The knives are out, but this time Muzzumil Ruheel wants to have the last word (pun intended): The title of Muzummil Ruheel’s latest body of work, Choose Your Words Carefully, is an embodiment of this overarching sentiment. The choice of words for the title is deliberate; it is laced with Ruheel’s sardonic wit and hovers nebulously somewhere between a veiled threat, an aggressive posturing and a puerile challenge. There is also a hint of cynicism in this verbal check-mating— during the early years of Ruheel’s art practice some of his works were branded too controversial and even inflammatory. The title of this show is inflected with a particularly aggressive tenor, perhaps borne of its time where debates about censorship still remain controversial and political and economic polarization is at an all-time high. Ruheel’s current body of work is then posing this question at a critical moment in time: “The exhibition presents works that have been perceived as obscure form of text that places the viewer in the artist’s landscape. Here, norm dictates that speaking your mind or speaking in a certain way is not allowed. How does one converse then?”1
Of course, these concerns are not new but there is a more implicit and calculated rancor in them: In his artist statement, Ruheel is proposing a new script for a new millennium where a new language has already been developing in our subconscious. In an epoch characterized by debates on surveillance, the limits of self-expression, freedom of speech compounded by a rise in divisive politics and populism, perhaps Ruheel’s intention feels like a natural response. Yet the discourse embedded in Muzzumil Ruheel’s art practice has, from the very beginning, sought to ask difficult questions about the semantics and failure of language in relation to history, culture, art etc. The basis visual components of Ruheel’s works (lettering and script) derive from the art and practice of calligraphy; a practice that has a rich history that goes back hundreds of years which is intertwined with the rise, glory, decline and fall of vast empires and diverse cultures.
The first important calligraphic script, Kufic, was named after the city of Kufa and used to inscribe the Holy Quran. The first calligrapher was Ali ibn Abi-Talib who was a master calligrapher. Calligraphers at this time were expected to be literate in Maths, Geometry and the Science of Harmonics. Over time they also became members of Sufi orders. This highlights the social and cultural capital that was intertwined with the practice of calligraphy, giving calligraphers a unique place in society. In India, calligraphy arrived during the Sultanate period, Thuluth and Kufic were popularized in this time 2. The Timurids, Persians and Mughals continued to support calligraphy. They also introduced muraqqas or collections of manuscripts which consisted of paintings and calligraphy decorated with borders. The prefaces of these albums provide clues about individual calligraphers and their continued relevance in society. “Among the Timurid and Safavid albums, for example, the six classical (pre-Nastaʿliq) styles of calligraphy are routinely mentioned, along with seven styles of painting”3.Timurid Persian culture was promoted as the language of the courtly elite and as a result Nastaliq was popularized, particularly during Akbar’s time. It continued to be dominant till the twilight of the Mughal Empire and the arrival of printing. In the mid 1800s the British had replaced Persian with English. They began promoting Urdu instead and Nastaliq continued to evolve even after Partition. It has retained its importance even in the age of mechanical and electrical reproduction. Lahori Nastaliq was the product of renowned calligraphers who migrated from India to settle in Lahore and not only devoted themselves to reviving but also innovating to produce this style that could be adapted to mechanical production. Even after Partition, mysticism, prayer and mashq of calligraphy were embedded in the curriculum and instruction at Academies that taught calligraphy indicating the presence of a holistic system that had its own rules and social codes. Such schools declined with the arrival of softwares and the inclination towards modern art.4
Ruheel was fortunate enough to be exposed to this worldview; prior to enrolling at Beaconhouse National University (where he graduated with a major in Fine Arts), he had trained and honed his skills in practicing Urdu/Arabic calligraphy under a master calligrapher Ustad Khurshid Alam Gauhar Qalam who he credits with teaching him to not only be adept in various styles and scripts but to also innovate, question and in a sense, be subversive. One could argue that Ruheel’s renegade instinct to co-opt language and script in order to posit discomfiting questions about the paradox between the sacred and profane was an enduring conceptual concern throughout his years as a student. In one of his earliest series of works made between 2008-2009, Ruheel uses Thuluth script in a manner that visually appears to masquerade as a sacred text. Historically the Thuluth script was used for decorating mosques and even to inscribe the Holy Quran. When one attempts to “read” the phrases, interestingly, they appear to be in English language and translate into phrases such as in Please read it carefully or What is Written. It is an iconoclastic act of sorts, urging viewers to question their flawed understanding of images linked to what their mind already knows and reflects in terms of bias, preconceived notions and inclination: cursive text that resembles Arabic must clearly be sacred. Or not? If we follow Saussure’s rules and logic, then language is a social fact but Ruheel deliberately complicates this notion by adding an uncomfortable twist: the physical utterance of the phrases in English (langue) such as What is Written is in conflict with the image-concepts associated with the text (parole) that are contingent upon temporal, emotional and historical associations which linked to religion , sacred text, sanctity and on a more controversial note even the pervasive influence of Arabization in Pakistan which can be traced back to the early 80s. It is a discomfiting double whammy of sorts and laced with an acerbic postmodern wit to boot. This deliberate misconstruing or “linguistic gaffe” 5 and the questions it poses are crucial to understanding why Ruheel has chosen to experiment with certain visual styles and linguistic codes over the years and their gradual distillation is visible in his current body of work.
