Dua Abbas Rizvi: Tell us a little about the transition from your earlier work to your current work. How does it feel to work almost exclusively in a linear style these days? Do you miss handling paint, pigment, colour?
Mohammad Ali Talpur: Not really. You could say that I have developed a kind of colour phobia. For example, red has a history and so does green, and putting these colours on a surface would lead to a plethora of meanings. But a plain, black mark on white surface is more essential and closer to the primary idea. There is nothing extraneous about it. It is what remains after the extra concerns have been filtered.
And perhaps my current work can be called a reaction to my earlier work. That was extroverted, this is introverted. Back then, I felt I could make art from anything available – the pieces of paper on my desk, discarded newspapers, etc. I was a student of the Masters in Visual Arts program here at NCA. Lala Rukh taught the course and encouraged us to focus on South Asian art, so a lot of my earlier work was informed by that.
DAR: Tell us about your early images, which employed colourful visuals and references to pop culture. Which elements from those works would you say have found their way into your current work?
MAT: Those images were the result of an exploratory phase. Many personal experiences were reflected in them, along with concerns like what it meant being a male in a male-dominated society. A male could be seen as a victim too, a victim of too much power and not a clue of what to do with it. So debates and questions like this influenced that work.
You may find some connections between that work and this if you search for them. But there haven’t been any connections on a conscious level from my side.
DAR: How absolute is your faith in the line? Do you think it can stand alone as ‘art’, unaided by colour or conventional shapes?
MAT: In one of my works, I traced a bird’s flight on a paper with a single line. But without a title alluding to what it was, it would have made no sense. So I do not know about the value of a single line, but when you add more lines to that, energy builds on a surface and the work becomes meaningful on its own.
DAR: Of late, many artists from Pakistan have converted to the religion of minimalistic mark-making. It is claimed that this practice of creating non-representational images with tiny dots or marks is spiritual and eloquent. But do you feel that there is still need for representation and storytelling in art?
MAT: Personally, I’m scared of making objects or anything representational. Interpretations become limited with that sort of thing. But there are artists like Morandi, who found ways of locating the abstract within the representational. Others, like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, went entirely beyond the representational. These are all artists that I’ve learned from, even though I used to dislike their work at first.
While I was pursuing my Masters degree, the atmosphere I was in pushed me towards exploring the abstract. Naheed Siddiqui, our renowned classical dancer, delivered a few lectures; poets and writers would visit; Lala Rukh emphasized the study of South Asian aesthetics. I also practiced on traditional Ralliquilts with my mother.
The primary contrast between Western and South Asian art forms, as I came to see it, was that the former visibly divides and displays all its content in a foreground and background whereas the latter employs many more layers, it is much more subtle. Indian classical dance, music and art are beautiful because of their subtlety and power to evoke something abstract. I wanted to capture this essence rather than illustrate our culture by showing a woman doing Kathak, for example.
DAR: When you’re working on a piece, at what point do you start feeling that the lines have a life of their own?
MAT: It’s like I’m playing a game of darts. I have a target, and I reach it with a mixture of conscious and unconscious effort.
DAR: Your work also has an audible quality. All those lines and their variations seem to come with, or issue from, a soundtrack. Do you agree that there is a strong link between the audible and the visual? Have you ever consciously explored it?
MAT: That’s a very interesting observation. I agree that there is a strong link between audio and visuals. I haven’t consciously experimented with it, but you can see, from what I’ve shared about Indian classical music being a big part of my journey in this direction, that I’ve been influenced by the audible. Modern art has a lot of mental struggle, which can be likened to the riaz or practice that was required to correctly sing or dance.
DAR: You did a large sculpture for Art Dubai in 2008 – a transparent cube sporting many broken lines that gave the illusion of innumerable divisions within the whole. What was the idea behind that?
MAT: I wanted to see how my drawings would look three dimensionally. It was about achieving abstraction inside a physically limited space.
DAR: You recently had a show at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, in which you explored marks that looked alphabetic but did not seem to belong to recognizable scripts. What inspired these works?
MAT: I’m not an expert in calligraphy but I’m familiar with its basics, like there are seven qats in an alif – and how they can resemble the human body with its head. While working for this show, I was inspired by the art of calligraphy and the form of letters rather than an interest in writing whole, readable sentences.
DAR: What are you working on these days?
MAT: I’m sketching these days. When there’s no pressure of exhibitions or projects lined up, I sketch. I do a lot of sketches. Then I review them before an exhibition and select the top ten. I deliberately make mistakes first – subtle mistakes to alienate myself from my work. Then in the second half of the process, I resolve the work by trying to justify the mistakes. Many famous styles evolved from this process, I believe. Cubism is a mistake, so is Dadaism.
DAR: How often do you get critical of your work?
MAT: There are moments. Sometimes I get nightmares about whether my work is serving any purpose or not. It can appear so cold! Maybe it has political or social content missing. But then I realize that I cannot play that game. My concern is with things essential and unlimited – like the line.
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