My favourite painting: Nigel Prince

Nigel Prince, director of Artes Mundi, on a mesmerising image by Anwar Jalal Shemza.

Nigel Prince on The Wall by Anwar Jalal Shemza

‘Shemza was one of my art teachers at school in my teens. An elegant, friendly, encouraging man, it wasn’t until years later that I realised the significance of who he was, when, as a recent graduate from art school, I saw this painting in the 1989 exhibition ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’.

‘Typical of the period following his graduation from the Slade, The Wall is a modest yet intense painting. Commanding a sense of space far beyond its scale, it is elaborately constructed from simplified forms inspired by Islamic art, architecture and early literary influences, parti-cularly calligraphy, combined with Western abstraction.

‘The surface is structured by a geometry and pattern created with his characteristic use of repeated circular and square forms. For me, it embodies a distillation of the formative effect he and others were to have on my future development and interests.’

Nigel Prince is the director of Artes Mundi

Charlotte Mullins on The Wall

Anwar Jalal Shemza was 28 and already a successful artist at home — a ‘champion of Modernism in the art and literature worlds of the then new nation of Pakistan’, in Nigel Prince’s words — when he left for London. In 1952, he had established the Lahore Art Circle and was the author of several novels and radio plays. In London, however, he was an anonymous student and he felt rootless and untethered until a trip to the British Museum offered him a new direction. There, he studied Islamic art from different periods and fused the formal concerns of European Modernism with the looping whorls of calligraphy.

Taking inspiration from Islamic art, Mughal architecture and the soft geometric abstracts of Swiss-born Paul Klee, Shemza created paintings that spoke of plurality and a fusion of ideas. The Wall was from his ‘City Walls’ series, painted when still a student at the Slade. Against a scumbled gold background, two asymmetric shapes interlock. Both are patterned with geometric boxes filled with arabesques. This could be an aerial view of buildings, layers of textiles one over the other, or a literary puzzle.

Shemza was increasingly interested in abstract patterns derived from life. He wrote, ‘One circle, one square, one problem, one life is not enough to solve it.’ He moved from London to Stafford, north of Birmingham, in 1962, where he taught art. During his lifetime his work was not given the exposure it deserves, but now it sits at the heart of the post-war British art narrative.

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