October 20, 2019



Misunderstanding, misreading or missing the point is a failure to understand. It exists but is not apparent in a describable and physical form. Artist Muzzumil Ruheel’s recent show at Canvas Gallery, titled Misunderstandings, centred on several free-standing and wall-mounted installations that gave tangible shape to this incapacity. Abstract in appearance, the sculptures are a broad take on miscommunication at various levels.

As a trained khattatt, Ruheel’s calligraphy-based art practice is representative of contemporary trends in postmodern graphic design, where the text is entirely liberated from the constraints of typographic conventions. The text becomes the image, a visual element to be seen and understood intuitively, rather than read and understood intellectually.

Early in his exploration of this technique, he focused more on the cursive style, creating writing-filled compositions. As he became freer and more experimental, he allowed the calligraphic impulse to manifest in a more abstract nature. In this show, the symbolic nature of his marks allows for the reduction of the text to few fonts, lines or even just strokes.

Muzzumil Ruheel’s calligraphic sculptures underscore how misunderstanding creates distance between people

Crafted from water-resistant medium-density fibreboard and oil paint, his wall and floor pieces are apparently entirely abstract. But a closer look reveals how the simplified forms connect to the calligraphic structure from which they emanate.

Misunderstanding creates distance between people. As an artist, Ruheel illustrates this uncomfortable space in several forms. The installation ‘From One End To The Other’, referencing the nuqta mark used in the Arabic script, consists of two black dots. The larger dot hovers at a distance above the smaller character, producing a questionable interspace. Likewise, in the floor piece ‘Floating Away’, alphabets are rent asunder in bits and pieces, creating a complete lack of harmony. Dismembered and scattered fonts in ‘The Gap In-between’ also illustrate detachment created by broken relationships.

Two parallel lines in ‘It’s Beyond You’ are yet another symbolic portrayal of being together yet apart. In the wall-mounted piece titled ‘Misunderstanding’ the word ‘takseem’ is erased from the middle to create two halves standing apart from each other. It reads as a witty articulation of division and separation. Scrawls, clipped strokes, coiled loops and inchoate words are other methods Ruheel employs to define errors and lapses in communication.

The use of calligraphy as a graphic element within an artwork — typically an abstract work — aligns Ruheel with the Hurufiyya Movement that emerged in the late 20th century among Arab and North African artists, who used their understanding of traditional Islamic calligraphy within the precepts of modern art.

Art historian Christiane Treichl, explaining how calligraphy is used in contemporary art, writes, “They [Arab and North African artists] deconstruct writing, exploit the letter and turn it into an indexical sign of calligraphy, tradition and cultural heritage. As the sign is purely aesthetic, and only linguistic in its cultural association, it opens hitherto untravelled avenues for interpretation, and attracts different audiences, yet still maintains a link to the respective artist’s own culture ... Hurufiyya artists do away with the signifying function of language. The characters become pure signs, and temporarily emptied of their referential meaning, they become available for new meanings.”

Floating Away
Floating Away

For the last two decades, we are witnessing the continual evolution of the Mughal miniature as a contemporary idiom, but calligraphy, it seems, is still waiting in the wings. Artists such as Ruheel have shown us that the potential to reinvent this classical art form is immense.

“Misunderstandings” was displayed at Canvas Gallery in Karachi from September 17 to October 3, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 20th, 2019