Portrait of Gulammohammed Sheikh. Photo by Sukhdev Rathod. Courtesy the artist.

GULAMMOHAMMED SHEIKH, Partition (detail), 2011, casein with pigments on papier-mâché relief mounted on ply board, 144 × 145 × 4 cm. Courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

History Through a Kaleidoscope

Gulammohammed Sheikh

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Images can result from accumulations rather than isolated inspiration. Maps, for instance, are refined and redrawn according to use, while religious icons can also evolve and change over time. Indian painter Gulammohammed Sheikh might well say that images are amalgams of the physical and mystical. We met in Hong Kong at an art-deco cigar lounge in the middle of the Central district, which happened to be the closest quiet corner to the gallery hosting his first solo show in the territory. Sheikh described to me his practice of quotation, of reusing images from the canons of various art histories as well as from his own archives, and the permutations that images undergo when transferred across media. 

Born in 1937 into a Gujarati Muslim family in pre-partition India, Sheikh completed an MA in painting at Maharaja Sayajirao University Baroda, Vadodara, in the 1960s before continuing his studies at the Royal College of Art, London. He was a professor of painting at his alma mater, has lectured around the world and is also known to Gujarati readers for his poetry and prose. So, I wondered if he has ever had to justify this multifaceted art practice in a world that often craves specificity. “I didn’t have any need to explain that, because that is my makeup,” he smiled. “It’s not about prioritizing one above the other; it’s also not seeing one against the other. It is one, in a way, interwoven with the other. And that is the way I have always lived my life.” 

Sheikh spoke with an authority warmed by what is evidently a genuine passion for grand universal questions, equally of art as of life. Regarding the development of his practice, he has often emphasized the plurality of the environment in which he grew up, where, as he put it during a talk at the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi in 2011, “the meaning of ‘reality’ was larger than the mundane world.”

His paintings evidence a sort of syncretism, combining references from diverse painting traditions—notably Sienese and Mughal art—as well as personal photographs and images from the ever-proliferating mass media. Despite this variety of sources, and even Sheikh’s recent use of digitally scanned, printed and collaged images, there is a continued disregard for linear time and space in his work, and perhaps a penchant for the intertwining of miraculous events or legendary characters with events of societal and personal significance, such as the Gujarat riots of 2002. Sheikh has also started quoting from his own earlier works, and as we spoke it became clear that his transferral of images across media opened a space in which the appropriated images are inevitably transformed, creating new narratives. 

Referring to his seminal painting Returning Home After a Long Absence (1969–73), commenced after arriving back in India from London in 1969, Sheikh explained, “It’s not that you don’t refer to things . . . The process is neither totally conscious nor totally subconscious. There are phases in which you work—a painting is not done in a single moment. It is done over a period of time; and in that, it’s not one kind of painting that you do, because times change, you change, the world changes, and then you decide.” The final work includes motifs from Mughal painting, an image of the prophet Mohammed on a horse, from a Persian painting in the British Library, angelic figures and angular rows of houses reminiscent of 14th-century Sienese painting, and a stylized image of the artist’s mother repainted from a black-and-white photograph. Speaking in 2008, Sheikh noted how quotation can personalize histories while simultaneously expanding one’s own story to reach more universal themes. “[It] overturns the real and imaginary, back and forth . . . The mundane world of autobiography turns into a larger biography that is available to others.” 

While he identifies himself as a painter, since the mid-1990s in particular Sheikh has been exploring formats that deliver multiple images and narratives, including a series of painted concertina books. He worked on the first of these, Book of Journeys (1996–2007), intermittently for a decade, and it came to incorporate imagery drawn from the mass media, such as depictions of India’s nuclear testing at Pokhran, melded with Italianate landscapes and everyday scenes from his home in Baroda. He has described the work as a personal history, reflecting the times in which he has lived, as well as an act of “restructuring memory.” Here, quotation and appropriation are like acts of ownership over the present, or acts of self-identification.

Continuing his search for different formats in which to work, Sheikh came across a kaavad in New Delhi’s Crafts Museum. Kaavad are mobile wooden shrines used by itinerant storytellers in Rajasthan—their folding articulated doors are typically painted with family genealogies and legends that both record and revitalize a patron’s sense of identity. At first Sheikh worked in this smaller, traditional format, made to be easily handled rather than simply displayed. Kaavad: Journeys (2002–04) is around 40 centimeters tall and reflects on migration and displacement, showing Mercator maps encircled by multicolored sailing ships on panels that can be folded out to reveal other apparently mystical lands and animals, as well as figures from Islamic tales. 

In a statement reminiscent of Kabir, the late 15th-century mystic poet (and one of Sheikh’s favorite motifs) who controversially claimed that the divine is in the everyday rather than in ascetic rituals, Sheikh has said: “It [the kaavad format] actually seeks alternative meanings in order to retrieve the sense of the spiritual from organized religious practice and to transpose it to the realm of the secular.” 

For Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home (2008), one of his most ambitious works to date, Sheikh worked with a team to construct and paint a kaavad over two meters high, which the viewer could walk through. Painted on all sides of its folding doors, as well as on its ceiling, are near life-sized images of seekers—saints, folk characters, as well as Kabir and even Gandhi, sitting together in defiance of temporal, spatial and cultural divisions. To select the various images, Sheikh scoured books in his library, sometimes enlarging images of people that were tiny in the original, here brought to face us through the materiality of oil painting and architectural space. One panel also reprises a cropped piece of Returning Home

When asked how he considers such recent installation-style works, and indeed his broader practice, in the context of contemporary art, Sheikh said: “I see my association with this as a kind of involvement in history. I’m not using traditional art . . . I’m using something that is part of history. There are many artists today who are using history, their own as well as that of the past. In that sense we are not outside what is happening. Now, how do you deal with that history? That still has to be looked at in our time. I’m interested in making the kaavad with particular relevance to our own time.” This kaleidoscopic vision, encompassing the local, global and personal realms, speaks not only of a complex present but also of the complexity of human cultures as lived histories.