Talent and luck play an enormous role in the career of a successful artist, but drive and determination are crucial. The nominations for the 4th edition of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s prestigious Jameel Prize have been announced. This year, three artists connected to Pakistan’s art scene have been nominated: Ghulam Mohammad, David Chalmers Alesworth and Rasheed Araeen. Ghulam Mohammad is the youngest and perhaps the least known of the three, but his art speaks for itself. GM, as he is commonly called, creates delicate collages of hundreds of individually cut out Urdu alphabet letters that he pastes upon hand crafted wasli paper. The collages resemble dense miniature carpets created by beautiful calligraphic script. It is a difficult, time consuming procedure but the process is what GM loves. The resulting works are a mirage of letters, designed to draw in viewers and push them to peer in closely – perhaps to recreate stories and words from the multitude of letters.
“Carving out words and recomposing them is a cathartic act,” says the artist. “It is meditative.”
GM breaks down existing, understandable text into its smallest single letters before recombining them in patterns in his collages. He reassembles existing texts to create new arrangements – reviving and reformatting disused books into his collages.
The individual letters that form GM’s collages are cut out from old Urdu books about language. He spends many Sunday afternoons at Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore, foraging for the correct texts through the stands of multiple booksellers. These books are often handwritten and have been discarded by their previous owners. He enjoys exploring different Urdu scripts, researching the history, development and significance about the forms of calligraphic writing. The Urdu script is predominantly written in Nasta’liq, a form of calligraphy that developed in Iran in the 14th century and became the script of the Mughal court. Newspapers in Pakistan, according to GM, tend to use a text called Khat-e-Dubai.
The artist speaks five languages including Saraiki, Balochi and Urdu, and is fascinated by this basic medium of communication. He finds that language simultaneously has the power to unite and divide people. The motivations behind his art are also reminiscent of his own difficult experiences of becoming acquainted with Urdu after growing up in Baluchistan. GM found that although the basic letters were the same, their combinations, pronunciations and meanings were not, widening the cultural gap between him and the rigid society within which he was trying to immerse himself.
“Languages create boundaries, separations as well as invitations. Language paradoxically conveys meaning, and limits communication. It is this range of language that is incredibly fascinating for me.”
GM grew up in a small village called Zardad, beyond the city of Sibi in Balochistan. He describes it as a far-flung area with little access to anywhere. With no running water or electricity, his family would wait for rains and use that water to wash with, bathe in and drink from. The education system was equally basic, but fortuitously for GM, Fine Arts was offered as a subject in class five. He loved it.
Upon graduating from school in Quetta, GM enrolled in drawing classes at the Baluchistan Arts Council. This was an eye opening experience as he discovered new artistic materials: oil paints, pastels and watercolours.
“To my family, art is not a vocation, it is not a job. My father had passed away when I was young, and my grandfather was head of our family. I hid it from him, but when he found out he was very angry.”
Undeterred but evidently disappointed by his family’s disapproval of his dreams, GM moved to the grand city of Lahore after Quetta. He began taking art classes at the Alhamra: Lahore Arts Council and teachers there advised him to enroll at Beaconhouse National University, BNU. Rashid Rana, the internationally acclaimed artist, who is now Dean of the Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts (SVA) at BNU, interviewed GM.
“I realized that even if they awarded me a 75% scholarship I would be unable to pay the 25%. I had absolutely no money.”
Not only was GM accepted to BNU but he was awarded the Madanjeet Singh Art Scholarship by the South Asia Foundation, which is granted to talented students from across South Asia. These students are completely funded during their studies. It was at BNU that GM and his art blossomed. He credits Professor Salima Hashmi, in particular, for her inspiring role. She was the Dean of SVA at the time. Initially he pursued painting, but in his third year he began exploring other mediums and became inspired by collages. For his senior project GM produced a carpet made out of woven strips of Urdu books – this piece inspired his later works.
Rather than following his family’s wishes and taking on the “respectable job of a policeman”, GM began exhibiting his collages at Pakistan’s top art galleries even before he graduated in 2013. He has since shown at Satrang Gallery, Islamabad (2014), and Canvas Gallery, Karachi (2014, 2015). He is currently working towards a solo exhibition at Rohtas Gallery, Lahore, opening April 2016.
The artist tends to work on two or three collages simultaneously and the entire process can take two or three months. During his residency at Sanat Gallery in Karachi in 2014, GM worked seven days a week for twenty hours per day to produce four pieces within the allotted time period.
GM will exhibit five of his works at the Victoria and Albert’s Jameel Prize exhibition which this year will take place in Istanbul on 7 June 2016. The exhibition will run until August in Istanbul before travelling on tour. Established in 2009, the Jameel prize is awarded every two years by a panel of judges headed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The prize, which is worth £25,000, honours contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic traditions. Past nominees from Pakistan include Aisha Khalid, Waqas Khan, Noor Ali Chagani, Hamra Abbas and Seher Shah.
Zahra Khan, an independent curator with a focus on contemporary South Asian art, is the curator for Satrang Gallery in Islamabad and recently completed a Masters in Contemporary Art History at SOAS, London.