Maryam Eisler Meets Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq

