Anwar Jalal Shemza
Anwar Jalal Shemza

Over a decade ago, in the summer of 2010, Aicon Gallery, London opened ‘A Missing History: ‘The Other Story’ Re-visited’, exhibiting the works of Anwar Jalal Shemza, Rasheed Araeen, F N Souza, Avinash Chandra and a few other artists. This group exhibition re-visited the seminal exhibition ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’ that closed in 1990 – twenty years ago before this one. The first show was curated by Rasheed Araeen and it had opened at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. The show’s premise was to present artists working in Britain with an African-Caribbean, African or Asian cultural background whose works were ignored by overriding interpretations of Modernism. Along with ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, the 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial and Documenta XI, ‘The Other Story’ is one of the key exhibitions that impacted on the ways in which a previously closed art world was opened up to issues of  exile, post-colonialism, migration and globalization. Each of these exhibitions generated a lot of controversy, which was expected, and heated discussions took place at the time of each show.

A year after the Aicon Gallery exhibition, Simone Wille asked: “Exhibitions, auctions, and markets: How have art galleries and art organizations worked towards opening up new ways of looking at contemporary art from Pakistan?”[i] The question was posed in an essay about the growing presence of art from Pakistan beyond its own borders into North America and Europe. She cited the example of Green Cardamom operating as both an organization and gallery, successfully advancing the careers of artists from Pakistan producing “well-developed curatorial projects and publications that have a tendency to radiate beyond its gallery artists into a variety of cultures.” Wille wrote about Green Cardamom showcasing “two important modernist artists from Pakistan – Anwar Jalal Shemza and Zahoor ul Akhlaq – and having developed a historical art discourse on both these artists by commissioning texts relating to new research.”

(Fig. 1) Anwar Jalal Shemza (July 14, 1928 Simla, India – January 18, 1985 Stafford, UK) © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza
(Fig. 1) Anwar Jalal Shemza (July 14, 1928 Simla, India – January 18, 1985 Stafford, UK) © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

The well-known and celebrated Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) had graduated from the National College of Arts (1962), and he started teaching at the same college, at first as lecturer, moving up to become head of the department in the Faculty of Fine Arts from 1963 until his retirement in 1991.  Anwar Jalal Shemza, on the other hand, known more popularly simply as ‘Shemza’, is an important modernist who worked in relative obscurity, getting little recognition for his exceptional works. He had also studied at the Mayo School of Arts (renamed the NCA in 1958), but had moved to the UK in the mid1950s and lived there permanently from 1961 until his death in 1985. Since Shemza lived in the UK, his work tackles with diasporic issues, revisiting and recontextualizing what he had left behind.

Shemza was born in Simla, India, in 1928 to a Kashmiri and Punjabi family. He attended high school in Lahore and later convinced his family to let him join the Mayo School as he had a strong inclination towards arts. He was associated with Lahore’s Urdu literary groups, including the notable Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, the literary movement that begun in the Lahore of British India in 1939. Together with working on his paintings, he also contributed his writings to the literary circles. He edited a fortnightly Urdu journal, “Ehsaas”, wrote Urdu poetry, four novels, and a number of scripts for the radio. The intellectual environment was nurturing his artistic competencies in the true sense. It was difficult to determine whether Shemza was a painter or a writer.

For this article, I reached out to my Design teacher and former Principal at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Karachi, artist Rashid Arshed who has been residing in the United States for a few decades now.  He wrote back to me that unfortunately he never met Shemza because “he lived most of the time in London. And if he ever came to Pakistan, I never had a chance to see him”. However, Rashid Arshed further wrote that “I came across a very interesting book, “Dekho Shehar Lahore” by the famous Urdu short story writer, A. Hameed, who mentions his meetings with Shemza. A. Hameed also mentions Pak Tea House a lot, more than any other source. If you can recall the Shezan Restaurant sign in Karachi or Lahore, it was designed by Shemza. A. Hameed describes it as a replica of Shemza’s signature. “I have sold my name to Shezan”, laments Shemza in one of his meetings with A. Hameed, who also mentions meeting Shemza in Chai Khana under a tree outside the Radio Pakistan building in Lahore”. Arshed saheb has mentioned Shemza and A. Hameed in his book, “Art Scene of Pakistan” in passing when discussing the famous Pak Tea House. It must be mentioned here that Shemza signed his artworks in Urdu, and his presence at the Pak Tea House meetings have been recorded fondly by not only A. Hameed, but also by Intizar Hussain, and others.

