CANVASES THAT HOLD THE UNIVERSE
           
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By Amra Ali | 7/14/2019 12:00:00 AM
These labyrinths take me back to my childhood, and I recall roaming around the streets of my village,” writes Shaukat Ali about his recent paintings, exhibited in a solo show, titled Labyrinth, at Koel Gallery. The canvases are neither recognisable pathways nor imagery of places, but a rendering of repetitive lines and dots against a flat black or white background. The dots give the illusion of lines that form rich patterns, suggestive of not only the movement of waves or the texture of sand, but an individual’s quest for beauty of form and balance. It is as if the viewer is in the midst of this fantastical journey of shooting stars and floating skies of endless patterns.

The beauty of Ali’s artwork is in the quality of the abstraction, and how a simple painted dot connects with other dots to form an ocean, a solar system or a galaxy. Each canvas brings a different nuance or connection to water, land or the sky. As Ali responds to natural elements in his native village Mithodero in Sindh, these complex labyrinths could be inspired by the the movement of the tall grass in the fields or any moment that stays with the artist on his visits to his hometown. The grass does not appear like grass, nor does the water appear like water, because the artist takes the initial inspiration to a new dimension, where there is a freedom to dance, fly, float and be still. One spectacular canvas, ‘Untitled 5’, the only one with a white base and an overall staining of dots in swirls of grey and black, appears like the imprint of dry sand on its surface. These are mere associations to land, but allow for multiple readings.

Transcending the depiction of material reality, these paintings seem to suggest the connections to broader value systems. For example, the artwork ‘Untitled 15’ shows a tightly-packed angular design, almost like a grid, suggesting order and connectivity of the past, present and future. ‘Untitled 6’ shows a similar repetitive linear pattern, but with a slight curve, this time suggesting a softer approach which can withstand change.

The broken pattern in ‘Untitled 9’ and ‘Untitled 10’ could signify a separation, and the complexities of making and unmaking. There are subtle interruptions in the design with a flat, black band in most canvases, acknowledging disruptions in the ownership of land and freedom.

Much of Sindhi music carries an element of dissent and was born in response to colonisation. The artist is influenced by Sindhi poetry, especially the ‘waie.’ Sindhi poetry contains two main original forms of verse, such as ‘bait’ and ‘waie.’ Baba Sachal Sarmast’s kalaam Mahi Yaar Di Gharoli Bhardi, sung by Abida Parveen, is an example of ‘waie.’ He also listens to the famous Ho Allah by Allan Faqir and Muhammad Ali Shehki or the kalaam of Mohammad Jumman as well as the ghazals of Chitra Singh and Jagjit Singh and in the rhythm of this fusion, he paints the dots that also become the land and seem to be on an endless journey.

Ali’s early mentors at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, were the late A.R. Nagori — who established its fine arts department — and Mussarrat Mirza. The artist recalls being unable to understand Nagori’s use of raw primary colours back then, and professes the impact of his bold expression and the nature of his dissent on his own practice. At the same time, Mirza’s contained atmospheric canvases cultivated the appreciation of a sense of light, with much to learn from its connection to lived spaces and the abstraction of alleyways.

Further studies at the National College of Arts in Lahore at the Master’s level led Ali to break from conventional renderings of street scenes and pigeons. In this flight from realism, the artist has a found novel way to hold space.

“Labyrinth” was exhibited at Koel Gallery in Karachi from June 25 to July 5, 2019
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