Anwar Jalal Shemza, Love Letter 2, 1969, oil on canvas, 36 1/2 × 36 3/4".

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Love Letter 2, 1969, oil on canvas, 36 1/2 × 36 3/4".

Anwar Jalal Shemza

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Love Letter 2, 1969, oil on canvas, 36 1/2 × 36 3/4".

As readers of The Arabian Nights know, carpets can transport us to lands far, far away. Anwar Jalal Shemza’s minute Magic Carpet, 1984, is no exception. Here, a piece of cloth with frayed edges is hand-dyed red, blue, and saffron. A painted geometric shape appears to hover at the center of the fabric. Is this tricolored textile about to fly?

Shemza’s painting is part of a small solo presentation, curated by Leyla Fakhr and Carmen Juliá, dedicated to work the Pakistani artist made in Britain. Encompassing paintings, pyrography on wood, ceramics, and archival material, the display includes pieces from as early as 1959—when Shemza was a student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art—along with those he made after moving in 1962 to Stafford, UK, where he lived until his death in 1985. Evidence of Shemza’s involvement in London’s art world occupies the central portion of the room: Glass cabinets protect catalogues of a group show at Gallery One in 1960 and the Second Commonwealth Biennial of Abstract Art held at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1965. Thus, the curators placed Shemza within the milieu of South Asian artists, such as Indians F. N. Souza, Balraj Khanna, and Avinash Chandra, who helped transform the British art scene in the 1960s by bringing local talent into dialogue with the concerns of artists in the UK’s former colonies. The Pakistani Shemza and the Indian Souza, for instance, were concerned with constructing a visual language for their freshly independent places of origin, one that would be simultaneously national and international in scope.

Significantly, Shemza’s experience at the Slade induced him to bring Islamic motifs into conversation with European abstraction. Consider the painting Love Letter, 1964, in which interlocking black lines weave an elaborate pattern over a rust-colored background. Their tightly coiled spirals are reminiscent of the sailing, circular forms of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Love Letter’s delicate tracery also emulates the brushstrokes of Arabic calligraphy, the domed arches of mosques, and the jalis, or stone screens, behind which Mughal princesses once upon a time kept their privacy. Intriguingly, Shemza came from a Kashmiri family that specialized in carpet making and military embroidery, and grew up in Lahore, a city famous for its majestic Moghul monuments. We can see the reverberations of Shemza’s Muslim heritage in War Sonnet, 1969—the painting’s turquoise, yellow, and white hues recall silken tapestries as well as the intricate inlaid pavilion of Lahore Fort’s Sheesh Mahal, or Palace of Mirrors.

In a new monograph on Shemza, Iftikhar Dadi argues that he and other diasporic artists were instrumental in converting Britain into a cradle of “transnational modernism.” However, viewers also witness Shemza’s precarious balancing act between his British and Pakistani identities. Sometimes the negotiation ends happily, as in the “Meem”series, 1967–69. Meem—or M in the Arabic alphabet—is the first letter in the names of both the Prophet Muhammad and Shemza’s wife, Mary Taylor. In Meem One, 1967, orange and red circles conjoined to green rectangles simulate the long-stemmed flowers of stained-glass windows, gracefully evoking both Bridget Riley’s pulsing Op-art offerings and Sufism’s sacred geometry. More poignant, though, is the suggestively titled “Roots.” This series, begun in 1977, marked Shemza’s unfulfilled intention to return to exhibit in Pakistan. Roots Three, 1984, contains three pieces of cloth, the first painted with rose-pink blossoms, the second with pistachio-green stems, and the third with “roots” that curve and curl, fashioning illegible Arabic calligraphy. The three sections, displayed on a fiberboard backing with bare board showing in between them, look like pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. Like Roots Three, the different elements of Shemza’s self were never reunited: He died of a heart attack before he could go “home.” Did the curators include this work as a metaphor for Shemza himself—an artist perennially poised between disparate worlds?

Zehra Jumabhoy