“Heart to Art” Abdul Jabbar Gull in conversation – Art TV Pakistan

“Heart to Art” Abdul Jabbar Gull in conversation

Abdul Jabbar Gull in conversation with Danish Ahmed in “Heart to Art”.
Jabbar shares his thought process behind his body of work.
He is an eminent artist of Pakistan and acclaimed internationally.


Assalam-o-Aliekum Jabbar, thank you very much for taking out time for Heart to Art. We had been waiting for this sit in for quite some time now. Im glad that now we finally get to sit together.
Thank you for the invite and I think that ART TV, you and Faran, are doing historical work by documenting the artist and their work and will hold value in the coming years.
We try, since our audience is a varied mixture of Artists and students, with the later benefiting from these conversations a lot. Therefore the questions are based to carter for that section mostly. I was thinking to start this conversation from the beginning where everything started from. My first question about your work would be, as to where it all started from? What was the birth of the thought for your journey?
I think it is hard to explain this, but I’ll try to explain to best of my abilities. I believe that we all live in two worlds simultaneously. One being the physical world, which we feel around us and interact with, like the five senses we utilize. The other being the inner self which does not rely on these five senses, that is an out-worldly experience, in which your eyes may be closed and you don’t talk to anyone but the silence has a language of its own. The more your experience grows, the more your personality matures and more you start understanding the world around you your thoughts develops from within you. It is not like my thoughts are stuck 20 years back. As you grow your thoughts, imagery, medium, personality and ideas mature and evolve.
Let us get more specific now. So when you start on with some work, how does it all start? When you enter your studio do you already go in with an idea on which you will be working on or do you go with the flow?
Danish, I think that there are certain levels on which artists work on. When you are a student your practice is of a different nature since you get an assignment and you have to interpret that assignment and work on it. Then comes the early stages in which when you are observing and understanding things and this is the struggling time in which you are developing a personal vocabulary. The practice in this stage is of a different nature. Like you might be sketching and painting or working on sculpture or forms. The basic intention is to develop a personal mark, a personal identity. Once the artist develops the personal vocabulary at a certain level, then the thought of when and where it develops does not have any boundaries. This is the next stage. When I enter the studio I don’t have a set objective of what I am going to do. In the studio there are a certain things, certain tools and mediums. You create whatever you feel like. Some things you pick up from what you’re accustomed with whereas some are new experiments. It’s very hard for me to differentiate whether the thought came first or the work, was it the concept that was conceived first or did the process lead up to the concept. So things go simultaneously. It so happens that at times the work shows you a way and at times you dictate the concept and the work flows in that direction.
So you are constantly in the mode to create. When you sit in your studio things start to fall into their places?
I recon this happens to most artists, that when we are doing nothing there is always something that we are working on. Like right now, I am having a conversation with you but subconsciously there might be other things that are going on in my mind. So whether you are in your studio or sitting with friends or at home, even at a party, as an artist your mind is constantly working. Inspiration either comes from the inner thoughts or from the external world. An event can spring up an idea in your head on how to incorporate new dimensions into your work.

I was trying to take this through a step by step process. Meaning that we cover the language and the meaning of the art after we cover the step of entering into the concept of the work being created. So is your studio designed in a specific way to help you inspire and aid your creative flow?

My Studio and how my studio evolved there is a little similarity between the two. The similarity being that I have always kept myself open to exploring different medium and appearance in terms of art. So when I felt like working on ink and wash, I did so, when I felt like working with clay or wood, I did so. I always kept myself open to the medium and the benefit of this approach is that I have a very diverse body of work. So coming back to the studio, if I am not working on a medium, say it be clay or wood, I still have the tools necessary for this work in my studio. Now that I am working with metal, I have all the metal work tools available to me in my studio. So my studio is equipped for me to work on any such mediums as my heart wills.

So this is how you have set up your studio. Obviously the tools available to an artist, he will create something out of them only but what is the thought, the creative process, whether it be a person or event that ignites the creation? How do you communicate with your thoughts, at what levels?
When I am at my studio and working on a project, it’s me and my work only. My mind does not pay heed to the audience or the venue where my work is going to be displayed. All praises or critics of my work do not enter my mind, not for a second.
Other than the exhibition do you keep in mind who your audience is and carter to the likes of that audience per se?
When you work on your project and get a feedback from your audience, it is always there in your sub conscience. It might not have a direct impact on my work but maybe 10 years later I see what the feedback actually meant and how that feedback changed my working on tasks after that. This is natural and it happens to all of us. Having said that when I am working in my studio it does cross my mind on where I will be displaying my craft and what kind of reaction I will be expecting from my audience. My target audience for me is myself only. I have to be impressed by my work, I have to enjoy my work and I have to be happy with I have created. It is only after that I have exhibited my work and get a feedback that I analyze the appreciation or criticism. This happens, but not while I am working a project.
There are some artist who involve a team to work on their craft, like experts in that particular medium. Whereas you on the other hand like to work on all aspects by yourself. What is the reason behind that?

