Work on display at Muzzumil Ruheel’s exhibition, Lost In His Own Garden at Grosvenor Gallery, is a combination of archival images, masterful calligraphic script and occasional washes of bold acrylic paint. This comes together through the juxtaposition, overlapping, and concealment of these techniques. With the old and the new in his art practice strung together this way, there is an evident evolution in his work. Ruheel, for instance, has worked with collage in the past and, in its literal sense, it is absent in this body of work; yet his technique of layering text – old photos transferred onto paper or canvas and paint – is reflective of collage.
The exhibition boasts eleven pieces, each with calligraphic text covering either entire surfaces or appearing in geometric shapes of various sizes as the uppermost layer of the canvas. Two pieces that catch one’s eye immediately are He Threw the Watch Away and The Horseman. These are composed of archival images transferred onto paper and then further worked upon with calligraphic text. From a distance, the photographic images look like a haze of grey with repetitive mark-making, blurring the boundaries and borders of the forms in the picture. Upon closer inspection, shades of grey modeling human forms are revealed in the shape of overlapping text. The use of old photographs adds mystery to the works, making them visually exciting.
Working with script and image is an age-old practice adopted by many artists. Not all artists who delve in script/text alongside imagery, however, are able to resolve the difference between the two techniques. Ruheel manages to balance the two successfully and achieves coherence in his work.
Through immense overlapping, he renders the text illegible which could be his way of keeping the work open to interpretation. But illegibility blurs meanings, rationale or context of his works, making them conceptually vacant. It leads one to wonder whether there is political meaning in the work or if the artist is narrating history. He could equally be making personal references or the layered script could simply be the artist’s way to measure the passage of time.
These questions lead me to probe the text persistent in Ruheel’s oeuvre. He has amassed stories narrated in the pieces on display by way of lived experience as well as through time spent in libraries, researching historic content and archival photos. He writes and re-writes these accounts on top of suitable archival images or on flat-washed surfaces, adding and subtracting from the stories to understand the past, while simultaneously creating fiction. His art-making process, thus, is not linear. He fancies himself as a storyteller – a claim justified by his methodology – creating visuals and perceptions in the minds of his audience.
Lost in his Own Garden becomes considerably more interesting when the illegible stories recorded on the works are revealed, breathing a new life into the pieces. This is best exemplified by the piece titled He Threw the Watch Away. It consists of calligraphy layered upon the portrait of a seated man. The visual is inconspicuous until it is seen through the text it is created with. The text (given below) produces an eerily remarkable feeling within its audience:
Knock, knock, the door opens.
“May I come inside?”
“Since when did you feel you needed permission to come inside?”
“No, no, I will need your permission.”
“Why, what are you here for?”
“I have come to take back my time,”
“Wait, let me think, it was such a meaningless thing... god knows where I kept it.”
Another work, Morphed, made of eight panels is visually unique. With its architecture-inspired geometric motifs floating against a white background, it is initially reminiscent of tomb stones and graves. A closer look reveals that the shapes are composed of script. The words printed on the image are a visual treat – a beautifully rendered script that refuses to have tangible meaning. The fact that the forms in the piece are created of calligraphic text methodically connects it to the rest of the show and, despite the visual contrast, Morphed, adheres to the same conceptual ambiguity that pervades all the other works on display. Its subject and meaning only become evident when the image is looked at with reference to the text made legible by a closer view. The concept behind this piece aims at highlighting individual differences in perspective and understanding of the same subject.
The works in Lost in his Own Garden have a universal appeal even when they employ a script that is mainly recognised only in the subcontinent. This is possibly because of their masterful execution, making the show a success in a city as cosmopolitan as London.
The writer is an artist based in London.