When Shemza attended the Mayo School of Arts, a late-Bengal School style dominated there.  Abanindranath Tagore, born in Calcutta in1871 (nephew of the celebrated Rabindranath Tagore), was one of the most prominent artists of India and he was the first major supporter of swadeshi values in Indian art. He had at first created the ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and later went on to establish the Bengal School of Art. The sole aim for Abanindranath to establish the school was to counter the English influence on Indian artists. Also, from the other side of the subcontinent, artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai, born in Lahore in 1894, was influenced by the Orientalist style of the Bengal School. When Chughtai joined the Mayo School in 1911, a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore was Vice-Principal. Chughtai’s early watercolours take from the revivalism of the Bengal School, although his romantic paintings also came from other traditions such as Persian miniatures and Art Nouveau. Shemza’s teachers were prominent artists Ustad Haji Sharif, Ustad Lateef Chughtai, Sheikh Shuja Ullah and others. A painting created by Shemza in 1944, “The Couple”, typified the late-Bengal School style in which he worked at the time.

Anwar Jalal Shemza 02
(Fig. 2) The Couple, 1944, 23 x 34 cm, Gouache on water colour paper. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

After his graduation in 1947, which was the traumatic year of the huge upheaval of the subcontinent – the Partition of India, Shemza set up a design studio in Lahore for commercial assignments. His personal loss of many of his family members killed in Ludhiana in the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh riots haunted him throughout his life. At his studio he designed pamphlets, press layouts, cinema slides and posters and also contributed illustrations for magazines. He did significant work for the Pakistan government’s PR Department as well.

During the early and mid1950s Shemza was in the company of a group of other young artists who aspired for change, for newness, as it was a society in turmoil, and the old literature and art was perhaps not relevant to what they had witnessed. Similar to the writers, these artists also used to meet at tea houses and founded the Lahore Art Circle in 1952. This group, consisting of Shakir Ali, Ali Imam, Sheikh Safdar Ali, Moyene Najmi, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Razia Feroze and Miriam Shah played a pivotal role in the formulation of modernism in Pakistan. Since this group advocated a progressive outlook and approach towards art, they are also remembered as the progressive group of artists. Shakir Ali, whose works were produced under the influence of Cubism, inspired the others, becoming a catalyst for these talented artists. He gave the title of ‘Punj Pyaray’ to the five male artists of this group. The old guard of Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Ustad Allah Bakhsh, Soba Singh, etc. was making way for the younger generation.

Shemza taught at various schools and colleges in Pakistan before he moved to London in 1956 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, but his interest in art education remained a permanent feature of his life. Shemza suffered an existential crisis in his Slade years. Iftikhar Dadi, writes in the monograph on Shemza, quoting the artist:

“Before I came to England I was a very happy man, a celebrated artist, who had had several one-man exhibitions, who had his works in the national collections of his country and among very many private collections. I was, indeed, represented in dozens of countries.”[ii] Other than cultural isolation, it was what a celebrated Slade professor Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, an Austrian-born prominent British art historian said one day in a lecture that dispirited Shemza immensely. Gombrich, who had published his book ‘The Story of Art’ in 1950, and which was widely regarded as a seminal work of criticism, had dismissed Islamic art as purely functional. As colonials, artists such as Shemza who came to Britain feeling that they belonged to the modern movement, (and they had found that being there had liberated them from any lasting sense of subservience), but still, hearing that lecture by Gombrich, Shemza was devastated. He found the dismissal of the visual arts and for all of the artistic expressions of the Islamic peoples, of the vast populations of the Middle East and elsewhere that adopted the Islamic faith from the 7th century onward extremely depressing. So much so that he destroyed all his work.

(Fig. 3) Chessmen One, 1961, 920 × 710 mm, oil on canvas. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

It has been written in various essays on Shemza that in order to find an identity and purpose for his art, Shemza wandered restlessly from place to place, until he found himself in the Egyptian section of the British Museum. For the first time in England, he felt really at home. His visits to the British Museum allowed him to study Islamic art from various regions and periods, something that he had not been able to do in Pakistan. Dadi also notes that “Precisely due to this sense of dislocation, and because even his previous artistic achievements offered no solace, the Slade years were highly productive for him. Not only did he work intensively on his own paintings, but he was also exposed to the range of global art housed in British museum collections, and engaged in a sustained study of Islamic art from various regions and periods…”

(Fig. 4) Composition in Red and Green Squares and Circles 1963, 911 X 720 x 18 mm, oil on canvas. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Shemza then began an exploration of the modernist abstraction of the Swiss artist Paul Klee and Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky: two names that have come to stand almost as synonyms for classical modernism, as also the works of the Dutch Piet Mondrian. From Klee he learned the importance of the flat surface, and the freedom to employ geometry and pattern towards a modernist search. Kandinsky and Mondrian are considered to be the first artists to have achieved a truly abstract visual language in painting. In fact, Mondrian took a reductive approach to form, interpreting his earliest abstract paintings as a series of interlocking vertical and horizontal lines. Shemza now began to develop work based on his personal knowledge and understanding of Mughal architecture, calligraphic forms, and carpet patterns. The former being a close experience as his family owned a carpet and military embroidery business in Ludhiana.

