Pakistan’s own Piet Mondrian

June 28, 2020

Artist Ghulam Hussain talks about his struggle to get weaving recognised as an art form

Born into a family of craftspeople, Ghulam Hussain has finally won acclaim for himself and recognition for weaving as a mainstream art form. His art is vigorously connected to his life and most viewers find it relatable.His canvases speak of his relationship with the Sindhi culture. He links his woven patterns, often reminiscent of Sindhi rallis (patchwork) and charpoy, to his childhood memories. Excerpts from a recent interview follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Who has been your main inspiration in your choice and practice of your art?

Ghulam Hussain (GH): My early inspiration came from within my family. My father was an excellent craftsman. My brother Mohammad Rafique Soomro is an outstanding painter and art teacher. He has also been my mentor. Later, during my years at the National College of Arts (NCA), I had the opportunity for a deeper observation and appreciation of arts. Among my teachers, Salima Hashmi, Quddus Mirza, Anwar Saeed, Basheer Ahmed, Imran Qureshi, Waseem Ahmed and Asad Hayee proved inspirational in terms of ways of doing art. They also helped me develop as an artist.

TNS: Why do you think does one not see many artists from the interior Sindh making it to Karachi?

GH: There are many reasons for this; financial insecurity being the foremost. Sometimes the artists are the only breadwinners in their families. Choosing a career in arts requires the courage to risk everything – livelihoods, relations and tradition. Karachi makes its own demands on a citizen which can sometimes be very difficult to fulfill. Making a name for oneself and finding a market for one’s work can take a painfully long time.

TNS: You are seen questioning the low art-high art distinction. What are your views about this?

GH: Well, the debate started in the 18th Century, after some people insisted on making a distinction. I believe that there is no room for it in the contemporary world. Arts and crafts can no longer categorized as ‘low’ and ‘high’. To the extent that they are described in these ways the artists practice both at the same time. Both require skills and both are informed by artists’ emotions.

TNS: When do you think will we see your work featured in a Karachi Biennale?

GH: It’s hard to say if it will ever be accepted. (Laughs.) So far, I have never sought to be included. However, I do believe that someday you will see it featured. Maybe in the next edition.

TNS: Did you ever think about giving up as an artist and doing something else?

GH: After completing thesis work at the NCA, I was unemployed for nearly two years. I roamed around in the streets looking to find a way to survive as an artist. I also visited several senior artists, showed them my work and asked for advice on how to make it more attractive to patrons. There were hard times and sometimes I felt very discouraged. I knew I could always go back to Hyderabad where my family would support me but I challenged myself to overcome my problems and succeed as an artist. For weeks and months, I had nothing but my resolve.

“Choosing to be an artist requires the courage to risk everything – livelihood, relations and tradition.”

TNS: Can the art market be reformed in some way to make it more artist-friendly?

GH: These days almost anything one can come up with qualifies as art. To my mind art should have tangible intellectual and conceptual consistency. It needs to be powerful. That said, there are ways to create more opportunities for new artists and help them find their feet.

TNS: What difficulties did you face in getting weaving recognised as an art form?

GH: First, some of my teachers refused to accept my work as an art thesis. My submission was rejected and I was not allowed to display it. They asked me to display my miniature paintings instead. I found it hard to persuade them that weaving too was miniature work. On my insistence they showed my work to another famous artist (also a teacher). He, too, rejected my work, saying was not art. But I was not willing to give up my work. In the end, gave me the permission to display it. For two days, I found no admirer. On the final day of the display, however, Muhammad Ali Hemani (an art collector) visited and saw my work. I also met Salim Hemani. They liked my work and bought all of it. This was a great surprise.

In 2013, the teacher, who had initially rejected my work, encouraged one of his students to try weaving. I consider this change of heart on his part as one of my achievements.

TNS: What are your weaknesses and strengths as an artist?

GH: I’d say art is my weakness; and that at the same time, art is my strength. If I do not make art, I feel empty; I feel lonely and uncertain of my place in the world. Art alone gives me the courage to face the world and live a life with spiritual energy.

TNS: As an artist, what advice do you have for somebody aspiring for a career in arts?

GH: You have to learn to live an art before making it. If you want to make it a career, you have to be honest and hone your skills to perfection. Perseverance is one of the most important elements in fulfilling your dreams.

TNS: How hard is it to go on as an artist?

GH: Very hard if you are not continuously exploring, experimenting and developing your art. Artists come from very diverse backgrounds and experiences and yet they have to speak to the same world. The more they immerse themselves in an art the more it nourishes them. An artist needs always to be intellectually and emotionally active. Also, your art must be unique so that people could always relate it to you.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi and can be contacted at  [email protected]

Pakistan’s own Piet Mondrian