Throughout history, artists have proven that art has the capacity to speak with complexity through the most diluted forms and imagery. Abstract representations can be applied to broader themes and become a a universal language. Yet the point of departure is often close to home, which is the case with artist Ghulam Hussain in his recent solo show at Sanat Initiative. This Hyderabad-based artist takes his inspiration from Sindhi culture embedded in its crafts, yet the resulting works are an antithesis of the vibrancy typically associated with indigenous cultures, instead holding a haunting emptiness in its endless weaved geometry.
Hussain draws inspiration from Western art of the early 20th century, particularly the style of Peit Mondrian, which uses basic colours, shapes and lines to distill reality to its bare essence. Since his childhood ,the artist found pleasure in drawing lines and shapes which he incorporates into his current practice.
This latest series also seems to channel the black and white paintings of Frank Stella. While Stella explores the canvas as a 2D surface with his flat applications and straight lines, the canvas here has been used as an object rather than a surface, with cut strips covered in graphite weaved into the raw white fabric with an uneven frenzied flair. The visual sense of the “handmade” is apparent in the imperfections. Despite the simplicity of the visual, the works have an exciting visual impact creating an air of mystery for the viewer.
Ghulam Hussain attempts to reconcile historical crafts of Sindh with Western art history to question the status of both High and Low Art
The artist is attempting to negotiate High Art and Low Art or craft-based products by presenting the weaving techniques of rilli, chatai and charpai in the minimalist abstract visuals of Western art movements. Elements of Optical Art emerge in the execution of these weaved patterns, the variances in the patterns creating illusions of movement, space and three-dimentionality reminiscent of Bridget Riley and her illusive checkered patterns as well as some of Alejandro Otero’s works. Here the patterns are less refined and meticulous, which helps to add a quiet madness to the monotony. The gradual variances in certain pieces create the sense of distortion when viewed at a distance.
This appropriation of cultural motifs not only serves to bring traditions into the modern world and raise craft-based art forms to the status of High Art, but also presents interesting questions about the nature of High Art itself. It challenges the status of minimalist abstract art forms by pointing out the similarities between them and what is considered Low Art, both in terms of technique and form. What is it then that separates the two and pitches one above the other? In its attempts to reconcile Low and High Art, the work manages to reach beyond and cast a critical and reflective eye on both.
This representation of culture is useful in understanding its nature as an ever-changing, evolving entity rather than something spontaneously conceived and frozen in time. Much like the imperfect lines weaved together to create the intricate illusions, culture also intertwines various influences into one to construct a subjective worldview. It manifests itself in diverse ways and is perceived and experienced differently by each individual.
What makes Hussain’s work unique is that he doesn’t just take inspiration from his experience of the forms of art of his birthplace but seeks to bring his cultural heritage into the present as more than just an empty symbol. Instead of stereotypical representations that use familiar images and designs as tokens, the artist extracts the essence of these crafts and painstakingly reproduces the labour that goes into it, raising its value in the process. As a result, this heritage is not confined within a static vision of what it is perceived to be, doomed to become outdated and forgotten, but is imbued into images that align with contemporary ideals, presenting it as a dynamic evolving entity.
“Mind=Blown” was displayed at the Sanat Initiative in Karachi from November 7, 2017 till November 14, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2017