May 27 2011

Ussman Ghauri (1969–2011)

by Kathy Zhang

Ussman Ghauri, established printmaker, curator and associate professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), passed away following a heart attack at an art gallery in Karachi on April 9. He was just 41. One of the few professional printmakers working in Pakistan, Ghauri is remembered for his uncompromising commitment to his art and for his inspiring influence at the IVS, where he worked to build awareness and broaden opportunities in the field of printmaking. 

Ghauri was born in Sukkur, Pakistan in 1969. Trying to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, Ghauri applied to the Dawood College of Engineering that his brother attended. However, Ghauri’s application was rejected, putting him at a loss as to what he truly wanted to pursue. With the encouragement of his brother, who noticed his talent for drawing, he applied to the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and was accepted. Despite his background in pre-engineering studies, Ghauri said that after his first six months at the NCA, he “felt right away that it was the right place.” After graduating in 1992 with a Bachelor of Design and a minor in printmaking, he began designing for an advertising agency.

Four years later, however, Ghauri grew dispassionate about commercial design, and in 1996 he returned to academia, teaching print-media techniques to design students at the IVS. Around the same time, Ghauri considered beginning a career as an artist. He went on, in 1998, to pursue an MA in printmaking from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and returned to the IVS after graduating in 2000. While teaching, Ghauri also acted as curator for the IVS Gallery and the Koel Gallery. He held several solo exhibitions in Pakistan and soon developed a niche for himself as an experimental printmaker.

Ghauri continually explored new artistic mediums and processes. The year after he received his MA, he explored the potential of calligraphy, interweaving alphabets and scripts to create symbolic narratives. He also produced sculptures, textile works and paintings. With his recent series of prints, “Verbal Non-Verbal” and “Resilience,” (2009–10), Ghauri tested unconventional transferring procedures, using photocopying, embossing, gum Arabic, silkscreen, stenciling, and three-dimensional arrangements in wood and metal. In one print from his “Verbal Non-Verbal” series—made from acrylic, coffee and photocopy transfer on paper—one of two panels, depicts an oversized fish swimming through a sea of clouds against a coffee-stained background. Sanskrit phrases cover the entirety of the backdrop. On the right panel, a man stands with arms outstretched and neck arched back to gaze at a bright cerulean sky. Both fish and figures enjoying a summer breeze are recurring symbols in his work; for the artist they represent freedom, perfect symmetry and happiness. Two hanging sculptures in metal, included in the tribute exhibition at IVS Gallery to the late Ghauri, appear to be lifelike mechanical birds. Ghauri’s Winged Pleasure and Target (both 2011) express the enchantment and joy associated with flight. Aamir Ghouri, a childhood friend of Ghauri’s, described the artist’s boyish personality: “Ussman had this unique ability to find happiness in the smallest things.”

Much of Ghauri’s work also contemplates societal malaise. His sculpture Airborne (2011) shows hanging steel insects attempting to enter drilled holes in a tear-shaped wooden structure much smaller than them. The piece comments on social stratification in Pakistan, representing the difficulty for people from different niches in society to fit into others. Charging Bear (2011), a 42-inch-tall black-and-white striped Lego bear figurine gripping a fiber glass, wood and acrylic model of the Eiffel Tower that was exhibited in his last group exhibition, “And Nothing But the Truth: The Problem of Parrhesia” at IVS Gallery, can be interpreted as a mocking portrait of Palestine’s sovereignty. However, other works that meditate on the human condition, in particular his whimsical metal and multimedia sculptures, present the vibrant and good-natured side that those who knew the artist remember him for the most.

Students and faculty members, shocked by the news of Ghauri’s untimely death, gathered at IVS on April 11 to remember the artist. Again, on May 14, students, colleagues, friends, family and admirers gathered to honor him at a tribute exhibition organized by the IVS Gallery. Ghauri’s personal artwork, some left unfinished, in addition to donated works by over 50 artists were put up for sale in a touching community effort to raise funds for the Ghauri family in their time of need.