On an offshoot of the hustling-bustling Waris Road, behind the Fatima Medical College Hostel, is a quiet and serene lane, oblivious to the ruckus happening nearby, existing in a different time zone. One would like to imagine cookie-cutter houses, with children playing out on the street, but that isn’t the case. Small two to three storey complexes are built here and amongst them I enter the first to my right. Climbing up the derailed stairs, every floor seemed to have its own personality and atmosphere; every progressive floor becoming more devoid of inhabitants. Upon reaching the third, I noticed almost all apartments to be empty or semi-constructed. There is, however, a door to the right and that is Mohammad Ali Talpur’s studio.
The door is rather large for the room it opens into. A rectangular white-washed space, devoid of any unnecessary clutter; a table spans the width of the room, on the opposite end, for all the materials Talpur requires. Above the table, in complete symmetrical balance, a window peers out to the house across.
Resting against the walls of this hall are large canvases, brightly lit by the incandescent lights overhead. These breathing, pulsating, black and white canvases are works in progress for his upcoming shows. Taped, gridded, bare and filled with black acrylic, those marks are witness to the patience of Mohammad Ali Talpur and his keen eye, which is capable of picking out mistakes in the orderly chaos of his linear work that has the quality of hypnotizing the viewer. I know this, because while we stood, with me absorbing his paintings, engulfed in their resonance, he spotted the slightest of difference in the gradating lines, a single, minuscule mark that was upsetting the compositional harmony.
Adjacent to both sides of his work space are two relatively smaller rooms. The room to the right is a storage place where his finished paintings are carefully stacked. A modular table keeps his finalized sketches safe, drawing boards and sheets of paper scattered atop it. The other room is Talpur’s guest room, an office, a place of solitude: an office desk, cupboards, sketchpads with ‘qalams’ on the side and a small Panasonic transistor radio that plays music all day, embellish this room. This is the room I am invited to sit in. This is the place where he spends his time sketching and contemplating. He does mention the importance of solitude for himself and even during our conversations, in between pauses, he gets up to look out the window.
Talpur himself may have an aversion to me describing his studio as having embodying a Zen-like charm, with its white walls and bare necessities, accompanied by his own calm demeanor, but that is the initial impression. To him the word spirituality and its facsimiles hold a pretentious quality in our society and he does not like to be associated with it. He jests, saying, “I am a sinner”. I imagine it must be a struggle to fight this persona that may find its way of being imposed on him, since he is a renowned minimalist artist of Pakistan.
We talk about varied subjects, meandering through his interest, his work past and present, which led to him explaining the drastic change of his work from something that was loud and expressive pertaining to Pop Art, to the minimal linear paintings that have placed him a spot on the map. He mentions the infamous ‘Art Through The Ages” and how even if one does not read it and flips through it, one can see a progressive development of images. “I would sit and wonder about the multitude of artists in existence and those before and how they dissolve away, unnoticeable amongst the rest. Flipping through the book I would see the few highlighted and reflect how they had managed to do so and where I would be placed. It made me question my own art and how it could be different, made me wonder about the insistence of academia on students to produce charged works.” Such speculations were a start to his minimalistic approach, in going back to the basics, be they tangible or not, to express through lines until the lines themselves becoming meaningful on their own.
Initially, he started capturing the lines of nature, movements of birds; during this he came across an interesting bit of information: “I read or saw somewhere that the flight of an eagle foretells the future.” I assume this little detail, while true or not, certainly stuck with Talpur. In his artistic endeavors his interest branched towards the written word and he spent two years learning calligraphy under Ustad Khurshid Alam Gohar Qalam. His recent works have taken inspiration from calligraphy. However, he maintains that they do not denote any meaning and the inspiration is from the forms of letters rather than the written meaning. Talpur reveals about himself that he has developed a phobia of sorts: to produce anything that may be representational, hold a history, be symbolic or with a preconceived gist. While his source of imagery is derived from the world around him, he works relentlessly to render it characterless and meaningless, thus his use of neutral black and white. Sketching for Talpur is an essential part of the process; during the time when he is not actively working towards exhibitions, he sketches. It is through those sketches that the final product comes forth.
He explains that his recent work are be abstracted narratives and after discussion with him I understood the context from which the current body of works derived. The rhythmic optical illusions created by the repeating black symbols against the white background mimic the auditory experience of chants visually.
His practice with bold and vibrant imagery in his past works has remained, although now it is reflected in his other interests, in music and enthusiasm for films. He states that it is human nature to be reactive and thus on one side he has his minimal art and interest in poetry, the likes of Japanese haikus. This is contrasted with the radio that blares rock music. And his fascination with film has borne an ongoing side project which he calls a ‘desi’ version of Art21. In passing he also mentions that he has been writing a script for a movie, which is almost complete.
At the end of my visit, Talpur went back the start of his artistic journey. Like many children, he got interested in the arts, finding inspiration from realistic drawings. One day he saw a friend’s drawing, a remarkably representational one, he adds. It was that drawing that ignited his desire to learn to draw. “Today children are very aware and specific about what they want to pursue in art; in my time, or at least in my case, all I knew was that I wanted to learn. Learn to paint, draw, I was not even aware of miniature or sculpture and the techniques that are employed by artists.” For him it was the basic drive to learn, which led him to Ustad Abdul Fateh Hale Poto. There he states the only requirement for being taught was that I must become good enough to gain admittance into the National College of Arts and then come back and work on Sindhi culture. He expresses with mixed emotions that “I am not sure how they must feel back there, perhaps disappointment that I did not live up to the promise I made.” While he may feel he has disappointed his teacher by not working towards promoting Sindhi culture, in a way he has; his accomplishments as a global artist and the plethora of successful shows that he has had over the years speaks for themselves. His association with Sindh and his respect for the first helping hand that was offered, and his achievements, pay homage to them.
Jahanzeb Haroon is a Fine Arts student at National College of Arts, Lahore
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