He Was Like Time (2017)
He Was Like Time (2017)

Muzzumil Ruheel is a visual artist who thinks like a social scientist. Exploring the impact of historical, geographical, sociopolitical, religious and cultural inconsistencies on people and the society in which they live, he constructs fictional narratives that point to disparities, prejudices and discrimination. Recently, Karachi’s Canvas Gallery exhibited his new work, In Between The Lines, at Art Dubai — the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region’s most prominent art fair. The exhibited works, a complex mix of Western abstraction and traditional calligraphy, need to be examined not just for their aesthetic technicalities but also for the social and cultural contexts surrounding them in order to extract their full meaning.

Ruheel was trained in the traditional art of Urdu and Arabic calligraphy much prior to his visual arts degree from Beaconhouse National University in 2009. This familiarity with the Western and Eastern canons enables him to straddle and engage with both worlds and create a new synthesis. Taking inspiration from the traditional exercise of mashq or repetitiveness — undertaken to perfect a skill — his incessant writing is composed to build visual mass rather than write legible text. Having released the script from its religious and conventional strictures, he experiments with it as a pictorial and pattern element. From afar his paintings of fragmented forms mimic the hard-edged severity of Western geometric abstraction, but up-close the geometric forms are composed of a micro mesh of calligraphed text. This ability to weave text as image, using his own lettering, helps Ruheel to address the traditional and the modern in form and concept.

Potent with meaning the title In Between the Lines is in itself an invitation to explore and conjecture on the unsaid, the unwritten and the implied. He uses In Between the Lines both as surface imagery and concept. Theoretically, the artist’s major concerns are with historical omissions, distortions and misrepresentations in recorded accounts of colonial, pre- and post-Partition history. He questions the status quo in the subcontinent and terms his works as “historical revisionism.”

Muzzumil Ruheel’s calligraphy-inspired art points to the reawakening of another indigenous art — the Arabic script

Proffering imaginary alternative accounts, he maps time from his perspective. Physically, it is the gaps in between the sharp-edged divisive triangular forms and cracked surfaces, (‘He was like Time’ and ‘Making Sense’, cases in point) that illustrate the questionable silences and pauses the artist speaks of. His unspoken stories are located within these breaches and fissures that sever the whole. The manual articulation of pauses is easily understood, but the tales and thoughts embedded in the show are subject to the onlookers’ imagination.

The subtle power of uncomfortable silences is also well-illustrated through the subliminal fade and focus of lines and the weave and shadow-creating swells of surfaces in works such as ‘We Will Meet Again’, ‘Silent Noise’, ‘The Lost Secret’ and ‘Implicit Conversations’, etc.

The artist critiques history for its inaccuracy yet offers art that too is not explicit and has to be read between the lines. This does not right the wrong he is pointing to, but it does nudge the viewer towards a thought process of re-evaluation of the subject he espouses. The force of art lies in its ability to create space beyond taken-for-granted structures. At stake are productive notions of how thought can move through conversation and how the new conversation can move the original thought.

This exhibition will resonate well in the MENASA region where calligraphy is already an established contemporary art discipline. But in the domestic art milieu dominated by the miniature revolution, a calligraphy-infused art such as Ruheel’s, points to the reawakening of yet another indigenous art, the Arabic script.

“In Between The Lines” was exhibited at Art Dubai Contemporary from March 20 to March 24, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 22nd, 2018