During the course of our conversation Ruheel discussed the reception of this body of works amongst other controversial series he produced in his early years. His critique about Arabization and neoliberal agendas through this visual representation was deemed controversial at the time but perhaps his incendiary commentary and its equally scathing response became the catalyst for successive bodies of work that have evolved and followed. These can be interpreted as counterstrategies: How can one question the fashioning of identities in an age of inflamed passions and prejudice? What artistic sleigh-of-hand shall engage the viewer without ruffling feathers but transcend prejudice? His unique representation of language and letters are a form of protest and a testament to his resourcefulness that have now become his signature style of sorts.
Perusing through his various bodies of works produced over the years and describing them is akin to checking off Richard Serra’s “Verb List” from 1967 which is a “language-based drawing” that is considered crucial to the development of his early sculptural practice.6 One can make a similar list to describe Ruheel’s experiments with language and sculpture: Ruheel has proceeded to distort, disassemble, dice, reinscribe, reconfigure, rearrange (just to name a few verbs) and even translate text into sculptural forms.
Language and script continue to be Ruheel’s muse and for good reason. In an idyllic, utopian world perhaps, one could have argued that language is expressive, it should unite, foster communication, forge unity yet the history of script and languages, particularly in this region has remained politically charged and contentious, to put it mildly. This politics can even be traced back to colonial times. For instance, “By 1832, English had replaced Persian as the administrative language. Overnight, a highly literate population of Punjab effectively became illiterate.”7 Although the British began promoting Urdu instead, Devanagari was more popular in Northern India. If “…Language is central to cultural self-expression, to identity. Those who ban a language also ban the people who speak it”8 then this may have spurred on Muslims to begin considering the recognition of their cultural identity as a separate independent entity. Surprisingly, though the British considered the karkhana (guild) system and even the madrassa as the residue of a premodern and preindustrial vision of India there were voices within the British bureaucracy that grudgingly admitted that “Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans in India.”9 In one of his memoirs published in 1915, Colonel William Sleeman then goes on to compare college education in Britain with that of madrassa education in Delhi, reiterating that Arabic and Persian was used to teach grammar, rhetoric and logic in a Muhammadan school much like Greek and Latin was taught in colleges in Britain. Infact, he was impressed by the fact that a Muhammadan is taught about Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna just as a college student in Oxford would be taught the same philosophers.10 In the 1850s Delhi had six major and four smaller madrassas. It was publishing nine newspapers in Urdu and Persian, five intellectual journals and had innumerable presses and publishers.11 Inevitably, under colonial rule such expression equally, gave rise to the control and suppression of the written word and free press. In a post-colonial scenario, the aftereffects of this imposed censorship continue to hamper the formation and potential of civil societies. Legacies of British colonial laws such the Vernacular Press Act that targeted newspapers written in local languages, The 1908 Newspaper (Incitement to Offences) Act (1908), the India Press Act (1910) amongst others manifested themselves at various critical junctures in the histories of both nations.12
Therefore, the repertoire of scripts and language that Ruheel is mining from is modulated by the violent ruptures of colonization, riven by tragedy and later complicated by ethnic, sectarian, religious and ideological divisions that are undercut by political lacunae which persist even today. Tackling this onerous weight of history with all its messy and inflammatory narratives that Ruheel adeptly subsumes under coded and illegible texts, discrepancies in “making sense” of meaning and order, disembodied forms, ambiguous graphic symbols are what characterize his forte as an artist. With each new body of work Ruheel has been conscious of the potentially explosive question he consistently poses about the erasure and suppression of histories, stories and language; not surprisingly Ruheel has often turned to locating some of his works in the realm of fictive writing where he is able to encrypt and weave the lamentation of marginalized histories within illegible or incomplete scripts, indecipherable archival images and storytelling. His other works either remain sculptural or in painterly form, balancing letters as graphic symbols in relation to voids, gaps and spaces. His visual strategies, as he plays with letters (huroof) and phrases, include dismembering, rejoining, dismantling and even disembodying letters so that their meaning, relevance and context is not only suppressed and eroded but they are rendered either incomplete, nonsensical or emptied of identity.
