Born in Simla, India in 1928 to Kashmiri and Punjabi parents, Shemza (1928 – 85) attended Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. In 1956, already an established artist and writer in his home land, he relocated to England to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. This move marked a significant change in the artist’s life and practice. Astonished at a statement by famed art historian E.H. Gombrich, who characterised Islamic art as purely ‘functional’ in one of his lectures attended by Shemza, the artist abandoned his previous work and embarked on a journey to create a dramatically different style and visual language.
The bold abstractions in Paintings from the 1960s represent this pivotal development for the artist, whose unique diasporic perspective allowed him to explore modernism through the double prism of Islamic and Western aesthetics. Throughout his career, Shemza’s visual vocabulary drew on an array of deeply studied and lived experience, from carpet patterns and calligraphic forms to the environments around him: Mughal architecture from Lahore to the rural landscapes of Stafford in England.
In the formalist compositions of the artworks exhibited, these layered elements are distilled into an intensive exploration of geometric abstraction and pattern, built up mostly using just two simple forms: the square and the circle. As Shemza wrote, inscribed in Urdu script on the surface of another painting from this period - yet incredibly relevant here - ‘One circle, one square, one problem, one life is not enough to solve it’ (One to Nine and One to Seven, 1962).
Paintings from the 1960s shows a dedicated line of enquiry concerned with the act of repetition. For Shemza, pictorial autonomy was more important than human autonomy, his interest lying in ‘Constructive Picture Formation.’1 The artist had an unwavering dedication to multiple forms and process - breaking down simple structures of circle and squares, repeating them in order to develop a resolved understanding. Parallels can be drawn between a looping structure of language found in his fictional writing and the repeating visual structures developed in his art making.
The paintings from this pivotal period of Shemza’s career lay the foundation for everything to come over the following two decades of the artist’s life: a singular practice in which multiple histories, cultures and experiences are distilled and expressed in pure shape and colour. Creating an exceptional formalist vocabulary of simple shapes and colours in the tradition of Mondrian or Klee with the calligraphic strokes of the Arabic alphabet or the repeated patterns adorning carpets and fabrics.
1 Anwar Jalal Shemza, ‘What is in a Name’, unpublished manuscript on art education, 1979.