Sunday, May 5, 2013

Anwar Jalal Shemza: A Modernist's Depiction of Islam

 Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928 - 1985) An artist and writer, Shemza was born into an Indian Kashmiri family of carpet makers. He went to school in Lahore, and eventually opened his own commercial art studio in 1947, also in Lahore. He was a leading member of a modernist group called the Lahore Art Circle, and he quickly became a leading figure in Pakistan's cultural life.
He went to England to study art at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. In 1960, he received a scholarship from the British Council to study printmaking. While he was in Britain, he met and married English artist Mary Katrina, and they had two daughters. Shemza and his wife traveled to Pakistan for several times, but they later settled in Stafford, England, where he taught art and design at area high schools.

Shemza was initially influenced by Modernism most notably Paul Klee although later works also showed a traditional Islamic influence. During the 60s, Shemza incorporated Islamic themes into his work, like using aspects of the prophet Mohammed’s name, imaginary plants and roots derived from Arabic script, and illegible patterns of Arabic letters. Shemza drew inspiration from the strong linear lines in Arabic and Persian calligraphy because he liked their structure, which is geometric yet the forms remain fluid and rhythmic. This blend of calligraphic curves and linear pattern, were suggestive,  to him, of Islamic architectural facades or elaborate patterned designs of Eastern carpets and textiles.
There is something archetypal in Shemza's work, for certain, but there also some loose, mathematical interpretation going on as well. Something about the geometry within the less than precisely geometric shaped sections hints at or unveils a layer of understanding for one's position within their environment. You might think I'm stretching that a bit, but i do sense Shemza's Islamic interests and the emotion behind the formal elements, which is this case is geometry, nature and script. Some of Shemza's images have forms that remind me of abstracted chess pieces, and for all intents and purposes, the practice of chess is a study of rules, positions, and learning to bend those rules to find one's creativity through the structure, I sense something similar happening here, where the study of architecture, having its own set of rules, is a basis for the artist's reinterpretation of formal structure. There is the reference to Klee's playfulness, but Shemza is more focused in his subject's source material. I like his looser hand-drawn craggy lines, and wish I could see more. Alas, there is little in the western archives of this artist's oeuvre. It's another classic case of the accessibility divide between the east and west. Hopefully, Shemza's work will continue to gain recognition.  
Solo exhibitions of Shemza's work were held England, India, Pakistan, and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. His other accomplishments included being the editor of Ehsas, a magazine on art and architecture. He published seven novels in Urdu as well as poetry. Radio Pakistan often broadcast his plays. 

Selected Exhibitions: 

6th Triennial of World Art, New Delhi, in 1956 
Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore, in 1960-2;
5th Exhibition of International Prints, Moderna Galerija, Ljubiana, in 1963 
Graphische Sammlung, Vienna, in 1963 
Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art, Durham, in 1963
Treasures from the Commonwealth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1965 
6th International Print Biennial, Tokyo, in 1968
Commonwealth Institute, Edinburgh, in 1969 
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 1972
1st British International Drawing Biennial, Teeside Art Gallery, in 1973 ( Major Prize recipient) 
Indus Gallery, Karachi, in 1985
the Other Story at Hayward Gallery, London, in 1989-90 
Printmakers of Pakistan at Bradford City Art Gallery & Museum, in 1997-98
Indus Gallery, Karachi, in 1985
Manchester Metropolitan University, in 1992
Birmingham City Museum, in 1997-8
Typo at Ikon, Birmingham, 1999-2000 
Pakistan Another Vision at the Centre of Contemporary Art, Glasgow, in 2000 

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