The excitement of working and creating something by yourself is on another level. In addition, in art the final product that you create is not as important as the process. And the discussion of how my work evolves is due to this process only. An example of it is that if I am trying to do something and it does not turn out the way I intended it but in the process something else happens that might pave a new direction for me. If I was not trying in the first place I would have gotten this new direction and there is a possibility that this is a better direction for me than my intended goal. I am thankful that the technical hang ups that people face are not hang ups for me. I have no issue with working in wood or metal. When I took sculpture as my major, I had never thought would work on wood or metal or clay. But since I had kept myself open so I followed my heart to any medium that excited me. 10 years back I had no idea that I would work in metal, but by doing one thing or the other it cleared my way to working with this medium. See if you need some help to lift an object you can take help from others to lift it up but if you are not helping and being a part of the resolution then I see it as a problem and it is unacceptable to me.

So would you say that you want to experience all the pit falls and the learning yourself?
Absolutely, this is the beauty and the pleasure of art. This is where you evolve. I don’t dislike that people take help from others but I think that they deprive themselves from this experience and the pleasure. The experience of making your own mistakes and the pleasure of find new avenues that guides you into a new direction.

So what happens when your craft depicts you thoughts and your experiences but others might translate it in another way. So an individual’s work is a formation of the thoughts that they have in the past 30 years and it is expressed in different ways and mediums. So what is the existential position? I wanted to discuss the figurative work with you, which is presented in wood sculptures and paintings. Who are these forms and what they want to say? And why they have taken up such a form?
Before we get to this question, I wanted to say that now the fields related to arts have merged so much that it is hard to differentiate where art or design or architecture starts. So if an architect makes a house, he does not construct the house himself. He designs, plans the layout and then the engineer works on it. Having this mentality in mind, if an artist is like an architect in this example than there is no issue in hiring an engineer or construction worker. Sometimes the scale of the work is so big that you need people working on it. But now if the architect does not even design the house himself than it kills the purpose. My frame of mind is that I want to be involved in the task personally. Although I do take assistance from others when the scale of the project is too big.
Again, on evolving vocabulary, there is no conscience effort. Out of blue I took the decision that I would take up sculpture. I was always into figurative work, that being the human form. So studied in-depth on anatomy during my time at NCA. There was a time that I could easily replicate a form but the curiosity remained, of what now? If the model is not there then what? That’s when I started working with my imagination and there was certain form that started developing in my work. When you start communicating with what you are working on you start to understand and express what that subject is saying. The title of the work also flows through the work itself. It is not predetermined. So when I mastered my academic skills, there was a nagging question in my head, what is my input in this? So I started to simplify my understanding and the relation to my subject. That’s what lead to “The Ordinary Soul’
The best part of that was that it was not just a single piece. It was organized in such a way that it looked like a group. There was a meaning to the placement for each piece.
When I talk about “the Ordinary Soul’ it was a single piece but when I started referencing the Souls, not individual but cumulative, they increased. The placement for all was not random, the placement of each piece signified its meaning along with their simplicity. It took me 5 to 10 years to create and the idea behind that was to speak for more rather than just one.
So you have touched many aspects in your work, like religious factions, literacy, political and there is conversation between the common man versus I don’t know who. But you can see the tension in the piece itself. So how would you categorize your work? Who does it speak for? Anything in particular?
I think it was an individual journey, me being the soul traveler. I started questioning myself and looking inside me and that’s how the Ordinary Soul started formulating. What is Ordinary Soul? To me are those people who do not question their purpose, they are ignorant of why they are here. The soul purpose of their lives is to provide for their families and their kids marriage. There were many people of this kind around in my surroundings. The way I see it is that if I did not get the kind of exposure that I got then my priorities would have been the same. If that exposure has changed my frame of thought, it is my conscience effort to multiply the exposure and get it out as much as possible. Now I implemented it in a way that I got my family out of that environment and educated them and provided them with a nurturing environment. When my kids grew up they implemented the same in their lives and this is how it multiplied. This is not limited to your family. As an artist when your work is being displayed or your thoughts are being heard, such as this interview, God knows how many people will hear this interview, your ideas and thoughts are reached by many.
Sometimes my work is reactionary, meaning it was the cause of an action or incident that might have happened and my work depicted my reaction to that incident and sometimes my work is a depiction of my inner constant journey.
At a very young age I was blessed that I got to read a lot of good books and was surrounded in such good company, that I not only enjoyed my childhood like any other kid but also got the maturity from books and the intellect from my environment. For example at age 12 I read Masnavi and Hikmat-e-rumi. As a kid I not only enjoyed my childhood but also developed a mature perspective on life. During my NCA days I got the exposure to a life that kid from a remote village could not contemplate. To match their intellect and understand their conversations and to contribute to the conversation to sway the opinions in your direction has been pivoting point which groomed my personality to what it is now. And this is what reflects in me and my work. So external factors have an impact on my work, whether it be religious or political but mostly you will find my own spiritual side in my work.
You mentioned about spirituality and symbolism. So have you developed your own symbolism for your spirituality, as I have seen you use your own scriptures that you have created, that might not have a meaning? Could you elaborate on that? And how do you see the physical world versus the Meta physical world.
I cannot draw a defined line between the two. I cannot say that at this point in my work I have presented the physical world and from this point onwards I will show the spiritual side. It is a fusion. An example of it is that we do not know where our body ends and where our soul starts.
What I meant to ask is how does your spiritual side reflect on your work?
This is through symbolism. For instance the ‘Wing Thought’, generally a human figure with wings is symbolized as an angel. My version in the Ordinary Soul shows the same human body with special set of wing to show wing thought. Now some take it as an angel, some as a bird, which is fine by me but when it is inquired by me than I do explain that it’s a representation of thought. Now again a thought is a very abstract and intangible thing. Like how do I show what a thought looks like?
My point exactly, how do transform a Meta physics object to a physical object?
It happens naturally. I could see something and think that this might be a good representation of what a thought might look like or this object can be used in such a way to depict an idea.
Has the Wing Thought motif been perfected or do you think there will be further iterations to your depiction of thoughts?
If you study an artist’s body of work, you will see if he or she is using a something recurrently in their work it means that this is a serious form of concern for him/her. Sometimes it is also due to the fact that the artist has received a lot of appreciation on it and they decide to follow the same pattern for success. It could be one of the reasons above. This is a very thin line that the viewer has to tread. I think the Wing Thought has its scope for now and will discover new highs. I will ride it for now but when I think it has lived its life or there is a new idea then I am always open to it.
Jabbar, I wanted to discuss with you the new generation of artist coming in and trying to survive in a cycle of presenting their work to galleries. How are galleries playing their roles in this cycle and what seems to be missing from this whole cycle that in turn is increasing the struggle of these emerging artists?

