by Dua Abbas Rizvi
In plays by Harold Pinter, the pause is where a lot of the action takes place. The pauses intercept and interlace the dialogue, draw words together and distance them, hold and distil meaning, bring a sense of infallibility to speech, layer it with promise. Communication finds its gravity and weight in pauses. I was reminded of Pinter and prompted to think about the in-betweens of language upon revisiting some recent work by one of our leading contemporary artists – Mohammad Ali Talpur. His Alif series, which has been shown at Green Cardamom, Canvas Gallery, and Latitude 28, documents his segue from a principally linear imagery to more variegated mark-making that carries, at its heart, a sort of hymn to the first Arabic letter – alif. Yet the ink-on-paper works are as much about the times when script fails or communication falls apart as they are about the sovereignty of script and semantics.
It is easy, perhaps, to assign a mystical motive to the repetition in Talpur’s work. Lines undulate over each other, qats line like attentive sentries on a field at dawn, marks straight and tall and short and sedentary are repeated, repeated, until even what meaning begins faintly to attach itself to them escapes like water through a sieve. These marks, in many ways, become a sieve themselves, using their very semblance to language as a means to subvert and destruct meaning. The seeming tranquillity of Talpur’s linear or calligraphic configurations is constantly questioned, even endangered, by the pauses and recesses that exist within them, forming an undertow to the surface order. Like a glitch in a system, a protagonist in a Dystopian novel – the one on whose oddly wired brain the smooth, wide blanket of discipline snags, a frayed thread, a broken arabesque, these spaces offer a contrary state, a different possibility, a second infinitude, to the one offered by the visible content.
In a speech made at the National Student Drama festival in Bristol, 1962, Harold Pinter observed: “I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.” Talpur’s work (in particular, the Alif series), though at a glance an aloof and almost scientific exploration of calligraphy, is also about meaning or the loss of it. Calligraphy is, essentially, an expression of language, and even if the letters are isolated and autonomously used, they have connotative significance. Talpur pares them further, reducing them to diacritics and the most basic glyphs, arranging them repetitively, mechanically, almost urgently, to remove any trace of content. It is, perhaps, the “continual evasion” Pinter speaks of. It hints, perhaps, at a nausea akin to the one that he claims, in the same lecture, words trigger for him:
“I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale, dead terminology. Given this nausea, it’s very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis.”
Talpur’s recent practice can be seen as reactionary to this “weight of words”. He has taken care to prevent the attachment of themes or concerns to his work. I remember asking him, once, as his student at the National College of Arts, if I could approach an assignment in a directly illustrative manner. I remember how, despite smiling his habitually warm smile, he could not repress a shudder at my eagerness for wanting to be illustrative. In the brief discussion that ensued, he alluded as simply and as gently as he could to the advantages of sharing, as it were, one’s power or authority over an image with the viewer by leaving him with little or no directions to get to the truth, by letting him find his own truth in it. Five years later, we touched upon the same idea during an interview. “Personally, I’m scared of making objects or anything representational,” said Talpur. “Interpretations become limited with that sort of thing.” He was in the midst of producing his calligraphy-inspired drawings then, while also venturing deeper into the realm of film. His film See-Saw, shown at Green Cardamom with works from Alif, is footage of the artist winking from one eye to the other, thus locating in the moving image the same tension between action and inaction, happening and stillness, speech and silence, that characterises his drawings.
It is worth noting that early works by Talpur are dramatically different from his current oeuvre, which has its inception in his famous Leeka series. “That was extroverted, this is introverted,” he explains, detailing how, as a student of the Masters in Visual Arts programme at NCA, he had so much to say and felt that he could make art from anything available. Over the years, and especially after one pivotal afternoon that saw him tracing the flight of a bird on paper, his visual vocabulary shed all rhetoric and embellishment, getting thinner and humbler and quieter until it became the ascetic language it is now. A common factor, however, in his initial and later work, has been the study of South Asian aesthetics, which he credits with his desire to capture the abstract and the infinite through something numerable and finite. “The primary contrast between Western and South Asian art forms, as I came to see it,” says Talpur, “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.”
Talpur’s engagement with hypnotic scripts, enigmatic incisions, letters trimmed or replicated far beyond recognition, also places him in the tradition of asemic writing – the practice of writing/drawing mock-letters that seem to bulge with meaning yet belong to no known script or language. The likes of Henri Michaux, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, and Cy Twombly have contributed to it with drawings and paintings of strange and new characters, at times vaguely humanoid, at times visceral, textural, stemming from a state of mind rather than prior knowledge or understanding of linguistic constructs. Talpur’s continued emphasis on form over idea is evident, then, from his ability to both use and dismiss his training in calligraphy while working. As severe and reverential as his calligraphic strokes may be, when they are obsessively repeated, overlaid, and magnified, they take on the openness of absent or indecipherable language.
Images courtesy Mohammad Ali Talpur.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.
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Mohammad Ali Talpur: Line, Language, Lacunas
by Dua Abbas Rizvi