Text & Visuals | Rafi Ahmed

Issue 51

The exhibition, Drawing a Line, based on the architectural drawings, sketches and doodles of four designers, concluded recently at IVSAA gallery. The show was curated by Ayesha Bilal, Rafi Ahmed and Zohaib Zuby, and featured the drawings of Danish Azar Zuby, Ejaz Malik, Saifullah Sami, and Ali Reza Dossal.  These designers, while possessing different drawing styles, employing different methods and instigated by different motivations, are connected by the delight that they take in drawing a hand-drawn line.

The instigating factor for the curators in conceptualizing and enacting the exhibition, was a Paul Klee quotation: a line is a dot that went for a walk. Accordingly, the exhibition design was based on a line of text that “walked” across the gallery walls, connecting the “randomly” placed and “loosely” pinned drawings, borrowing from the informal aesthetic of a design jury pin-up. This line was also a loose spatio-temporal guide for the audience, suggesting the sequential unfolding of the drawings. The content of the textual line was developed as an extension of Klee’s line, which, incidentally, will also be used as a graphic interlude through the body of this text.

First, however, a few lines about how the line defines, separates and connects the four designers. Danish Azar Zuby turns Descartes’ famous dictum to assert, “I draw, therefore I am”. An artist, social activist, sculptor, educator, conservationist and interior designer, his work, spanning four decades, uses the act of drawing as a personal statement, as a professional tool and as a political act, inhabiting all the shades in between. The quality of his line adjusts as per medium, content and message to convey with a passion that which he wishes to convey, whether documenting the expression on the face of a gargoyle, rendering a corporate interior, or proposing alternative modes of living through elevated grid cities. Ejaz Malik uses drawing as a “tool to carve space, form and sensation.” Indicative of his facility also as a sculptor, his statement foretells his two dimensional plan graphics and his elevation renders two-dimensional drawings that, through his tools, become both inhabitable and imaginary, material and ephemeral. 

His drawings, marked by the naivete of a child’s mark making, yet underscored by an unassuming gravity, allude graphically to what Gaston Bachelard refers to as “the poetics of space.” Saifullah Sami’s drawings are deliberate exercises in meditation, revealing the iterative, thoughtful process of their production, a silent dialogue between man and his métier through the language of the line. In his own words, he does mnemonic, developmental, constructive and therapeutic sketches for his architectural practice, which are complemented by his more documentative travel sketches and his architectonic jiu-jitsu grapplings. All of these “imaginings,” as he calls them, inspired by the divine line quality of Geoffrey Bawa, invite total immersion, engaging all the senses, elevating the observer to a trance-like state. Ali Reza Dossal draws on technology, both literally and figuratively. Digitally composed and rendered on a tablet, (a technological takhti, so to say) his digital lines, often printed and over-layed with hand-drawn ones, embody a minimalist, illustration-esque aesthetic, sometimes filled with washes of single color. Drawing from the playground of memory and imagination, his lines are suggestive of an underlying narrative, inviting the observer to inhabit the space and complete the story. Critically, this narrative draws its essence from that liminal space between hand drawing and drawing with technology, asking us what it means to remain human in this digitally charged world. The repertoire of drawings across the four designers range in scale from a door-knob to a messenger bag to a chair, from the design of interior spaces to the space of the city, where buildings themselves become an object, creating spaces in and around themselves.

Across the range of style and substance, across the mode, medium and method of their madness, the designers are connected primarily by their use of the line as a tool to explore new ways to negotiate and inhabit space. And this, importantly, is what distinguishes architectural drawings from drawings in other disciplines like the fine arts, for instance: the sketches, doodles and drawings that have been on display are graphic oracles: the prophetic harbingers of real space. A few lines, here, about the curatorial effort. In the opinion of the writer, who was also one of the co-curators, an exhibition is not unlike a mushaira, where the artists, art and audience come together in a curated space to enact a certain charged, performative exchange of energies. The enactment of an exhibition is, also, a culmination of the curatorial vision, a closure of sorts that can still initiate certain other mental trajectories. This writer would like to suggest that in this exhibition, the textual line, in providing order to the drawings of the four designers, also opened up a space for exploring the connective fibre between these two types of mark-making: drawing and writing. This fibre was first suggested by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib in the opening couplet of his magnum opus in the following words:

naqsh faryaadi hai kis ki shokhi e tehreer ka
kaghazi hai perahan har paiker e tasweer ka