Anwar Jalal Shemza 05
(Fig. 5) White Palace, 1964, 20 x 32 cm, oil on canvas, laid onto board, signed and dated upper left. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Shemza was encouraged by his Slade tutor Andrew Forge in these new explorations. Writing about Shemza’s work for his exhibition at the New Vision Centre in 1958, Forge succinctly put down that his “paintings derive equally from the rhythmical space-filling patterns of the rug and from the ‘growing line’ of modern Western art. His pictures are not mere patterns but images, and their forms, whether painted or drawn, invest the surface with a mysterious life. They have much of the most characteristic quality of modern art; their content, their mood, the look that they address us with emanates directly from a musical play with simply related forms, from an asymmetrical order, from a sensitive response to the picture surface itself”.[iii]

Once he decided to start again from the beginning, Shemza even decided to hide the face of that ‘celebrated artist’, and grew a beard.

(Fig. 6) Shemza painting Magic Carpet, London, 1960s. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza
(Fig. 6) Shemza painting Magic Carpet, London, 1960s. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

‘Marjorie Husain, in her monograph on Ali Imam mentions another revealing comment made in the same year, 1958 show at New Vision Centre, from art critic G.M. Butcher who upon seeing a group exhibition at Woodstock Gallery, London of Safi-ud-Din Ahmed, Murtaza Bashir, Ahmed Parvez, Ali Imam, and Anwar Jalal Shemza was quick to notice tendencies towards the future of painting, not only in Pakistan, but throughout the newly emerging countries of Islam from Morocco to Indonesia,’ writes art critic Salwat Ali.[iv]

This passage from Iftikhar Dadi throws more light on Shemza’s earlier state of mind, and his ‘discovery’ of his identity in the museums that he explored, as also the encouragement and affirmation he received from his professors and art critics: “Although I was a regular student at the Slade, I hated much of my time there: that was the only place that gave me unhappiness, a source to find happiness. Happiness was in the British Museum, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I started painting again, strange paintings. And at the Slade, Andrew Forge was ‘father and confessor’. His encouragement meant more to me than anything else that had happened to me in England. I worked between 14 and 18 hours a day. Further encouragement from GM Butcher and WG Archer confirmed only one thing, that my search for myself was leading in the right direction”.[v]

(Fig. 7) Untitled (Composition), 50.2 x 40.3 cm, oil on canvas laid on board. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

A talented printmaker, Shemza also produced an important series of paintings and graphic works based on traditional calligraphy as well. Since the origins of calligraphy can be traced to the inscribing of the Quran, it is considered a divine effort rather than an ordinary one. Thus many of the paintings and sketches that tend to look like organic botanical drawings and textile paintings, like the Roots series, could be seen as part of Shemza’s calligraphic yield. However, ‘roots’ can also be seen as a metaphor for one’s ‘national’, and now more so as ‘transnational’ roots.

Certain themes and motifs recur throughout Shemza’s work such as the walls and gates of Lahore and the Arabic letter ‘Meem’, fusing Western principles of modernism with those of traditional Islamic art forms. His daughter, Tasveer Shemza, talking about life with her father, in ‘Rewind’ reminisces: “I have the most incredible reminder of my father’s work – a lively piece from the Meem series. I had it on my wedding cake and for my 50th birthday had it made into stained glass for my front door”.[vi]

Anwar Jalal Shemza 08
(Fig. 8) Meem One, 1967, 1002 x1024 mm. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza
(Fig. 9) Meem Two, 1967, 915 × 915 mm, Oil on canvas. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Shemza exhibited widely and internationally across the world before his sudden death in 1985.  His works were shown in the 6th Triennial[vii] of World Art, New Delhi, in 1956; the 5th Exhibition of International Prints, Moderna Galerija, Ljubiana, in 1963; Graphische Sammlung, Vienna, in 1963; Treasures from the Commonwealth at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1965; the 6th International Print Biennial, Tokyo, in 1968; the 1st British International Drawing Biennial, Teeside Art Gallery, in 1973 (where he was a Major Prize recipient); the Other Story at Hayward Gallery, London, in 1989-90; Printmakers of Pakistan at Bradford City Art Gallery & Museum, in 1997-98; Typo at Ikon, Birmingham, 1999-2000; and Pakistan Another Vision at the Centre of Contemporary Art, Glasgow, in 2000.

