The order of things

May 10, 2020

Geometry is not just about reducing nature into shapes, it also translates the essence of tangible into the domain of the abstract


lphabets, numerals and geometry, the intangible inventions of mankind, are a means to dominate the world.

Language is considered sacred, mainly because it’s a medium through which divinity addresses mortals, but also because it’s a tool that humans use to subjugate everything else.

Once you name an animal, mountain, sea, territory, tree, fruit and celestial body, you have control over them. You can summon them whenever you like. You just have to utter the name, and their presence is felt/experienced by all those sharing that name.

As for numbers, once you have counted and classified objects, you are the master. Things, species, ideas, all are domesticated by calculating them.

Time is a prime example. The moment, mankind divided the flow of time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, centuries, millenniums, time was tamed.

Geometry is another such device. When we open our eyes, we see the richness of creation.

If one starts documenting the colour or pattern on a single small reptile from Amazon, it would demand a substantial amount of time and text.

Surrounded by an enormous, insurmountable encyclopaedia manifested in physical forms — animals, plants, rocks, and other elements — mankind started to edit nature.

Geometry is not about reducing nature into shapes. But like language and numerals converts everything into ‘words’ and categories, geometry translates the essence of tangible into the domain of abstract.

Shapes such as the cube, triangle, circle, hexagon, tetragon, etc refer to actual entities in nature but are not ‘strictly’ found in nature. These are purely a human contribution.

From Aztec basketry to Balochi rugs, from Celtic carvings to Medieval manuscripts, prehistoric pottery to patterns of Tantric painting, each geometrical format was not merely a combination of lines and colours, but a signifier — an elevated mode of indicating both the high and the mundane.

In the Muslim Middle East, Spain, North Africa, Near East and South Asia, the art of geometry became a supreme mode of expression — sublime, and extending the limits of representational art. In the words of Professor Keith Critchlow, “…it is important to grasp that geometry is not simply a practical art of making things: it also has a deeper, more profound meaning — practically, philosophically and, most importantly, cosmologically”.

Thus, we encounter great works of art, of minimal yet complex aesthetics. Stone inlay on mosques and mausoleums, borders of the Holy Quran, sections of miniature painting, decoration on utensils suggest how the world is seen and then translated/edited into primordial shapes, which allude to divinity.

In the history of modern art, too, a number of artists have forsaken ephemeral appearances for permanent reality — the geometry.

Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, along with many others, are painters who explored the possibilities of geometry, and through different routes arrived at a language that is stripped — of decorativeness and representation.

So when a viewer is in front of a Mondrian, he is not thinking about the world around him (world does not have black squares, yellow stripes and red rectangles), but something beyond his meagre existence.

An experience almost similar to a devotee going to an early Christian cathedral, looking at the painting of Jesus Christ, and not seeing a man but feeling/contemplating the presence of God.

With its theological and cultural bounds, Islamic geometry has manifested in many forms and functions. From the high art of shrines to popular glass works for shops.

Artists from Muslim background have been aware of its spiritual significance and cultural legacy, but geometry as a vocabulary is ‘trans-regional’ and global. A grid belongs to nowhere, hence everywhere.

We see the use of basic geometry in the art of two major figures from Pakistan, Zahoorul Akhlaq and Rasheed Araeen.

The recurring grid format in Akhalq’s paintings and prints, besides hinting at the spiritual and philosophical aspects of geometrical shapes in our culture, is also linked to the pictorial diction of modern art where essential or abstract forms take precedence.

From his installation of scaffolding pipes at the Serpentine Gallery London to his paintings constructed on the Islamic patterns, Rasheed Araeen’s art is seen today as an attempt to expand the notion of modernity, abstraction, and structuralism.

Along with these two, many others have approached geometry in their work - including Imran Mir, Rashid Rana, Hamra Abbas and Mohammad Ali Talpur – for individual reasons and with varying strategies. Rana has been investigating the two-dimensionality in a world tuned and trained into ‘three-dimensionality’.

Abbas explores the geometry evident in mosaics and motifs from historic buildings and reinterprets them. Talpur draws inspiration from traditional arts and composes paintings based on Islamic geometry which in their sensibility echo the Op Art.

Somehow these examples — and many not mentioned here — reveal an artist’s affinity to tradition. They also analyse the question of how to analyse, shuffle, shift, express and export such traditions.

Several artists originating from Pakistan, Iran, and Middle East - including Anila Quayyum Agha, Monir Shahroudy Farminfarmian, Mehdi Moutashar, and the Naqsh Collective - are also dealing with geometry, often combining various traditions, pasts and practices.

Agha’s installations based on Ka’aba-like cube also remind of stingless windows of Gothic cathedrals in which light was a carrier of holy substance. Naqsh Collective (Narmeen Abudail and Nisreen Abudail) incorporate the language of geometry as it appears in the textile of dispossessed people of Palestine in its mixed media work (a part of Jameel Art Prize 2018, in which Mehdi Moutashar was a co-winner).

Moutashar, in his painted metal relief sculptures, creates forms derived from geometry that appear to be elegant, refined and as chiselled as words in a poem.

Geometry in its essence embodies balance, precision and clarity.

However, a majority of artists in our midst prefer to move beyond order, and be spontaneous, expressive, abrupt and unexpected in their creative expressions.

In doing so, they affirm what VS Naipaul observes in The Mimic Men: “Disorder was drama, and drama was discovered to be a necessary human nutriment”.

Geometry is not just about reducing nature into shapes