I think the most interesting part of this field is that there is no formula for success and when someone has tried to create a formula for success in this field it is more of a superficial bubble. If I have to guide some youngsters through my experience, I would say this field might not be for making money, but it for creating an awareness that other fields cannot provide. So your priority should be your art, all other things are secondary. Other things, you can say, are a part of the package. If your work is sincere, you will get fame and money but you will detract once the fame and money become a priority. Secondly, if I was born with a golden spoon my issues would have been different, my experience at the art school would have been different. There is a no right or wrong way here, no defined route to success. You went to art school, you had a different experience. They collective guidance is that you work sincerely and consistently and know that the period of struggle comes in everyone’s life and this span varies from person to person. But once you make your mark then things start to move in a flow. Mostly youngsters give up during this struggling stage. They get overwhelmed thinking that the gallery is not giving them any time, their work is not selling, the work is not getting any appreciation. Rather than looking at their work critically and find the weaknesses they start blaming others that others are bad and this is bad for them.

So now you are at a stage in your profession where people should get guidance from you. The opportunities for the work to be exhibited in galleries is all under the private sector. They then become the driving force of the type of art being exhibited. Don’t you think the scarcity of museums and galleries at Government level becomes a hindrance for to promote art? Since you have been actively involved in this in the past, what do you think is the future of this approach?
If the role of the gallery is of a facilitator/ mediator then I don’t mind. But unfortunately when every gallery owner, when they become teachers and preachers and start policing artist on what & what not to do then there is an issue. Now they have their reasoning as well. There is a commercial aspect of the gallery that it has to carter to. They know what the buyers want and then they ask the artist to create that type of work and then the artist creates what is being asked for. This shows that the work is controlled and that is the end of the artist. It is then that the particular artist only works to satisfy the targeted audience. This is unfortunate. There are many galleries that do not follow this but there are many who do. The gallery requests can be, make a red painting, make a particular style of imagery, there are very few that facilitate you in what you are doing. The youngsters are crushed in this environment. To stay firm at this point and to believe in what you are doing is the test. It is very hard to stand your ground then but it also proves your metal.
So if at this stage there is some support at Government level do you think it will help the situation?
There is nothing like it. If there is a variety of platforms to choose from but this has never been a priority for the Government sector, Private sector rules here. I don’t think there is a focus on art in the Government sector although it should be the case. Whenever we exhibit international they are surprised to learn that the talent is a sculptor and that too working on figurative work and then there is a change in perspective. But how can a handful of people change this perspective. If there is a backing and facilitation at the Government level then we are able to change the perception of the whole country.
There are many aspects of your life. The commercial aspect of this field is not known to the broader creator. You have taken up commission work as well and have worked on huge projects. How does one approach these commission projects especially for sculptors in order to support themselves?
As mentioned before there are different stages for every artist. If you are struggling and there are financial concerns I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking up commission work. The issue is how much of an impact will this commission work will have on your personal work? That is the main question. After NCA I have worked on many commercial projects, like fiber glass interior or the State Bank Mural. These projects would help you financially and there is nothing wrong with this. But I never compromised my personal projects due to these commission projects. That is to say that the evolution of my work was not hindered due to the commissioned projects. For example those who teach, they obviously need to run their homes as well. So my point is if you feel that you can survive with studio practice only there is nothing like it.
It was a pleasure to have this conversation with you and I hope we get to do this again.
Likewise, it was a pleasure to sit with you and I would like to congratulate you and the whole Art TV Pakistan team for all their hearty efforts. ss

Thank you!