Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture as it fosters a sense of identity and a sense of belonging to a particular area. In the majority of cases, language forms the basis for ethnic, regional, national and international identity. On the world map, for centuries, languages have been emerging and flourishing through terminology, dialect and even contemporary styles of writing. Conversely, a language will wither away and die if not passed down the generations.
This message on the importance of language is delivered in an inventive form by the young artist Ghulam Muhammad in his exhibition titled Chaan Been, held at Rohtas-2 Art Gallery in Lahore last month. His work has been shortlisted by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Jameel Prize 2016 — an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by the Islamic tradition.
Muhammad has researched on language and its importance to cultural identity. For this artistic experimentation, he buys old books from roadside stalls and Sunday bazaar in order to explore old Urdu scripts. He finds that some of them are still in use while others are on the verge of extinction. His intricate collage pieces comprise cut-outs of Urdu script from the old books which he has then pasted on vasli to produce artwork of unique beauty.
In Chaan Been, his unique and tenderly crafted “word art” invites the viewer to enter into the private world of assumptions and judgments. His work offers a lovely bewilderment, a fine play on linguistic and cultural expectations. The artist manipulates words sometimes to suggest an act of deception — a puzzle, frustrating but eventually rewarding. One feels an uneasy tension to explore and look for “more” to glean clues in his work, as the title of his exhibition suggests.
In Untitled II and Untitled III, the script tries to transcend the limitations of the two-dimensional surface and attract the viewer’s eye with its three-dimensional effect. The illusion seems to indicate the struggle to set oneself free from immediate reality, cultural norms and expectations through a provocative meditation on language, memories and even dreams.
Among his poignant works is Untitled VI, a dense circular collage which, if seen from a distance, resembles a cosmic swirl of scribbled pencil lines arranged in sinuous twists that suggest movement. At places, the cut and pasted scripts appear to blossom with dense layers as new words pour in from other points — moving, hiding and sprouting from the larger expanse. Muhammad says that he created this collage piece in a manner that its beginning or ending point cannot be determined; it seems to move on and on like a wheel, taking inspiration from the idea that there is no consensus on the exact age of human language. The dilemma of how, when, where and why languages emerged remains; with the passage of time, however, it experiences change in its linguistic structure.
In Untitled XI, microscopic script is arranged in such a way that there is empty space left in the middle of the canvas. It is a beautiful and intricate study of an old book page in which some words overflow with life and others are overshadowed by death caused by termite bites, eating away its own boundaries —moving “forward” in its endeavor to make possible the process of extinction.
The appearance of densely layered scripts in Muhammad’s work is more than a decorative experimentation. It explores, examines and comments on the importance of language and cultural identity. Executed with immense dedication, his pieces are magnificently evocative.
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