In this body of work, Ruheel uses signifiers that suggest they are derived from the marks and strikes made by the kat (mark of the angular nib) of a Qalam (reed pen used for calligraphy). Perhaps they are diacritical or accent marks used in Latin? Or perhaps they derive from the dots, diacritics and consonants of Arabic/Urdu typography? Therein lies the ambiguity: we process what we are socially and culturally conditioned to assume. By increasing the size of what once may have been tiny recognizable marks, glyphs or characters on paper, Ruheel amps up the volume of the conversation, so to speak, and introduces an interesting paradox that purges the script beyond recognition. This deliberate decontextualization or “cleansing” is the trap that Ruheel wants us to fall into and experience— a sanitized, polished, graphic aesthetic that celebrates form and contour. Or perhaps a cultural amnesia induced by consistent imposition of self-censorship?
Some sculptures are placed on the wall while others rest independently on the gallery floor. On the surface, his works are devoid of a canon, history or story; the shapes and colors appear to be complete in themselves. It conforms to Richard Wollheim’s discussion about the characteristics of abstract art in the 70s where there is an “…indifference to figuration; the exploitation of the edge…”.13 Ruheel attempts to adhere to these principles and the result is a pure abstraction that appears to be concerned only with planar surfaces, angular and curved geometric forms that are meant to be appreciated for their pure, unsaturated colors: jet black, vermillion reds and cobalt blues. Interestingly these are the most commonly used colored inks as well. Sculptures with multihued tones and contrasts in particular are reminiscent of ink or reed pens dipped in several inkpots that sometimes retain more than one color. There is something obsessive about the finesse with which each sculpture explores materiality, it evokes unease and a quiet malevolence. The angles are subtle while the pointed edges are sharp. For example, the sculptural relief titled Character 7 option IV – Along with This, consists of two vertical forms. They represent towering lines, one taller than the other but each sculptured form is divided by a line that resembles a “fold.” As we move closer to the sculpture “representation gets negated at the very point where questions of spatiality…”14 such as how both linear forms relate to each other becomes the most relevant question. The viewer exclusively becomes aware of the solidity of material, glinting edges, sharp points and the tension between the taller and shorter lines with their sharp edges.
Many of these sculptures, with their stolid structures and an almost combative presence such as the singular vertical form in Character 7 Options II -Long Story or Character 16- Other Side which consists of two shards that resemble permutations of triangular forms in ink black poised to strike each other in midair actually embody a much longer and perhaps more sinister story than the title suggests.
