Words without Form: Language as Medium
We think in words. We employ them in the construction of our identities. Does the absence of these written forms therefore deny us these identities? The authors of these works offer – whether by juxtaposition or obfuscation, redaction or even sublimation – a potent illustration to the contrary. ‘Words without Form’ traces an invisible, conceptual line that begins at Man Ray’s poem Paris, Mai (1924) then maneuvers around Henri Michaux’s machinations, underscores Mira Schendel’s grammatical reinventions, circles around Cy Twombly’s mark-making, expands to rival Xu Bing’s grand scale and is sublimated into the stoic spirituality of Kufic Qur’an manuscripts.
The confluence of these art practices is rooted in seeking harmony between action and result. Evincing the use of rhythmic consistency, iconic signs, expressive grammar and interpretive transcendence, the works in ‘Words without Form’ are akin to visual ciphers – revealing what the written word cannot reveal.
Written / Un-written
This section brings together artists with an interest in deconstruction – in the paring down of written forms to their residual essence. The words, once signifiers of the world, are in themselves devoid of meaning. They become shadows, floating free, unhinged from the world. As a result of this radical deconstruction, all we are left with are symbols — a textual residue.
Nasr Eddine Bennacer
Nasr Eddine Bennacer has been living and working in Paris since 1987. Bennacer’s work tackles questions on the evolution of links between civilizations, cultures, language. A cornerstone of his artistic practice is the application of paint in a way that suggests text but with grave implications, as one we can see in the six canvases on display in this exhibition. The works take on a sombre tone - letters obscured by washes of water imply histories erased but not lost. Much of the artist's ouevre is references migrant refugees - human collateral in the capitalist wheel that never stops turning. The round shape of the canvases hint at this, along with the obvious reference to the thought bubbles one might encounter in a graphic novel. What is unclear is where this conversation might take place and what might be said - part of the unknowable forms the core of the artist's interests.
Further, Bennacer's work considers the ambiguity that exists in human relationships and interaction, with a focus on the manipulation and exploitation of conflicts, either for the individual or on a more global scale. Is the case that the aggressor is always the one demonstrating power or influence, or do political and economic forces interfere through sentiment and intellect creating tensions between an ideology and its realization? Behind a scrupulous and often poetic aesthetic, the artist denounces a world increasingly hostile to manipulation and rationalisation, sometimes tinged with violence but yet majestic. Bennacer is comfortable in all media: including drawing, sculpture, canvas and installation.
Youdhisthir Maharjan uses found materials and reclaimed text, engaging in laboriously repetitive and autopoietic processes, to create a new language that transcends their humble origin and takes a new life of its own, independent of its prescribed meaning and form; inquiring the intersection of identity and anonymity, individual and collective, familiar and alien; exploring the materiality of text; and reasserting the thingness of language. The result is a sculptural object that is given new life and is freed from the signifying purpose of words.
Influenced by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Maharjan explores the idea of futility through a painstaking and repetitive process of carving out and erasing words and alphabets from their original, embedded position in the text. What remains is a composition of textures and patterns that turn the at surface of a page into a dynamic entity. These sculptural pieces, with their unique visual language, are intuitively decipherable and bafflingly elusive in equal parts.
In the artist’s own words:
“I am interested in the idea of Sisyphean eternity, monotonous repetition of the same labor over and over again, with no hope or expectation for an end. In the process, I experience different kind of eternity, the sweet kind, that lasts for few material moments, but feels like forever, where the time stops, and with it, stops all my questions and worries, where I am free from my existential burden and get a little closer to myself.”
I am interested in the idea of Sisyphean eternity...the sweet kind, that lasts for few material moments, but feels like forever, where the time stops, and with it, stops all my questions and worries, where I am free from my existential burden and get a little closer to myself.
- Youdhisthir Maharjan
Spoken | Un-spoken
It is impossible to have a robust conversation on the role of language in art without acknowledging the relationship of art and poetry. Artists have long been inspired by the words of poets, often integrating this into their practice. In this section artists with an interest in spoken words celebrate the raw emotional power of language and what is lost in transmission.
Sarah Ahmad investigates cosmic interconnectedness through common patterns that traverse medium, drawing inspiration from the natural world—from biological forms found within the human body and botanical life, to the astral forces that structure the universe. Patterns from nature meld with geometric patterns that recall Islamic art making traditions symbolizing the universal oneness structuring our existence. Barriers between the material, the ephemeral, and the spiritual dissolve as one feels an integral part of something larger than oneself.
In Bol, the artist references a verse from a poem of the same title by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, which begins: Speak for your lips are free.
The work cites these words in the context of the multiple, veiled, paradoxical identities that are thrust upon women. The photographs portray a woman confined in layers of chadors (blankets) that bind her, hiding her true identity. They offer refuge from the outside world and delineate her form, but do little to make her identifiable. Is she enclosed by the fabric covering her like a web or adorned by it? Is she content and accepting of her reality, or has she surrendered, oblivious of what she could be? Or is she struggling to break free? The work poses all these questions.
In Cosmic Veils, the artist unifies a number of strands that form recurring themes: notions of veiling; destruction and resurrection; and the universal forms that emerge in art & the natural world. A site-specific installation inspired by the Western Veil of the Veil Nebula—a glowing haze comprising remnants of the violent death of a star twenty times larger than the sun—Cosmic Veils invites us to consider that the aftermath of the massive destruction can offer something beautiful and unique.
