Art Dubai Modern

17 Mar – 22 Mar 2014

Anwar Jalal Shemza: Square Compositions

Amna Malik, Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, January 2014

Mysticism and modernism seem to go hand in hand, but when we think of ecstasy, when we consider the frenzy of the body moving to music, whether the guttural voice of Qawalli devotional music, the deep drums of contemporary House or the improvised insistent beats of Jazz, we rarely consider their visual parallels to be carefully controlled circles and squares. Yet, in Anwar Shemza’s series of Square Compositions (1963), this is precisely what comes through.

Critics of Shemza’s work have noted the rhythmic undulations of line in many examples of his lithographs, paintings and drawings. Born in 1928 in Simla, Kashmir, Shemza trained as an artist in 1947 at the Mayo School of Arts after successfully establishing himself as a writer within the pre-Partition literary and artistic circles of Lahore. Working within the Punjab School created by Abdur Rahman Chughtai, he made a name for himself painting lyrical images with a variety of themes drawn from Hindu and Mughal sources, much as Abanindranath Tagore, the pioneer of West Bengal modernism, had done from 1905 onwards. In 1956, Shemza enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and embarked on a journey that radically altered his practice, from the fine, linear, figurative images of his established work to a deep-seated engagement with the Islamic roots of western modernism.

Exhibiting his work widely from the mid-1950s in London, Lahore and internationally, Shemza’s paintings drew on calligraphy and architecture in Islamic art as the basis of his inspiration while looking closely and extensively at the modernist abstraction of Mondrian, Klee and Kandinsky. No doubt these artists are quite different from each other, yet they all attribute their development of abstraction in part to the two dimensionality and flat surfaces of Islamic geometric design, showcased in a major exhibition on Islamic art in Munich in 1911. Furthermore, as part of the development of abstraction, these artists drew heavily on the mystical traditions embedded in Madame Blavatsky’s writings on theosophy. The link between creativity and mysticism is not new to Sufism, which expresses love of the divine through poetry that is also sung and set to music. What is emerging, gradually, are its connections with modernism...

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