s opinions regarding the art of the non-West, especially his lecture classifying Islamic art — an art which was labelled as “func-tional” (see Gombrich’s The Story of Art) — that totally devastated the young artist.
He also failed his drawing test and all his paintings submitted to the Young Contemporaries exhibition were rejected. Other subsequent developments during the Slade School years: his marriage to Mary Taylor, journeying home after graduation to teach and share his knowledge, disillusionment with the poor career choices available in Pakistan and consequent permanent return to England in 1961, were also instrumental in nudging him towards that quiet space where his creative ingenuity eventually flowered.
Living in relative anonymity away from the pressures of a discriminating art environment, Shemza settled in Stafford, worked as an art school teacher and devoted his remaining hours to distilling his inner musings into highly inventive calligraphic articulations. He said, “Calligraphy gives me more satisfaction than painting. Architectural form has more beauty than the human body [but] I am still in search of reality (visual truth)”. Nasar’s perceptive piece, ‘Meem is for Mashq’, examines Shemza’s interest in “Islamicate thought and patterns”, his “quest to break down representations of the word, the world (architectural reality as Shemza puts it)”, his preoccupation with rhythmic linear arrangements and repetitive or sequentially developed shapes through the principles of adaab al-mashq (manners of practice) penned by the Persian calligrapher Baba Shah Isfahani. The stages mashq-i-nazari (visual practice), mashq-i-qalami (pen practice) and mashq-i-khayali (imaginative practice) used to evaluate traditional calligraphy competence are applied to Shemza’s modernist practice to enable an understanding of the artist’s Eastern thought and Western application.
Nasar feels that “by thinking through and closely looking at Shemza’s sketch books, one can read his ‘obsession’ with the ‘act of drawing’ as mashq. It is this practice — one that cuts across figura-tion and abstraction and foregrounds its own making through the artist’s labour — that lies at the heart of Shemza’s artistic project.” Other than the Arabic letter meem and the ornamental, illegible cursive script reference in the highly imaginative ‘Roots’ series Shemza manipulated the B and D alphabets of the Roman script into a complex geometric vocabulary of circles and semi-circles but also confessed, “one circle, one square, one problem, one life is not enough to solve it”.
Examining Shemza’s practice through the lens of landscape painting, Garfield’s essay, ‘Navigating the British Landscape’, brings the artist in conversation with Western art. Pushing beyond the traditional concept of the genre, she plays on his notions of place as manifest in his art. He repeatedly referenced the walls and gates of Lahore, and merged calligraphy and features of Islamic architecture with Western abstraction in his paintings. Technically, Garfield points out, “Shemza’s love of abstract form can be seen through a lifelong preoccupation with the horizontal line, whatever he was depicting — whether the later ‘Roots’ or the ‘Fingerprints’ series. The horizontal line is a depiction of the landscape in its simplest form. In Shemza’s work it is everywhere.”
This fascination and facility with the line gains further definition in Martin’s piece, ‘Anwar Jalal Shemza’s Art World in London 1956-60’. Dwelling on Slade as an institution and the likely trends that may have influenced him, she points out that drawing was the foundation of the school’s main courses: painting and sculpture. Shemza failed his initial drawing test but Martin writes that his later drawings proved that he lacked neither skill nor dexterity, and the Slade tenure further refined his drawing skills and intricacies in line and compositional form.
Shemza as a diaspora model elicits a penetrating probe from Dawood in his piece, ‘Let’s Murder the Moonlight’. Opting for a holistic study of Shemza he addresses the “fault line of belonging and not — belonging” by placing the artist in the centre of his life and then attempting to connect the various dots of his existence to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding his work. Shemza’s ability “to transform trauma into creative potency” is one insight, and there are more — every rereading of the essay reveals something new.
Calligraphic art in Pakistan is caught in a time warp — unlike the multivalent contemporary miniature that was mined from the classical Mughal discipline, experiment and modernisation in calligraphy is still largely confined to glorifying the script as sacred text. There is ample room for invention within the rhythms and shapes of individual alphabets as well as other aspects of calligraphy but we see that mutation and metamorphosis is still a hallmark of the contemporary miniature.
For calligraphic art in Pakistan, this publication can prove to be a splash in still waters. Shemza’s unique fusion of post-war geometric abstraction with Arabic calligraphic forms is a case study that needs to be scrutinised not just for the inherent inventiveness within it, but also for the artist’s fidelity to the muse, the nature of his engagement with calligraphy abstraction and above all the possibilities it offers to new generation artists.
Dadi’s essay quotes a moving letter written by Shemza to his Lahore-based friend and author Karam Nawaz in Sept 1960 when Shemza embarked on his journey home. “Whatever I have obtained in this country [England], it was solely for the sake of students in my country. I have tirelessly struggled to master the intricacies of artistic technique — this research was for the people of my nation who are anxious to benefit from Western experiments. But will I be able to convey this trust to them, I wonder? This is an aching question for which I see no clear answer.”
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and critic.
Anwar Jalal Shemza
Edited by Ifthikhar Dadi