Abdul Jabbar Gul’s dialogue with wood evolves gradually and very slowly. The natural shape and grain initiate the process of making which eventually becomes a catalyst for the artist’s impulse to create. Each sculpture stripped to its minimal truth bears a profound aura of spirituality. It is not just titles like ‘rukooh’ and ‘the worshipper’, but an internal humility that lends the figurative work its human context, writes Amra AliAbdul Jabbar Gull The abnormal, Life Size, Treated GRP Within a relatively short time since his graduation from the National College of Art in 1996, Jabbar Gul has revealed himself as an unmitigated original, an attribute without which an artist is bound to falter and lose his way. His sculptures seem to take on an inherent mysteriousness, even though Jabbar’s final work bears a close resemblance to the natural shape, colour and grain of sheesham (teak wood), or dyaar. The relationship between the artist’s material and his intuitive processes undergo a near immaculate transformation: the capacity of enfolding the intangible and the spiritual, merging with it the very opposing physicaland the technical.
After three years as a design student at the NCA, Jabbar switched over to Fine Art where he discovered his fascination for sculpture in the next three more years there. He credits the general stimulating environment of the college, and unending sessions with the sculptor teacher Mohammad Asif, for creating the departure point that was to lead this student of sculpture into a serious inquiry that went way beyond the NCA years. Today, he is taking the route that few graduates have opted for in recent years; perhaps, he says, that this is due to the physical labor and the time required by the medium itself. He finds himself less fortunate though than his peers who are painters having far more role models and contemporaries to get inspiration from, and hence to engage in dialogue with. Thus working in relative isolation as far as his medium is concerned, it must become even more necessary for this sculptor to gauge his own work; for art that emerges within a strong interactive environment is bound to produce more facets of any given discipline, and quench an artist’s creative energies. Besides, he feels, and one may choose to disagree here, that a painter or a print maker may produce relatively more work within a shorter time span, and hence may be able to hold more solos and group shows.
It is true, though, that in the last two decades, at least, there has been far more innovation, diversity and growth in painting than in sculpture in Pakistan. For example, Shahid Sajjad is one sculptor who has produced a major body of work, but his work is hidden away safely in the homes of collectors, rather than put on view in a public gallery or a museum, or showcased and catalogued in one retrospective show. It is very important for artists and students of a new generation to experience the continuity within the practice of sculpture, from Amin Gulgee going back to Shahid Sajjad, and further back in history; and to trace the links and influences of diverse cultural factors that lie within this tradition of sculpture in the Asian subcontinent.It may also be a safe assumption that not many of Jabbar’s peers, let alone his students at the Indus Valley School where he has been teaching for the past three years, have had the chance to study in any depth the work of any major traditions in sculpture other than the work of their teachers like David Alesworth or of Jabbar. Such exposure or education is bound to limit a student’s knowledge, and make him/her see only one viewpoint. The knowledge that we receive, laments Jabbar, is ‘kahi suni’ – in bits and pieces – and that, too, in often heavily biased reviews or commentaries that tend to further alienate this generation from the work or mindset of elder artists; and regrettably, though not surprisingly, certain healthy links to the past are automatically muddled.
Prayer, Ht 58”, Wood First Intellect, Ht 40” Wood Things, though, says Jabbar are very slowly changing, where we are seeing a rise in the number of graduates in sculpture who he hopes will continue to produce work even after graduation. It is perhaps the true test of an artist’s depth and commitment when there are no longer professors to guide and encourage, no favorites, no distinctions, but only a lonely path where he or she must ‘find’his own way. Most students and many of his peers, believes Jabbar, do take shortcuts in art, which obviously stunts an artist’s natural evolution. The structure within the art market also puts pressure on an artist, a painter or sculptor, to continue to show work at repeated intervals in order to remain in ‘vogue’, and to keep selling. Whether this pressure is exerted by the commercial galleries, or by artists hungry for quick recognition, it remains nevertheless a negative trend that has retarded the growth of ‘art’ to a mere commercial commodity, and promoted, and even assisted, the acceptance of mediocrity in our system.