These ambiguous experiments with Minimalism and abstraction are anchored in Ruheel’s intention to abstract and erase the past. His intention to develop and experiment with a global script is intertwined with an embittered protest: shall we resign ourselves to this new order and cleanse script of all referents to cultural identity? Can abstract art really not talk about anything else, especially politics? After all it was Shakir Ali who recounted that on his first solo exhibition he was visited by CID in plainclothes who demanded to know if he was sending secret messages to the communists through his art! 15 This question was also posed in a recent exhibition held in 2019 in the US titled “Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s” featuring the works of four leading abstract American artists in the 1970s. Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, and Louise Nevelson chose to make abstract art at a time when American politics and society was grappling with questions about feminism, war, gender and race. Critics had argued then that post painterly abstraction, hard edge painting, Lyrical Abstraction and even Minimalism was emblematic of a depoliticization of art. Yet today the works can also be interpreted as a form of protest because by turning away from tradition, representation and historical references they were expanding the sphere of conversation through new forms of expression: by dismantling the status quo of art history itself they were highlighting a profound failure of the system.16
Annemarie Schimmel writes that the shikasta, broken script, emerged after the sixteenth century at a time when the word “shikast” had become one of the keywords in Persian poetry in India. “Pages with shikasta, their lines thrown, as it were, over the page without apparent order, are often reminiscent of modern graphics rather than of legible script.” Poets wrote letters in the script to talk about their hopeless heart while in music it was used to denote a note that did not harmonize with the rest.17
Framed within the context of language, Ruheel’s sculptural forms also attempt to follow this route and ask a pertinent question: can the dismantling and dispersion of a script really cleanse it of its politics, discontent, collective neurosis and troubled history? Does the failure to comprehend indicate a failure of a system? The works have titles such as Character 4 Line- Lets Talk About It, Character 27 – Top Priorit vindicating their standalone existence as independent pieces or characters of a script that have a unique back story or embody certain dilemmas that are not altogether divorced from the personal, political or historical. The shikast (defeat) of legibility here is translated into the syntax of Ruheel’s abstracted language that illustrates its aesthete but also a submission to futility simultaneously.
Given Ruheel’s adeptness as a calligrapher and earlier artistic concerns should we reprocess the division and representation of space in the gallery as being representative of a canvas or perhaps the horizontal sheet of paper used for practicing calligraphy?
This widened gap of intertextuality between the recognized format/surface for practicing calligraphic exercise or mashq, and Ruheel’s indecipherable interpretation forms the linchpin. Perhaps this is the chasm in which Ruheel situates his debates, neither encryption nor decryption can hide this gap. Nor can the guise of globalization which has revealed its dissonances and inequities in recent decades. In a brief history of Arabic typography Thomas Milo highlights the fact that comprehension of Arabic script is contingent upon connecting Arabic letters so that they assimilate with each other and that it is not merely a process of lining them up. The graphic unit of writing letters is called a syntagm. In Arabic script “there is a balance between an assimilation of distinct letters and dissimilation of featureless letters.” 18 In traditional mashq, or writing exercises, textual variants/free variants are never shown out of context; they are always shown as part of the syntagm.
Ruheel’s unique variation of the mashq lining the walls, and sometimes spread on the floor, is devoid of such syntagms or assimilation, a quality or cultural aspect that had allowed Islam to imbibe, absorb and accept influences, cultures, ethnicities and even non-Islamic communities.19 Rather than a mysterious encryption, the works can simultaneously be interpreted as remnants that are reminders of the social processes that have shaped their transformation— dispersed, fragmented and subject to a new chaos. Through enlargement of scale and emphasis on disembodied forms Ruheel’s iterations of a script that impedes legibility allows him to take credit and proclaim his own authority over this new language. Perhaps contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, who like Ruheel pursues similar conceptual concerns about text, best describes this collective “neurosis which is our reality” 20 encased in each of Ruheel’s works “To strike at the written word is to strike at the very essence of the culture. Any doctoring of the written word becomes in itself a transformation of the most inherent part of a person’s thinking…”21
“Choose Your Words Carefully”, a solo show by Muzzumil Ruheel opened on 10th January 2023 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi and remained on display till 19th January 2022.
All Images, courtesy and copyright, Muzzumil Ruheel
Dadi, Iftikhar. Essay. In Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks), 67. United States of America: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Gorlach, Alexander. “Language Needs Vigilance.” https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-language-between-self-censorship-and-political-correctness/a-48974813, n.d https://www.gottliebfoundation.org/, n.d. https://www.gottliebfoundation.org/tigers-eye-12-1947.
