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The art of ordinary lives

by Amra Ali 2015-09-20
bdul Jabbar Gull is a Karachi-based sculptor who graduated from the National College of Art, Lahore, in 1996. His artistic journey began in his childhood when he used to observe with fascination the sign painters on the roadside on his way back from school in his native Mirpurkhas. He later apprenticed with the sign painters and Lal Mohammad Pathan, the ustaad of many accomplished painters of Sindh, took him under his wing and guided Jabbar to pursue his studies at the NCA.

In his earlier interview with this writer in 2002, Jabbar conveyed his reservations on the changing aspirations of artists vis-a-vis the art market.

Today, he is an accomplished artist and mentor to many aspiring artists. His solo exhibition opens at Karachi`s Sanat Gallery this month. Jabbar is also the director and curator of Studio Seven, a Pakistani-owned art gallery being launched in Dubai this month. In this conversation, he talks about his new work and his aspirations on running an international gallery.

The road from Mirpurkhas to Karachi has been a long journey in which your work and aesthetics has evolved and matured. Tell us about the impact of your early years.

The apprenticeship at the sign painters in my hometown involved hours and hours of practice and correction. We worked under an ustaad, and it was from this experience that I learnt the discipline of staying with a work. It sustained me through many years of practice in sculpture.

There are very few practising sculptors as opposed to painters or artists in multimedia / digital art today; therefore there have been fewer role models for me as a sculptor. I was fortunate to have spent time in discussion and learning from Shahid Sajjad. My engagement in wood and metal goes back to watching my father work in his multi-functional workshop. That was my first exposure to the grain and tactility of wood and diverse materials and tools, which I have continued to explore.

Your sculptures titled `Ordinary Souls` in wood began in 1996-97, and became symbolic of the social context and critique on your milieu.

These stoic figures are the primitive and the modern simultaneously. They signify much more than one context or one place and seem like symbols of a universal humanity. Their physical presence is a manifestation of the human condition, what do you think`? These figures emerged as I began to carve a flat block of wood and there was such a connection with the form that I instantly knew of it as a representation of me. The large life-size figures with the amulet or taweez around their necks, changed to single figures placed around a glass cube that represented the Kaaba for me. This was also my commentary on the relationship of self to society or of looking within. The figures have gone through displacement, placement, and the rearrangement continues in my sculptural works in which the viewer is asked to reshuffle the order of the composition.

Incidentally the eyes of the `Ordinary Souls` are shut, meaning that the journey always begins with a self-awareness and introspection. So, it is I, a par-ticular person, but also a universal human being.

They may look like a couple, male and female, but they are also neither; they are `Yin and Yang`, a symbolic representation of the individual. It is there and not there, because only one part is the physical reality, the rest is about an inner reality and consciousness, which makes us decide about wrong and right. It is the soul.

I believe that `Kun and Fayakun` is for the Creator.

We did not witness the `beginning`, and will not see the `end`, we exist somewhere in the process of beginning and completion. We are in-between.

In the new body of work on show this month also called `Ordinary Souls`, your work is predominantly two dimensional. You have made many drawings of the `ordinary souls` over the years. It seems that the graphite drawings are juxtaposed with a full colour orchestra.

Something magical is happening as the sculptor flirts with a two-dimensional space and creates these paintings.

The new forms entered unannounced and quite intuitively and I am enjoying it. There are my readings into it, but I would like to give space to the viewer to bring his or her interpretation. There are things that an artist does intentionally, but there are things that just happen. The khattat or calligrapherwas always in me, and in earlier work I used text which signified a universal language or scripture. I was also commenting on the single language of human values and ethics that is preached in every religion. The colour is a new element in my work, but there is always the contrast with the graphite drawing which forms the centre, it exists and it doesn`t, as part of the same composition. My sculptural work has been the dark shade of the sheesham and many other woods for years and years. These colours were waiting to come out, and they did in this burst of paintings.

`Studio Seven` opens its doors to an international audience in Dubai this month. What role do you see of the artist as curator, as you begin as Director of a prestigious gallery in Dubai? We intend to showcase a diverse range of artistic narratives and to widen the gap between the local and international. The first show brings 10 wellknown artists from Pakistan in a `Signature` exhibition. The next show introduces relatively unknown young artists who would otherwise not get an opportunity for an international show, let alone in any of the mainstream galleries in Karachi. `Studio Seven` is aiming to set new standards, as I am also offering collaboration to galleries in Pakistan and other countries. We also plan to open our premises in Karachi in early 2016. Thus, we will also be looking at travelling shows and many more openings for discourse.

You have openly criticised galleries and curators for favouring a kind of experimentation, or success formula and marginalising many local narratives. How can you intervene as director and curator and change that role`? What are the professional services that you bring to the gallery circuit in relationship to the artist`? Galleries need to get professional, which means that they have to offer artists support in the transportation of artwork, insurance, curators` commission, link to international galleries and buyers, etc. We will be doing all that in a systematic way and in written contracts.

In terms of giving exposure to artists, I would say that there is a wealth of artists, but they are waiting in the lines simply because some curators do not even look their way. There is prejudice based on social and economic standing because of which some exceptional potential is not allowed to flourish.

There are biases. I can only say that I want to intervene and open the gallery platform and nurture and create my own heroes. m