Jabbar cites the example of wood carvers he saw on a recent trip to Sri Lanka with his students. Every day, the carvers would carve outpieces of their deities, that earned them their daily wages. How can the work of artistswho are producing in bulk here at home and winning much recognition be separated from those carvers who work mechanically, and produce in bulk at a commercial level, asks Jabbar. There is bound to be a difference between an artist’s work that goes through many stages of creativity from that of those wood carvers. Thus, commercialism and art have tobe separated if one is in search of authenticity and honesty in art. Many artists, he believes, do produce ‘formula’ art, and are wholeheartedly embraced as creators of anoriginal art by the galleries and critics. In Jabbar’s approach towards his work and in his attitude towards life there is an undoubted clarity – a firm sense of which ideas or approaches must be incorporated to take him into the future. Perhaps what strikes me most is the humility with which he questions his own work, and an honesty with which he tries to make sense of the contradictions in artistic sensibilities around him. Perhaps it is an artist’s disposition that really dictates his intent. Jabbar carries with him a disciplined base of technical skill, which releases itself to find an authentic voice when he searches for the essence of his artistic sensibility. The medium, he asserts, must be dictated by an artist’s intuition and sensitivity to it, rather than becoming the content in itself. Wood can ‘suggest’ the direction of a sculpture, but not ‘dictate’ the process of ‘making’, he repeats. His dialogue with wood evolves gradually and very slowly, in which the natural shape and grain initiate the process of making which eventually becomes a catalyst for the artist’s impulse to create. Each sculpture stripped to its minimal truth, bears a profound aura of spirituality. It is not just titles such as ‘rukooh’, ‘the worshipper’ etc., but an internal humility that lends the figurative work its human context. The emotional and the physical converge into a cohesive whole – a marriage that could easily have become a repetitive physical exercise.
The town of Mirpurkhas is the last stop before the great Thar Desert in Sindh, and it is from here that Jabbar got his identity. He reminisces with fondness about the sign painters that he would see every day on his way to school. These calligraphers, as he calls them, became his first teachers, and it is from this contact that he learned to draw, colour, and most importantly, the exercise of khattati meant hours of hours of copying and perfecting a technique. It is interesting to note that the artist refers to the work of pavement sign painters as calligraphy. Why, he asks, must we draw unnatural barriers between that calligraphy which finds it’s authentication in an elitist art circle to that which is rooted in our environment? A validobservation by an artist who questions the credibility of prevailing trends in our art world; in the last decade art and criticism in Pakistan has brought into its fold many such issues that question the validity of artistic sensibilities that have put on a pedestal only those references to this culture which bear a stamp of authentication by western trends or theoretical terminology. A portrait by Jabbar at the sign painter’s workshop brought him in contact with Lal Mohammad Pathan. Also from Mirpurkhas, Pathan, who was to become a guru to Jabbar, encouraged him to try free hand drawing, sending him for assignments to the nearby railway station; and later guiding him to apply to the National College of Art. As a shaagird at the billboard workshop, he learnt to respect his ustad, and got the gift of humility that keeps him humble even in the face of success. In the big cities, he wonders if there are many genuine ustads to begin with, who are willing to give selflessly to the student.
It was much later that he learned to draw the human figure and the skeleton with disciplined approach of his ustads. Today, when he digresses from the realistic to a more abstract form, he works with a knowledge that enriches his vision, and makes his statement all the more relevant. With limited exposure in two exhibitions at Canvas, Karachi, and one at the Arts Council, Jabbar’s work heads off this October to India as part of ‘Urraan’, a major exhibition of 30 contemporary Pakistani artists at the visual art centre at Habitat, Delhi, to be curated by Niilofur Farrukh.
Childhood exposure to the feel of wood at his father’s carpenter’s shop emerged into a deeper dialogue with the same material, although Jabbar attributes this to be a decision of the subconscious. He is among but a few artists of my generation who I see are consciously trying to push aside tendencies in contemporary art that may be blindly following new trends for the sake of getting on the bandwagon of fame. It is only when an artist is able to think for himself that he is able to produce something that may be termed as a meaningful discourse into the process of creating an original work of art. Other routes may, no doubt, provide temporary gratification. Jabbar seems to follow his own instincts; the rest follows automatically; some decisions, he says, are best left to God.