Parallel worlds

November 06, 2022

The most significant ingredient of artists Mohammad Ali Talpur and Hamra Abbas’s aesthetics is a blend and balance between precision and fluidity

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riting on stylisation of Egyptian figurative art, EH Gombrich, the British art historian, points out a simple fact: “Before the advent of colour photography, black and white pictures were considered real representations of human beings – despite the fact that no living person is monochromatic.” But when it comes to visual arts, we hardly discriminate between grey or technicolour imagery. We seek something else. A visual is appreciated for its composition, idea, meaning, originality and context. (The reason could be that a substantial number of artists, gallerists, critics, curators and collectors have grown up studying art history with black and white examples of art objects).

Hence, one forgets the disparity of colour when it comes to works of Mohammad Ali Talpur and Hamra Abbas (one monochromatic, the second multi-coloured); mainly because of other common elements in their practices and pasts. The two artists studied at the National College of Arts (NCA), before becoming the institution’s first graduates of MA (Honours) Visual Arts in 2001. Both employ a language of abstraction in their works, still their aesthetics framework is rooted in the pictorial tradition of the society. The two contemporaries, usually do not create their final pieces using their own hands, but have a team of assistants/workers for fabricating their imagery.

Last, but not the least, both these artists are endowed with a remarkable facility when it comes to rendering nature, objects, figures, spaces. Their drawings, watercolours and paintings have been immaculate – regardless of the transition from young students at the NCA to international stars from Pakistan. All these aspects contribute in making their works ‘so different, so appealing’.

Perhaps the most significant ingredient of their aesthetics is a blend and balance between precision and fluidity. Hamra Abbas in her two mosaic pieces, reproducesa view of Karakoram range in lapis lazuli, and thewaterfall motif from 10 historic/Mughal minarets of Lahore (the artist has documented more than 100 such structures) in stones of multiple shades. Mountains andwater, usually have irregular, organic, and rough outlines and shapes, but Abbas translates them in hard stone. Material not bendable like brush laden with paint, or flexible like the tip of a pencil. Looking at her Untitled (Mountain Series) closely, one is tempted to read it as a surface of abstract expressionism. Forms of blue, and greyssomehow remindone of the spontaneous touch of Robert Motherwell, except that instead of the American painter’s floating oil colours, Abbas’s mosaic is executed in carefully cut sections of lapis.

Her Various Waterfalls – a total of 10 pieces – is a way of negotiating with order out of organic forms. Varying inscale, motifs, hues, strands, this body of work refers to the Garden of Eden, especially its waterfalls and four rivers. Infinite patterns (made possible with all kinds of stones she has incorporated in her work) are a metaphor for infinite paradise. Interestingly, her mountains – those eternally solid stones are converted into liquidity of strokes, whereas an easily convertible substance like water is transcribed into precise, calculated and carefully composed units of intricate inlays of incalculable zigzags.

The tendency of convertinga natural phenomenon into a geometric format, witnessed in the magnificent sculptures of Hamra Abbas is evident in the brilliant art of Mohammad Ali Talpuras well. Talpur, while living at Waris Road, Lahore, sin the beginning of this century, used to gaze atbirds encircling in the sky, and transcribed their tracks in single lines. These sensitive mappings – abstract in appearance but ‘realistic’ in origin, evolved into interwoven forms of repeated marks, later to become a hard-edged web oflines (or Leeka as the artist prefers to title them).

Talpur, for his recent two-person show (with Hamra Abbas), hascreated large canvases and works on paper, consisting of precise, mathematical and mechanical marks, a lingering memory of his earlier abstract works. Impressive array of control and fluidity were observed in his past paintings/drawings, because track of a bird (which could be outlines of sea waves, or contours of a territory) was repeated ad infinitum on papers and canvases. Talpur’s latest works also indicate the mastery inmanoeuvring of marks, and complexity of lines, which eventually lead to intimate optical interactions. What we see on the surface are horizontal and vertical lines of identical intensity, width, shape, tone, but the way these are distributed on canvas (or paper) they start revealing their true character. Liberated from their strict order and odour, these lines leap, retreatand converge to suggest a movement that is merely an illusion, a perception, a response. Since all lines, clearly conceived and methodically placed, are static.

The distance between illusion of movement and the reality of stillness, perhaps is the bond that unites the two contemporaries, Abbas and Talpur. Both choose precise methods to denote freedom. This transgression between calculation and looseness is best seen in Talpur’s large canvases, where amid seemingly repeated and resembling marks, there lurks a latent form, a tunnel of dark tint, pulsating cylinders of two shapes, receding corners, contracting space, flattened perspective, all communicated through identical,scaffolding like layouts of lines.

Works of Talpur and Abbas, important for various other reasons (worth and value in the world art galleries) are crucial to comprehend the essence of a culture they belong to. If one is familiar with norms of this society, one is aware that in every bureaucratic meeting, academic discussion, business transection, you begin with formal proceedings, to end up in relaxed, casually dealt and unplanned conclusions. We mould rigorous rules, bend restrictions, subvert instructions, to generate a joyousside too.

If on the one hand the art of the two artists relates remotely to this social tendency, at the same instance,it becomes an intelligent essay on choices and limitations. Confirming that freedom is about (and not without) boundaries; alsoto reject, redefine and reverse them. Both artists have opted for an arduous, painstaking and measured path, only to demonstrate how ‘method’ could produce poetry. (Poetrynot only invokes feelings, emotions and sensations but also consists of a systemthat rests uponmeter, rhythms, repetitions).

Repetition is a way of describing the continuity of Hamra Abbas and Mohammad Ali Talpur, particularly in connection to their recurring imagery. Not only them, but many pause at a crossroads:either to adopt the approach of a nihilistartist who demolishes the past and ignores the present or someone who respects thepast and shapes thecontemporary out of it. In that sense, the imagery, concerns and constructs of Hamra Abbas and Mohammad Ali Talpur recall their previous excursions, unless a viewer fails to notice subtle and significant changes these artists haveintroduced in their works.

A number of creative individuals, including Pablo Picasso, have produced series of similar looking works during their artistic careers. But viewed today, their oeuvres include only selected samples from separate stages/phases. If one goes through the catalogueraisonne of these practitioners, one finds identical works attempted again and again. It’s only their careful representation/selection that transmits the notion of perpetual inventiveness of these makers.

This, in recent years, has resulted in the demand for being new, different and innovative; contemporary artists regularly face from the audience – and mostly from the market.

To resist this temptation is, to recognise and realise that artis not being new, but profound. Profound is the word one associates with the works of Hamra Abbas and Mohammad Ali Talpur, from their current exhibition (November1-10) at Canvas Gallery, Karachi.


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.



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