The exalted testimony | The confluence of geometry and modernism in Pakistani art

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The exalted testimony | The confluence of geometry and modernism in Pakistani art

    The etymology of “Geometry” traces its origins to the Greek words ‘Geo’ (Earth) and “Metria” (A measuring of) which literally tran

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The etymology of “Geometry” traces its origins to the Greek words ‘Geo’ (Earth) and “Metria” (A measuring of) which literally translates to “the measurable Earth.” Initially discovered to measure land and to configure spatial relationships, the purpose of geometry gradually disseminated into other everyday functions in fields, such as in astronomy, navigation, medicine, and architecture amongst others.


Due to the contentious restrictions on drawing and replicating living beings in Islam, the use of geometry was one language, amongst calligraphy and botanical imagery that consequentially flourished in Islamic art.


The practice of Islamic Geometry in art dates to the eighth CE when craftsmen took pre-existing motifs from Greek, Persian, and Roman designs and restructured them into new forms of visual expressions. This period of Golden age for the Islamic civilisation witnessed crucial advancements in science and mathematics. Following this was a refined use of abstraction and complex assimilation of geometry in Islamic art that varied from floral motifs to intricate tile work that is characterised by symmetry, complexity, and seemingly infinite repetition; a possibility to limitless expansion.


Using just a compass and a ruler, the combination of repeated squares, hexagons, triangles, stars, and circles can be found in a variety of buildings, garden floors, carpets, textiles, and even on the Quranic pages. This feature is also distinctive in M.C. Escher’s work; the Dutch artist’s practice witnessed a significant shift after his visit to the Alhambra palace in Spain. His intricate woodcuts, calculated lithographs, and mathematically inspired mezzotints, and repeated symmetry, found its traces in much of the architecture of the Middle East.


Predominantly used as, but not just restricted to, a tool for decoration, this technique of repetitive geometric designs is meant to connect the viewer to a higher state of consciousness. This kaleidoscopic multiplicity of patterns evoked the awareness towards the eternal order. The harmonious merge of the material and the spiritual world in patterns especially found in places of worship are used as a medium to glorify god. The purposeful repetition draws us into a symphonic infinity and inspires contemplation and unity. The geometric decorations resemble the cosmos, a union or a direction towards the universe in the heavens that transcend philosophical and religious concepts. Islamic geometric art became highly influential during the prime of the Muslim kingdoms. Spanning over thousand years, the same rule is followed and applied in an identical way with the same vigour globally.


The spread of Islam also propagated Islamic art, which was further popularised as well as redefined by the exodus of various communities in history that stretched from Spain in the West to parts of Mongolia and China in the East, and plunged southwards to most of North Africa. The use of geometry especially that which is derived from Islamic art, continues to thrive in various forms in contemporary art and everyday culture in many regions of the world.


Perhaps one of the forerunner names of contemporary artists whose practice is evidently influenced by geometry is the maestro Rasheed Araeen. Araeen’s practice that spans more than sixty years in its scope continues to challenge the formal, ideological, and political assumptions of Eurocentric modernism. Trained as a civil engineer, Araeen is best known for his formal geometric sculptures made often from industrial materials. He skews and repeats patterns, shapes, and lines. By avoiding the western sculptural hierarchies and formal concerns of compositions, he has established his own style that is informed by his socio-political stances, and is recognized as a pioneer of minimalist sculptures in Britain. Although Araeen has denied any relationship on multiple occasions, a viewer cannot refrain from weaving similarities to Islamic art and architecture in his work; which seems to be well-versed in the study of science, philosophy, and the mathematics rooted in the Islamic world. Araeen credits this geometric and linear interplay to his background in engineering. He however, is convinced that Islamic art is pivotal in the emergence of modern art; since it was its imposition of geometry and calligraphy that emancipated the artists from figurative and representational art in the western world.


Imminent artist Anwar Jalal Shemza sought the crux of his practice in the basics of geometry. This stimulus can be traced to not just an early exposure to traditional Indian carpet designs that his family ran a business of, but also a more direct experience of Islamic design and Mughal architecture. His work often has a stylised, symmetrical composition. Recognised for his calligraphy, the artist initiated his practice by depicting a fusion of various shapes. By combining the circle and the square for example, he spectates the relationship between and also explores the possibility of infinitely flexible configurations the merge provided. This eventually coxed his attention towards Arabic and Persian calligraphy. Shemza also stripped the signified behind the script which he displayed as an eclectic conglomeration of mere silhouettes and shapes, making his visuals graphical and schematic, almost like an architectural blue print. The late Imran Mir’s paintings and sculptural works combine the aesthetics of graphic design with the quirkiness of abstract art to create something extraordinary. Mir’s work has been influenced by abstract expressionism, most notable being the melange of colour fields with a concoction of geometric and organic shapes and grids. His work features repetition and conformity, which in some works is often disordered by those shapes that transform themselves and break loose from the grid, almost as wilful players with their own agency. The forms and profiles are static in some, and vehemently pulsating in others. The burst of movement and colour and the mathematical rhythm arrests the viewer. With his hands in both art and advertising, his positions allowed him an unmatched cognisance to his work through which he choreographed shapes, lines, forms – characters on an abstract landscape that was his stage.


