The monograph on Anwar Jalal Shemza encapsulates the life and works of an artist who seems now to have been born before his time. Even if the book made no new assertions on the artist’s understanding and observation, which in fact it does, the showcasing of works themselves are enough to convince us that this artist was an exceptional one and that it is time for us to dredge his name from the footnote of history and place it on a pedestal of acknowledgement and appreciation, with the hope that further research and writing can be set into motion.
The book Anwar Jalal Shemza published by Ridinghouse is edited by Iftikhar Dadi and includes essays by Rachel Garfield, Courtney J Martin, Hammad Nasar and Shezad Dawood. Shemza was born in Simla, India, in 1928 and attended high school in Lahore. A year into his under graduate studies at the university, he realized his passion for art and enrolled at the Mayo School of Arts. Shemza graduated in 1947 and he set up a design studio and founded the Lahore Arts Circle along with some of the city’s intellectuals, writers and poets. He was a consummate writer and poet and published several novels in Urdu. He also edited the journal ‘Ehsas’ for three years before leaving for London in 1956 to pursue his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art. In London, Shemza’s ebullience was cut short as he found no takers for his view of modern art. He failed his drawing test and the works that he submitted for the Young Contemporaries Exhibition were rejected.
Iftikhar Dadi recounts Shemza’s shock at attending a lecture by the noted historian Gombrich and hearing Islamic art dismissed as ‘functional’ art. Shemza was overtaken with a sense of disappointment and confusion as he had come to the UK after having had some success as an artist in Pakistan, expecting further knowledge and the ability to make inroads into art. Instead he felt alienated and discouraged. But as Dadi notes, “Precisely due to this sense of dislocation, and because even his previous artistic achievements offered no solace, the Slade years were highly productive for him. Not only did he work intensively on his own paintings, but he was also exposed to the range of global art housed in British museum collections, and engaged in a sustained study of Islamic art from various regions and periods” Dadi goes on to tell us about Shemza’s need to “appropriate formalist and thematic modalities creativity from Klee,” which resulted in a profound influence of the Swiss artist on the works of Shemza. It was an assimilation of this modernist influence coupled with Islamic aesthetic principles, specially in calligraphic forms that Shemza formulated his personal conception of a rather progressive and individual modernism – a theoretical and practical articulation that sustained his practice till the end.
In 1957, Shemza married Mary Taylor and with their eldest daughter in tow, Shemza decided to go back to Pakistan but he was unable to find an appropriate niche for his ideas and his work and returned soon after to England where he stayed until his death in 1985. Shemza’s contemporaries like Avinash Chandra, Souza, Ahmed Parvez and Iqbal Geoffrey all investigated their distinctive formulations of modernism but it was Souza who scaled the heights of fame during his lifetime. Dadi’s commentary about Shemza’s Roots series contextualizes the decorative elements of calligraphy in the works of modernists in Pakistan. “The modernist experiments in calligraphic abstraction of artists such as Shemza and others from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa belonging to the era of decolonisation have raised analogous questions of legibility, their abstractions emphasising form over content, quite unlike the pre-modern convention of rendering sacred or wise quotations in ornamental form”.
In the monograph, Rachel Garfield makes an interesting argument by locating Shemza’s work within the realm of British Landscape. Peculiarly, she doesn’t mention Rasheed Araeen who would have been an appropriate addition to this list. In fact, he is not mentioned in the entire book which seems more like an enigmatically deliberate exclusion rather than an oversight. Garfield says “Artists like Anwar Jalal Shemza, Francis Newton Souza and Avinash Chandra found it difficult to have their work read as art because they were seen by British critics as ‘foreign’, even though they were operating in the UK for most of their artistic careers”. Contradictorily, Garfield says that her objective is “not to make Shemza an English artist, but rather to highlight how the prevalent debates of the postwar era precluded adequate readings of his work in a way that would secure its legacy in Britain”. However, she chooses “landscape as a trope of Englishness” to bring into focus the vital aspects of Shemza’s work. She does admit that “Shemza’s work is not generally referred to as landscape even though the notion of place is central to his oeuvre”. Her discourse suggests that the concept of landscape can be widened to include place, society, identity and location as extensions of landscape and within this paradigm, he may be situated adequately. However, her mention of John Piper the English landscapist (1903-1992) as being analogous with Shemza is such a stretch that it makes us wonder about the bubble academics live and write within. Garfield gives us the example of Shemza’s works City Wall of 1960 and City Walls of 1961 as containing modernist tropes and devices and expands the idea of place as location of a sensibility.
Courtney J Martin traces Shemza’s works made between 1956 and 1960 or his Slade days. Martin explains to some extent the rejection of his style and his ideas by the pedagogy at Slade by showing us that British art was not accustomed to modernism’s compositions and devices. She says in fact that “British art audiences developed a taste for abstract painting after the Tate exhibition of MoMA’s art” first held in 1956 and then repeated in 1959. Thus she says “It is ironic that Shemza, an avowed modernist painter and writer, would arrive in a city still grappling with the concept of modern art to remake his career. The late 1950s in London saw a new attention to modernism or, more specifically, to how modern art would be defined.”
In his essay on Shemza’s calligraphic output, Hammad Nasar delves into the histories of text which are more profound than simple writing since the origins of calligraphy can be traced to the inscribing of the Quran and considered a divine endeavor rather than a mundane one. He chooses to elucidate his essay with the works of Persian calligrapher Baba Shah Isfahan whose teachings would surely explain Shemza’s learned calligraphic output. But it is always problematic when writers make assumptions and tell us that artists must surely have encountered these particular writings and used this specific source for their inspiration and teaching when in actuality the artist may never have encountered it. But that said, we may say the argument still holds because it makes for a natural flow of thought processes. It is important to consider here Shemza’s quote that “Calligraphy gives me more satisfaction than painting” which becomes the raison d’etre for Nasar’s essay. He then shows us how many of the paintings and sketches we imagined to be renderings of organic objects, like the Roots series could be seen as part of Shemza’s calligraphic output.
Shezad Dawood investigates an essential aspect of Shemza’s work – his affiliation with literature and poetry and the ways in which these are visible in his artistic output. Dawood quotes a passage from a play that Shemza wrote and translated himself – The Shadow of the Asses – an exquisite minimalistic play that seems reflective of the angst-ridden existentialism of Beckett. Dawood also quotes from Ho Chi Minh, Li Po, Rainer Maria Rilke and The Upanishads which Dawood informs us “are taken from Shemza’s own annotated copy of each publication…”
Dawood finds similarities in his writing and his art; “a similar mode of enquiry and deconstruction of process was also inseparable from his use of multiple forms and processes in his art-making. It is perhaps this odd assonance, or combination of seemingly opposing methods –the perpetual deconstruction of meaning, with a complementary envisioning of a progressive path, via repetition, to a more resolved understanding of the hologram. And by hologram I mean the logos or meta consciousness pointed to by both the neo-Platonists and the Upanishads.”
The book on Shemza is an example of how monographs should be done, if any are to be made in the future in Pakistan. It is indicative that the writers in the book believe in the relevance and authority of the artist; a conviction that has been born not from expediency but from research, no doubt.