(Fig. 10) War Sonnet, 1969, 98 x 73.5 cm, Oil on canvas. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Selected solo shows of Shemza’s work include those at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore, in 1960-2; the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art, Durham, in 1963; the Commonwealth Institute, Edinburgh, in 1969; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 1972; Indus Gallery, Karachi, in 1985; Manchester Metropolitan University, in 1992; and the Birmingham City Museum, in 1997-8.

Little is known about Shemza’s photograms – they were recently discovered in his archives and were exhibited for online viewing at Art Basel in 2020 for the first time. He was experimenting with photograms – images made without a camera – using flowers, ferns and weeds from his garden. His references range from the botanical records of nineteenth-century figures like Anna Atkins, whose self-published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions of 1843 is widely considered the first photo book, to the works of early modernists such as László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes.[viii]

Shemza met Mary Katrina Taylor in 1957 and they were married soon afterwards. About her parents, their daughter Tasveer says that “They were students when they met at an art ball in London in the late 1950s; it was fancy dress and my father wore his Pakistani national costume and my mother a painting smock. I think they were instantly attracted. He was at the Slade and she at the Institute of Education”.[ix]

(Fig. 11) Shemza with his daughter Tasveer Shemza. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza
(Fig. 11) Shemza with his daughter Tasveer Shemza. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

She further speaks about her father as an artist in exile, saying that he “rediscovered his heritage to create a unique style and had shows at Gallery One and the New Vision Centre. He was doing well and intended to take his knowledge and family (I was a baby) back to Pakistan, work as an educator at his alma mater, the Mayo School of Art in Lahore. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so my parents went back to the UK in 1962 and settled in Stafford, my mother’s hometown. Both worked fulltime as art teachers, and my mother supported my father, managing the household as he continued his practice”.  Known for her paintings, sculpture and calligraphy, Mary has held several successful solo exhibitions in Pakistan and the UK.

In the same interview daughter Tasveer admits that having both parents as artists, and in particular the highly and constantly intense life that her father was living, is what made her rebellious during her childhood and teenage years. She didn’t become an artist, “because there was too much of it at home”. She laments that her father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1985 at age 56, “but he looked much older. He’d had a heart attack when I was 16 and he knew that he should relax more, because really it was stress. It was the intensity with which he lived, teaching all day and working on his practice all night and that’s why he died so young”.

(Fig. 12) Anwar Jalal Shemza with his work at the Edinburgh Festival, 1969. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza
(Fig. 12) Anwar Jalal Shemza with his work at the Edinburgh Festival, 1969. © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Tasveer’s own daughter, Shemza’s granddaughter Aphra Shemza, is a London-based new media artist working with abstraction, interactivity and light, who has collaborated with another artist, Stuart Batchelor to produce a digital painting application – an interactive app based on the works of her grandfather. The app can be used by anyone to create their own unique artwork. In using these interactive devices, the works of Anwar Jalal Shemza would continue to manifest in different forms and arrangements, accessible to everyone, no matter what their age or background, providing interest and enjoyment to the young and old.


[i]  Simone Wille’s essay, ‘A Global Turn?’ published in Volume 6, 2011 of the Pakistani international art magazine, NuktaArt.
[ii] Dadi, Iftikhar ‘Anwar Jalal Shemza: Calligraphic Abstraction’, p10.
[iii] Tate (gallery) on Anwar Jala Shemza 1989, p.73.
[iv]  Dawn, Salwat Ali, published on July 5, 2015
[v] Dadi, Iftikhar ‘Anwar Jalal Shemza: Calligraphic Abstraction’, p11.
[vi] Shemza, Tasveer in ‘Rewind’ – a feature series on the Art Dubai blog 10.09.2017
[vii]  Saffronart, an international auction house founded in 2000
[viii] Jhaveri Contemporary: Art Basel Online Viewing Room, 17 to 26 June 2020
[ix] Shemza, Tasveer in ‘Rewind’

Rumana Husain is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of two coffee-table books on Karachi, and has authored and illustrated over 80 children’s books. Four of her books have won awards in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She has been a contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and written hundreds of articles, travelogues, art and book reviews, and has also conducted numerous interviews in the print and electronic media.

Share this post

Comments (2)

  • A riveting account of the life and the art of Shemza, one of the earliest and an important painter of Pakistan. Only a person like Rumana Husain, an artist herself, could have done justice to put the pieces of the forgotten past together and paint a vivid picture in words. Rashid Arshed

    • Arshed saheb, I am truly honoured by your words! It makes all my research and sweat worthwhile 🙂 Thank you ever so much. Also, for the small nugget, that you provided for the article.

      Rumana Husain

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Filter by Custom Post Type
Filter by Categories
Shopping Cart