Hashmi, Salima, Iqbal, Samina. “ NayaDaur/ Shakir Ali and Lahore Art Circle”. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2016.
Jaworski, Adam. “Language Ideologies in the Text-Based Art of Xu Bing: Implications for Language Policy and Planning.” Essay. In The Oxford Handbook of Language Policy and Planning., 5. New York: Oxford University Press, n.d.
Milo, Thomas. “Arabic Script and Typography A Brief Historical Overview.” Essay. In Language Culture Type: International Type Design in the Age of Unicode, 120. Graohis Press, 2002.
“Richard Serra Verb List 1967.” Moma, n.d. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/152793.
Roberts, Christopher. “From the State of Emergency to the Rule of Law: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in the Nineteenth Century British Empire.” Chicago Journal of International Law, n.d. https://cjil.uchicago.edu/print-archive/state-emergency-rule-law-evolution-repressive-legality-nineteenth-century-british
Ruheel, Muzzumil. Choose Your Words Carefully. Karachi: Canvas Gallery, 2022.
Shah, Seher. “A History of Traditional Calligraphy in Post-Partition Lahore.” Thesis, 2016.
Sleeman, William H. Essay. In Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, 596. Oxford University Press, 1915.
“This Is Not A Pipe – Magritte’s Most Famous Painting,” https://publicdelivery.org/magritte-not-a-pipe/
Wollheim, Richard. “The Work of Art as Object- Richard Wollheim.” https://theoria.art-zoo.com, n.d. https://theoria.art-zoo.com/the-work-of-art-as-object-richard-wollheim/.
- Muzummil Ruheel, Choose Your Words Carefully (Karachi: Canvas Gallery, 2022).
- Seher Shah, “A History of Traditional Calligraphy in Post-Partition Lahore” (thesis, 2016). p 7-16.
- Iftikhar Dadi, essay, in Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks) (United States of America: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 67.
- Seher Shah, “A History of Traditional Calligraphy in Post-Partition Lahore” (thesis, 2016). p18-35.
- “This Is Not A Pipe – Magritte’s Most Famous Painting,” n.d.
- “Richard Serra Verb List 1967,” Moma, n.d., https://www.moma.org/collection/works/152793.
- Seher Shah, “A History of Traditional Calligraphy in Post-Partition Lahore” (thesis, 2016). p24-25.
- Alexander Gorlach, “Language Needs Vigilance,” https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-language-between-self-censorship-and-political-correctness/a-48974813, n.d., https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-language-between-self-censorship-and-political-correctness/a-48974813.
- William H Sleeman, essay, in Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official (Oxford University Press, 1915), 596.
- Ibid, 597.
- William Darlymple, essay, in White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (Penguin Books, 2004), 95.
- Christopher Roberts, “From the State of Emergency to the Rule of Law: The Evolution of Repressive Legality in the Nineteenth Century British Empire,” Chicago Journal of International Law, n.d., https://cjil.uchicago.edu/print-archive/state-emergency-rule-law-evolution-repressive-legality-nineteenth-century-british.
- Richard Wollheim, “The Work of Art as Object- Richard Wollheim,” https://theoria.art-zoo.com, n.d., https://theoria.art-zoo.com/the-work-of-art-as-object-richard-wollheim/.
- Naya Daur Shakir Ali and the Lahore Art Circle (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2016). p 14.
- Christopher Porter, “Large-Scale Statements: ‘Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s’ at UMMA,” Ann Arbor District Library (blog), July 4, 2019, https://aadl.org/node/393192.
- Iftikhar Dadi, essay, in Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks) (United States of America: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 136.
- Thomas Milo, “Arabic Script and Typography A Brief Historical Overview,” essay, in Language Culture Type: International Type Design in the Age of Unicode (Graohis Press, 2002), 120.
- Ibid, 119.
- https://www.gottliebfoundation.org/, n.d., https://www.gottliebfoundation.org/tigers-eye-12-1947.
- Adam Jaworski, “Language Ideologies in the Text-Based Art of Xu Bing: Implications for Language Policy and Planning,” essay, in The Oxford Handbook of Language Policy and Planning. (New York: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 5.