Pakistani American, cross-disciplinary artist Anila Quayyum Agha has worked with drawings and paintings, but it is her large-scale installations that she is more known for. Agha fuses a deliberate play of light and shadow to transform spaces into a place that alludes to Islamic sacred spaces. Laced with geometric ornamentation and pattern, Agha captures the pure sombre and contemplative mood evoked in such spaces. She creates a whimsical, almost dream-like platform which she maps to her childhood when girls were discouraged from visiting mosques. Much of Agha’s practice is informed by her admiration for the geometric lattice and motifs that she witnessed during her visits to Islamic heritage sites such as the Alhambra. Her exclusion and curiosity for a place of community and expression is a contradiction that she encapsulates in her work. She suspends a single bright light in an empty room that is shielded by a wooden box, laser-cut with intricate latticework. The artist adapts and integrates symmetrical patterns, inspired by Islamic art, which is then repeated on either side of the cube. The negotiation between the light and the pattern creates geometric shadows that spread on the gallery wall, ceiling, floor, and on the visitors, who with their moving bodies, continually change the pattern and negate the idea of separation.


The late Lubna Agha was also an artist who challenged ‘the immovable qualities of traditional Islamic art’. Agha juxtaposed figures with geometric patterns – drawing a dialogue between the material and the ethereal; the tangible, and the impalpable. She wanted her work to “provide a vibrant and ephemeral experience of two contradictory themes — infinity and oneness.” Her visuals were saturated with rich tradition, salient new meaning, and intimacy from the meditative and ornamental qualities of the original media. Agha’s visuals were also inspired by her travels to places such as Morocco and Turkey. She found herself fascinated by the old world of abstract Islamic paintings. She adapted the characteristics of Islamic architecture and painted them in her own style. A lengthy period in Agha’s practice dealt with personal and feminine issues that she then wove with religious and cultural philosophies. Vocal in political, social, and personal issues, she drew in images from Pakistani culture which essentially narrated how a single being navigates in a society where every day is a struggle with the space and the world they occupy.


Several other female artists have also recurrently engaged in the artistic dialogue between the modern-abstract and the traditional forms and geometry of Islamic art. Prominent artist Aisha Khalid is one of the leading figures in shaping contemporary miniature. Khalid developed a personal visual language that was rooted in simple geometric designs. Through the patterns, she created intimate spaces in which she introduced the female body to acknowledge its relationship to public and private spaces. The female subject gradually became so interwoven with the spatial design that it eventually completely disappeared. Khalid shifted her focus to even more complex geometric patterns derived from abstract ornamentation, to create a world of thought based on aggressive manipulation of shapes. Most of Karachi based Sayeda M. Habib’s series of works also adduce visuals from Islamic geometry. Her previous works have involved symbolic forms for viewers to decode, rather than immediate encounters with the literal and representational. Habib was drawn to report on the weight and drive for a material life dense with artificiality that casts shadows on the metaphysical. A social and spiritual commentary, her work strikes the viewer to realise the vastness of the infinite cosmos that is beyond our comprehension. To evoke this existential thought, Habib cites our tradition and heritage; and uses Islamic art and geometry to negotiate our spiritual and material needs. By employing a historic practice, the artist stresses on the immortality of time and rekindles our lost consciousness.


A devout admirer of traditional Mughal and Persian miniature painting, Naveed Sadiq often makes the process of image-making the fore concept in his works. And in doing so, he divulges the underlying geometry and grid that most miniature works require. His work, therefore dialogues on perceptions of the sacred geometry, the use of circles, and the activism of the grid which are vital in making images. His practice at its core suggests the same techniques that were commonly used in Islamic art to compose images and to demarcate patterns. Azma Salman is probably the only Pakistani artist to have formally studied Islamic art and illumination. She received her training in “Tehzib” or “Ottoman illumination” an art form used to embellish the holy verses of the Quran. Her entire practice is devoted to preserving and celebrating this historic art technique and classical processes where with the aid of organic tools and surfaces, geometric and floral motifs are used to create compositions that signify the infinite.


Komail Aijazuddin has previously incorporated geometric vocabulary which he states are sourced from sites and shrines from around the country. The Islamic geometric patterns are reinforced as a celestial feature by often being presented as a halo around his subjects. Furthermore, the figures in his paintings also make religious references such as in the form of the crucifixion, la pieta, or goddess Kali’s multiple arms. The artist contrasts Catholic iconography with Islamic geometry and claims that his practice was conceived with the thought of what Islamic art may have looked like had it permitted and established a figurative tradition. Fahd Burkhi unites the artistic power of shapes, icons, and geometry in his practice. Manifested in graphic qualities, the artist calculates and calibrates various sharp geometric forms and lines that deceive the viewer by indicating a digital image. Burki’s practice is a constant advancement towards higher abstraction with a minimalist sensibility. Throughout history, symbols and icons have continued to rule over our visual vocabulary and landscape. He retains the bare minimum of the silhouettes and recognisable forms, which playfully grab the viewer in a quandary of having witnessed something familiar yet something strange.


Geometry is really a universal language which everyone can intuitively find familiar. Art that appoints geometry is no shy of a mathematical puzzle, the construction of which demands adept creativity and an understanding of the various styles and enhancements the ancients used. While there are many artists whose practice consults Islamic art in particular and its inclusion of geometry, there are countless others who have been integrating geometry as a needed process in their practice. Moreover, most craftsmen and designers also rely on geometry to execute their visual ideas. These artists and other creative individuals meld and compose undercurrent facets such as the grid, diagonals, repetition, symmetry, the centre, etc., all of which are rudimentary foundations of geometry. One can thus not deny that geometry has proven indispensable around the globe to visual language and culture in the bygone, and will continue to remain so in the future.