This verse has been explained elsewhere in terms of the quintessential power-play between divine destiny and the inevitable abject human condition. Here, however, we will be taking the liberty of exploring a more literal connection between tasweer and tehreer. The first line of the verse invokes shokhi e tehreer, questioning the identity of the writer of this playful text who the naqsh or words might hold responsible/complain to: faryaad. The second line re-inforces pictorially this dialectic between agency and representation by suggesting that the perahan or clothing that covers the body of each picture, paiker e tasweer, is paper thin, or kaghazi. Hence, paper, which in some ways is the covering for both types of marks, words and pictures, is insubstantial as a surface for the representation of the instigating idea, which is the only real entity. 

Ghalib’s verse foretells several themes that can have relevance for us today, namely, body and its layers, concreteness and translucency, playfulness and creativity, and most significantly for us: idea and its representations. Even though image and text, and by extension drawing and writing, seem to be tied only by their inability to represent adequately the idea which instigated them, this apparent failure of mark-making can perhaps be the threshold for a more impassioned, if layered inquiry, that only Urdu poetry can afford. Ghalib’s verse, specifically, is known for its evocative imagery: how words, rendered poetically, can generate pictures in the space of the collective imagination. If the picture may be posited as a representation of space, Ghalib’s verse can suggest parallels between the spatiality of text and the textuality of space. This can have resonance for every one of us who has ever tried to read a space like one would a poem, or tried to inhabit a text, like one would a room. 

Perhaps, poetry and the poetic, then, is the frisson that runs like a charged line through drawing and writing, indicating how the narrative can be both spatial and textual at the same time. Not incidentally, the line, which is also the subject of this exhibition, is in fact the basic building block of both text and image, much as the dot is for the line. Furthermore, in Urdu, the word khat, used for the singular urdu alphabet, from which arises the calligraphic discipline of khattati, is also used to denote a straight line. The introduction of language, which is essentially an ordering and giving meaning to khatoot, can be illuminating at this point. Is there perhaps a connection between language as we speak and write it, and the vocabulary of drawing, specifically as they both use the line and the dot as the primary alphabet? Or is a picture really worth a thousand words, as the popular saying goes, and hence un-needful of textual intervention and support? By extension, then, in so far as there is a link between language and culture, would we be able to also assign a cultural sensibility to  drawing? One is reminded of our miniature and calligraphic traditions, our illuminated and illuminating traditional manuscripts, where both kinds of mark-making, tasweer and tehreer were held in exquisite balance. Contemporary exponents like Sadequain have extended that line and lineage by allowing us to inhabit spatially his paintings which have been inspired by, and an embodiment of, Ghalib’s verse, on occasion. The fore going also forefronts another potential connective fibre: that between “good” drawing and “good” design. This is critical, especially in light of Ghalib’s suggestion that an image, like text, is nothing more or less than a representation of the instigating idea, and, by extension, of that which it foretells, that which it promises to construct. In other words, can a line that is evocative and experiential generate a space that is less than desirable or inhabitable?

As designers, we use notes and text to explain our drawings to ourselves, and to communicate them around. As writers, we use imagery to corroborate our spatiotextual narratives. The tentativeness with which the line holds both text and image in thrall, in a dispassionate embrace, is perhaps both its strength and criticism: it is indicative of a space of possibility, with many swirling shades of uncertainty, allowing the artist/ writer to mark their own territory amid overlapping, ever-moving circles of tehreer and tasweer, much like the imagery in Ghalibs’s poetry, much like the textuality in Sadequain’s paintings. This territory is a space beyond extents, beyond the need for extension. This territory is a space much, much beyond the line.

About the author:
Rafi Ahmed, has a Master’s degree in Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis and has worked for several design firms in the US and Pakistan. He is currently engaged at Design Group Practice in Karachi and is an adjunct faculty at the Department of Interior Design at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. He espouses a research-based, holistic design philosophy that explores the intersection of different kinds of mark making: writing, drawing, tinkering, painting, designing, and teaching, among others.

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