Cosmic Veils further reflects on the significance of the veil. A veil might offer refuge from the outside world. But it also might isolate, concealing one’s true identity. Such a notion invites us to consider the parts of ourselves that might be veiled, even from ourselves. What would it mean to unveil these hidden aspects? We are reminded that this unveiling process can be deeply discomfiting.
Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi or Sadequain as he was known, was one of the first Pakistani artists to gain international recognition, embarking on his notable career with an award from the Biennale de Paris in 1961. The artist was born in Amroha, India, descending from a family of Qur’an scribes and is recognized as the foremost calligrapher and painter of Pakistan, responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in the country since the late 1960s and bringing the art form into the mainstream. His life-long love for the spoken word – mainly poetry - is well-documented and sustained his artistic practice for the entirety of his career.
Sadequain stepped away from the old traditions of calligraphy and invented his own unique iconography, which he referred to as Khatt-e-Sadequaini (Sadequain's font). Sadequain’s subject stemmed from the beautiful amalgamation of Eastern Calligraphy and Western figurative traditions in art along with Hindu and Muslim ideology. His flamboyant, swirling text, heavy with allegory and divine symbolism, create a sense of space and movement in his compositions. Sadequian once said that he was mainly a figurative painter, he replicates the sweeps of a calligraphic brush in his energetic way of painting figures. He used the same principles he used to paint figurative paintings in his calligraphic art. His calligraphies broke the established norms and represents a radical departure from old guarded traditions.
Towards the last eighteen years of his career, Sadequain abandoned his figurative art for calligraphy. Calligraphic Panel illustrates a section of Chapter Six, Surah Al An’am, verse one of the of the Holy Qur’an. Critics of Sadequin say that during this time the artist was influenced by a military regime to produce calligraphies such as Calligraphic Panel to support the states ideology. The works which consisted primarily of sacred texts from the Qur’an aided the government in acquiring patronage to promote religious art.
Written | Re-written
The final section offers us artists with an interest in altering the permutations of linguistic forms to transcend meaning. It follows that these practices tend toward the sculptural – displaying an abiding interest in the ‘build-up’ of words. Meticulous and poetic in equal parts, the works use language as a means to recall and remake what was and what could be.
The inspiration for Ghulam Mohammad’s creations - intricate collages of hundreds of individually cut out Urdu alphabet letters pasted upon handcrafted wasli paper – derives from his realization that language has the power to both unite and divide people. His own experiences of struggling to acquaint himself with Urdu after growing up in Balochistan, where combinations, pronunciation and meanings of basic letters were so different, seemed to make the cultural gap between himself and the society to which he was trying to adjust that much more difficult to bridge.
Mohammad's 'unpicking' of the fabric of words is a strenuous, Herculean process. The words slowly disintegrate into delicate, migratory components, which no longer retain their previous authority. The artist works with the vulnerability of text, together with its tenderness and its fragility. These tiny visual installations are a bewildering forest of ciphers. There are deeper meanings here, the shadowy disappearance of text altogether raises questions about absence and erasure.
In the words of distinguished artist and arts-educator Salima Hashmi, "The sifting of these frail, graceful ingredients by Ghulam Mohammad is deft and subtle. He is sensitive to their precarious lives – lost creatures, searching for a place to anchor themselves. Paper as a medium reinforces the idea of history embedded in the manuscript – the mystery of language transferred into the mystery of the mark. The words or letters are compressed in ways reminiscent of ‘daastans’ or epic stories which are never-ending."
Significant among the works in the exhibition is a 13 foot woven paper carpet that stems from some of Mohammad’s earliest experiments with paper collage. The work weaves together second-hand texts from the various languages used in Pakistan – bound together through their use of Arabic script. This amalgamation, while obfuscating the meaning of each individual text, is turned into a functional object, thumbed by many and connecting all.
"Paper as a medium reinforces the idea of history embedded in the manuscript – the mystery of language transferred into the mystery of the mark. The words or letters are compressed in ways reminiscent of ‘daastans’ or epic stories which are never-ending."
- Salima Hashmi, on Ghulam Mohammad
Rachid Koraïchi’s work is influenced by his heritage as a Quraishite, a transcriber of Quaranic text, in the Aurès region in Algeria. The artist’s exploration of script quickly went on to meld characters from Arabic, Sumerian, Hebrew, Chinese, and his personal system of codes, numbers, and marks. He has referred to his visual lexicon as an “alphabet of memory,” using it to articulate not only his aesthetic vision, but also his views on co-existence, tolerance, and perseverance.
In the current exhibition, these ideas are realized in the set of silk banners dyed in indigo. The repeated forms are organized into experiential spaces that lead viewers along pathways or envelop them within inscribed panels of white linen or deep indigo suspended from the ceiling, possibly to suggest sacred spaces and the link between heaven and earth. Created in collaboration with highly skilled artisans from Aleppo in Syria, these banners reinforce the connection between local and global communities that is an integral aspect of the artist’s work. In the words of Algerian poet Rachid Boudjedra, "Through these lines, signs and marks, these traces and tattoos, these scars, Koraïchi is expressing a desire to reestablish the legitimacy, not only of Arabic calligraphy, but also of all the symbols and signs that are rich with spiritual and physical history. They reflect all of our accumulated traditions, all of our ancestral customs, but are, at the same time, looking towards the future.”