In the past weeks art lovers have been hearing about quite a few Pakistan-related cultural events in London. After the ‘Focus on Pakistan’ presented at Artrooms Fair London, curated by the Islamabad-based gallery My Art World from 19 to 22 January 2018, Suhair Khan – leader of Google Arts and Culture Projects – moderated an engaging talk questioning the role of artists in times of war, conflict and terrorism on January 24th. Furthermore, while on 25 January the gallery Austin/Desmond Fine Art hosted a conversation between Lahore-based artist and professor Mohammad Ali Talpur and curator, writer and broadcaster Sona Datta, Grosvenor Gallery was preparing the inaugural event of a group exhibition by eight artists from Pakistan, which will be opened to the public from the end of January to mid-February.
The conversation at Austin/Desmond gallery aimed to introduce Mohammad Ali Talpur’s solo exhibition, ‘Sight Specific’, organised in collaboration with Canvas Gallery Karachi, from 26 January to 28 February, to present a series of recent works by the Pakistani artist. The works displayed in the ground and lower ground floor of the gallery are geometrical, repetitive patterns created out of an alternation of black and white lines. As a result, Mohammad Ali’s canvases appear as multidimensional fields, where the optical effects of the succession of lines, generates unforeseen movements and colours, as well as an almost disturbing visual effect and a mesmerizing overall impact.
Sona Datta, who acquired works by Mohammad Ali for the South Asia Collections of the British Museum when she was curating it in 2011-12, introduced the artist and his practice, and she also informed the audience that Mohammed Ali did not wish to be part of the conversation. Fortunately, after an insightful presentation of the evolution of Mohammad Ali’s research by Sona, the artist finally decided to participate to the talk and the following Q&A session, adding vivacity and wit to the brief discursive event.
Among the main themes that emerged from Sona’s analysis of Mohammad Ali’s practice, the relations between painting and music, appeared significant. Especially when the artist explained his methodology and how, before starting painting, he draws a series of sketches to visualise the pattern and rhythm he has in mind. Mohammad Ali also talked about how he felt connected to practices such as music and dance, in the way they alternate repetition and improvisation. Finally, Sona quoted the artist who a few years back described himself as a radio that picks different frequencies here and there.
Another aspect of Mohammad Ali’s work, that clearly emerged from the conversation, was the influence of calligraphy. This is not only because the artist practiced this traditional technique at the beginning of his career, but mainly because his latest works are in a way a negation of the functionality of calligraphy. The artist explained the evolution of his research as a transformation of the textual aspect of calligraphy into something purely visual and geometrical. He was interested in the aesthetics of calligraphy, its visual impact but not its communication power.
Sona also pointed out how, according to her, Mohammad Ali was also inspired by the spiritual power of calligraphy. This aspect of his work, as well as the meditative one, came up more than once also during the Q&A. When the conversation was going toward the investigation of the meditative nature of the paintings, Mohammad Ali – visibly annoyed by the audience’s endeavour to give a recognisable label to his work – declared: ‘I don’t like meditative’. The statement amused the participants, but it also made visible the clash between the public’s attempt to find a definition to seal the exhibited art, and the artist’s will to stay out of pre-existing, unsuitable categories.
This dichotomy also emerged when a member of the audience pointed out that the fragmentation of colours, due to optical effects of black and white lines, made blue and yellow appear in the canvases. She probably associated the phenomenon with researches undertaken by European and American artists, such as Pointillism and Divisionism at the end of the 19th century, and/or Op artists from the 1960s, and expected Mohammad Ali to give a scientific explanation to it and link it to the Western references she had in mind. The artist, who did not look stimulated by the comment, managed once more to avoid the question and escape the trap.
When it was time to wrap up, Sona concluded that Mohammad Ali’s lines where much more controlled today than in the past and that this series of work was focusing more in the making and the process of painting, than in any possible ideological aspect.
Throughout the conversation it came clear that Mohammad Ali does not want to be enclosed into any category, nor he is interested in being labelled with social or political ideas. His work also differentiates from the narrative aspect that characterizes many artworks produced in Pakistan.
The same title of the exhibition: ‘sight specific’- which plays with the common expression ‘site-specific’– underlines that Mohammad Ali’s art is relating uniquely to the thing that one sees.
 ‘refers to a work of art designed specifically for a particular location and that has an interrelationship with the location’. Tate’s online glossary ‘Art Terms’, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/site-specific.