The style is monumental, created from a minimal palette, the inspiration a self-portrait – introspective, rugged with troubled expression. The recent work of Abdul Jabbar Gull displayed at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi, consists of a collection of paintings, inkand-wash works, interspersed with some three-dimensional pieces. The artists is adamant tha the remains a sculptor and the work on canvas executed in oils a diversion; a deeply delving exploration of his own inner thoughts and feelings.

Inquiry is life, and while it exists questioning is the essence of it if one is to keep moving and evolving. If I work to express myself then I must know what is this ‘self’, and what motivates me to work.

Is it for expression, appreciation or to display talent, he muses, and concludes the motive is accumulative of all these factors. Gull describes the subject of his work as ‘Ordinary Souls’;

I am one of them,

he explains.

It began when he sketched a series of forms intended as ideas to be conceived in the third dimension. Enjoying the exercise, Gull translated the concept on to a sequence of large canvases. The self-portrait crystallized Gull’s conviction that he was a prototype for every man, the ordinary soul moulded by environment, tradition, and circumstances. At first glance the imagery appears to deal with family, male/female representatives. It is actually mirroring the twin aspects that constitute each human being.

The two sides that make us a whole,

he says.

In Gull’s portraits, shaven heads are a symbol of innocence linked to salvation and the rituals of birth and pilgrimage. He depicts groups of people representing generations past, present and future, describing the circumstances by which custom is passed through succeeding generations. In the shattered environment that defies norm, traditions are broken, customs questioned and only grief and suffering remain a common factor among the ‘ordinary souls’ of the world.

Gull’s is a thought-provoking body of work, musing on spirituality, diversity and the war of propaganda that he describes as, “misleading us”. Subjects with arms raised take a protective stance, shielding their young ones perhaps or their ideology or culture. A smaller figure barely glimpsed holds a hostage attitude, hands on head. Each generation, he tells us, is held hostage to circumstances.

Among the simplified, heavy limbed forms, one finds a single figure identified by his clothes, a jacket and tic, the painting is titled ‘The Scholar’. He stands with bare feet, fingers pointing towards the earth. Here the artist communicates a belief in the need for humility in the world; success must be worn with grace.Rendered in shadows and tones, paintings are varied with diverse textures. Some are executed with smooth, even strokes, others patterned with thick areas of paint from the tube. In a few smaller compositions in which a single colour has been incorporated, the forms stand out in russet, green and blue but the colour holds no meaning. Rather, it is a spontaneous experimentation or mood and the theme of vulnerable innocence continues to link them.

The theme seems also to encompass the unquestioning guileless quality that takes things and people at face value, accepts the package with naive deference before examining the contents.

Ordinary Souls initiates a dialogue with viewers that raise many issues. The seemingly clean simplicity of the format harbours a subtext that is complex in the extreme. The inkand-wash works continue to exploit the subject in a style that clearly reveals the artist’s sophisticated understanding of overall design elements. Here the loss of innocence is portrayed in the seamed impression of facial features.

These are elegant works in which tones of grey and blue create a contemporary background to the areas incorporating a simulated script that evoke Gull’s interest in eastern calligraphy. The ethos of the sculptor is ever present in the use of form and light in the paintings and in wood carvings that support the theme of an anonymous majority whose destiny is linked to suffering.

A wall-based sculpture consists of small, wood panels. Grouped together, they compose a sequence of fresco style portraits. Thirty altogether, these are the: ‘Most Unwanted…’ the artist contends that while huge sums are offered to capture the ‘most wanted criminals’ of the world, there are untold numbers of ordinary people who become the victims of the crossfire, innocent passers-by.

A continuation of the work is a series of wood panels grouped around one single ‘face’. Here the visuals are maps etched into the wood describing troubled areas of the world. Carved and engraved, the wood is smoked to reveal the beauty of the grain, a technique that softens the stark message of Gull’s wall-based carvings. In contrast, the oblong ‘takhti’ shaped, two feet tall, floor-based wood sculptures are densely worked. Carved, engraved, panelled and with areas of gestural script that details the artist’s technical skills.