Jamil Naqsh and The ‘Names of God’

Albemarle Gallery

24 July 2013 – Part 1 Painted Word

1 August 2013 – Part 2 Painted Word

Jamil Naqsh, now in his seventies, is probably the best known artist in his native Pakistan, and has more recently achieved a firmly founded international reputation. Born in Kairana, in Uttar Pradesh, he left for Pakistan at the time of partition, trained both as a Western-style painter and as a practitioner of traditional Mughal-style painting and calligraphy, and has now for some years lived as a recluse in London.

This summer he is the subject of two ambitious linked exhibitions, one at the Albemarle Gallery in London, which now represents him, and the other at Asia House.

Naqsh is well known for sensual figurative work, most particularly for his voluptuous female nudes, which show the influence of Picasso and of the Italian sculptor Marino Marini, but also that of Ingres, of Mughal court painting, and of the sinuous erotic sculptures that adorn pre-Mughal Hindu temples, such as those adorning the famous group of such structures at Kajuraho, which date from about 950 to 1150 CE.

His new series of paintings, however, consists of abstractions based on Arabic calligraphy. As is well known to all students of Islamic culture, the written words play a particularly important part in the history of Islamic visual expression. Even more than the other two great monotheistic religions, Islam is a faith linked very specifically to a book. The Islamic tradition relates that the Qu’ran was revealed to Mohammed in written form, not all at once, but in several parts. The revelation was made by the angel Jibr’ail (Gabriel) in a cave named Hira, situated in the mountains close to Mecca, where Mohammed had gone to pray and contemplate in seclusion.

On the first occasion, the angel appeared entirely unexpectedly, and commanded the Prophet to read what was shown to him. Mohammed replied: ‘I do not know how to read.’ The angel seized him and forced him to read, in a struggle resembling that of Jacob with the angel, as recounted in the Old Testament.

It is part of the story of Islamic calligraphic forms that many of the established Arabic scripts, especially when one meets them in their more archaic guise, contain an element of concealment. They convey meaning, but one sometimes has to puzzle the meaning out. This is true, for example of the grandly hieratic inscriptions in Kufic script that adorn important religious buildings.

It is also true that Arabic scripts, while less obviously ‘pictorial’ than Chinese characters, tend to contain subtly pictorial elements, of a kind that don’t exist in standard Western alphabets. Despite the often cited prohibition, in strict Islam, of directly pictorial representations of human beings, and even of animals, this ‘pictoriality’, as one may call it, nevertheless has a religious basis. In Arabic, for example, the relevant word not only denotes God, it actually is God, in the sense that it contains and makes manifest the divine essence. It is notable that many of Naqsh’s new paintings take as their basis the phrase in Arabic that attempts to define various divine attributes – the now traditional (but often in detail variable) list of the ‘99 Names of God.’

It is a vital part of the dialogue that Naqsh sets up with the spectator that the character forms he uses are vehicles for specific meanings – they are not autonomous, existing as ends in themselves. Yet it is also part of their function that the meanings are partly veiled.

It is worth making some comparisons here with the history of Western abstract art. Kandinsky, for example, is often cited as the inventor of pure abstraction in Western painting. Yet one also notes that his purely abstract forms were nevertheless rooted in his previous experience of working figuratively. In a famous autobiographical passage he described how he was inspired to embark on his adventure into abstraction by seeing some of his own earlier works lying on their sides in his studio, positioned so that their figurative significance was momentarily lost.

One can also note that Kandinsky’s voyage into this then uncharted world of independent forms was also a spiritual, quasi-religious journey, inspired both by his interest in primitive shamanism and, even more strongly, by his commitment to Theosophy, the New Age creed of his generation.

In fact, much of the history of 20th century abstract art is linked to a quest for religious feeling – but feeling in this case not directly linked to any of the major historically established creeds. Mark Rothko, who was in many ways Kandinsky’s direct heir, though he came from a Jewish, not a Christian background, once said that the purpose of his paintings was to make people weep, without knowing exactly why. The self-consciously puritan Minimalism of the late 1960s and 1970s seems, at first sight, like a violent rejection of these spiritual overtones. Yet when one looks at some of the pronouncements of Donald Judd, one notes that they seem to make quasi-religious claims. How about this, for example? ‘Society is basically not interested in art. Art has a purpose of its own.’

What Jamil Naqsh’s paintings based on Arabic calligraphy do is to return art to society – they restore the broken link. It is not simply that Naqsh has turned to these forms as a basis for his paintings. It is also that he is a trained calligrapher, with a thorough understanding of the various styles that leading practitioners have employed throughout the centuries. He is therefore situated within a centuries old tradition, while at the same time being completely aware of the history of Western Modernism. With this new series of works, his job has been to reconcile two apparently opposing kinds of artistic endeavor.

This returns me to something I have already said: Jamil Naqsh’s ambition is to be recognised as an artist who addresses himself, not simply to an Islamic audience, but to a world audience. This audience – the majority of it – is not only non-Arabic speaking, but also illiterate in Arabic. They recognise that the signs presented to them have meaning, but cannot be precisely sure what that meaning is.

However, in the societies to which this audience belongs, a deliberately abstract or abstracted art has now been familiar for pretty well exactly a century. It is now a given that non-representational signs and gestures in paint are capable of conveying, not so much specific meaning that can be easily verbalised, but specific emotions of the sort we often (and quite traditionally) receive from music. This kind of communication is in fact so long established in civilised societies, that nobody much bothers to argue about it. Minimalism, noticeably puritan in addition to being simply reductive, can be thought of as a kind of last stand against this kind of emotional communication. One does nevertheless notice that Minimal works do in fact often seem to convey strong emotions despite the declared intentions of their authors – feelings of anger and contempt for the audience. While apparently seeking for universality they embrace elitism, as my quotation from Donald Judd suggests.

Jamil Naqsh’s calligraphic paintings and drawings follow an entirely different path. They essentially focus, not on the magical power of the artist’s personality – a path followed by Western art from the time of the Renaissance (witness the two biographies of Michelangelo, by Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi respectively, written during the artist’s own lifetime) – but on the power of the mysterious sign. The artist subjects himself to the sign, and tries to tease out its meaning for those who, in the most literal sense, cannot read it.

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