Black in Bombay

September 20, 2020

Jhaveri Contemporary exhibits works of three artists, separated in time and space, but united by the colour black

Pigeons,1957 by Anwar Jalal Shemza.

Being a novice, you begin your image with black: pencil, coal, ink, ash. In schools, too, black mediums provide a base for developing art pieces. Sketches, preliminary drawings and working layouts are done in pencils or other black materials; and if x-rayed, many paintings would have a pencil or charcoal drawing as their first layer. Due to its ‘foundational’ character, art students usually ignore black as a colour in their finished projects, especially those inspired by Impressionist painters, who ejected this shade from their palette.

It is only on a later stage that a young artist starts discerning possibilities and potential of black. I witnessed the power of this colour in two canvases: Scroll (1978) by Philip Guston and Abstract Painting No 5 (1962) by Ad Reinhardt. In both works, black is not just a colour, but a vehicle to invoke spiritual feelings. In front of these surfaces, a viewer is transported to other realms, external or internal, but certainly away from the immediate, actual and physical reality. (The experience of sublime, managed through black, is not inexplicable for a person who grew with Ka’ba and the Holy Black Stone as the most sacred entities).

Whether approached via art or religion (two practices not separated in the past), black reigns supreme. The absence of all other hues inclines you to concentrate on a single colour, and through this, discover your world/wealth of imagination. This aspect of Black Beyond Sight, is the title of a group exhibition (September–November 2020) at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai. The show brings together three artists, otherwise separated in time and space. Amina Ahmed lives in New York City, Parul Thacker is based in Mumbai, and Anwar Jalal Shemza migrated from Lahore to London in 1956.

A connecting point between the three artists from the show, is not just their use of black, but also their attitude towards art-making. One cannot reduce Shemza to black only, because the artist worked with a range of colours, but the structure of his imagery, in most cases in black lines, encircles or overlaps his forms. A method perhaps linked to his practice as a writer (with two Urdu novels to his credit); being a writer you inscribe your ideas in black lines (letters/words). In the present exhibition, his inks on muslin on paper (from 1957) reveal the artist’s less ‘solid’ imagery. Abstract Compositions, Boats, Fish, Pigeons, Pears, all are the artist’s excursion on the field of texture: how a rough fabric can react to a painter’s touch. Thus there is hardly any difference in the way abstract imagery and recognizable objects are rendered.

These works, of varying scale, embody the impact of pictorial language. Probably, the identity of fish, boats, birds, or fruits were not as important as the sensation emanating from the interaction of material with tactile surface. In a sense, Shemza, even if using representational elements, transformed these into pure visual stimuli, which further stirred our emotional self.

A side relates him to Amina Ahmed, who opts for geometry and pattern in her black surfaces. Ahmed, a graduate in the Visual and Islamic Traditional Arts from Royal College of Art (1991), had her earlier training in textiles, but has been working in a range of techniques, including printmaking after moving to the US. In the current exhibition, her remarkable etched drawings on black coated paper interact with a spectator on an intimate level like whispering. Ahmed studied geometry and explored it in her art; these works (from 2012 to 2016) refer to minimalism as well as the pictorial/tangible examples which deal with mysticism.

Black Sun by Parul Thacker.

These works embody the impact of pictorial language. Probably, the identity of fish, boats, birds, or fruits was not as important as the sensation emanating from the interaction of material with tactile surface.

In fact, they are crossovers between mysticism and minimalism, since both deviate from the frivolity of excessive and exuberant (world), and seek a path that is selective and remote. A few chants, and a few forms, can encompass the entire existence – may that be attained in mysticism or minimalism. Meditation in private or in front of a ‘blankish’ piece of art, leads a person to another sphere. In Amina Ahmed’s work you see this blend. Circles emanating from a centre (Pitch Pieta Fourness, Horizon Line, 2016), or concentred in a round space (Pitch Pieta XV With All Thy Strength, 2016) or in ascension (Pitch Pieta Knot of Black, 2012) suggest a spiritual – superior world, accessed through means other than mere appearances.

Along with a resonation to spirituality, the work of Amina Ahmed can be connected to present politics. Or past problems. Her choice of recurring title Pitch Pieta, in one way describes her surfaces, black coated papers; but at the same instance, this may allude to the black politics in the West. Pieta (piety in Italian) is a term associated with Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ after Crucifixion; and this word as part of Ahmed’s titles, can be a comment on the significance of blackness in the white West. Just the fact that her work is black, resonates with the power of black – on a political hemisphere as well as in the arena of art.

Ahmed employs the same method and substance to create other works, which remind of textile motifs. However, due to her technique, compositions – and depth of these surfaces, a viewer is moved to matters beyond intricate patterns and marks. These are complex exercises in geometry.

Geometry is evident in the ancient Tantric art, too, which has its residue in historic manuscripts, and to some extent in Parul Thaker’s works. Fabricated in different materials, Thaker’s sculptural pieces confirm the deep and diverse domain of darkness. A womb like presence (We Circle Through the Night, Consumed by Fire, 2019) indicates the origin: a darkness before the beginning. In Thaker’s other works too, you detect a density – of things and substances. Most of her pieces project a different interpretation of Black Beyond Sight since these are extremely sensuous objects, inviting a viewer’s gaze to trail on the details of different sensitive areas of black. Along with sight, her works are about touch too, mainly because these detonate the presence of body. Thacker combines diverse materials and tames them to be part of her tableau that denotes eternal beings/truths.

Thaker’s ambitious handling of material to depict the essence of life recalls mythological icons, totems. However her sculptures seem to incorporate life around the artist, like in An Eternal Zero in her Formless Self , 2020, and in Her Spirt, the Void, Impersonal, Absolute, 2020. Seeing the works of Thaker, and other artists from the exhibition – one realizes, black is not a colour but a state of mind – or body.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Black in Bombay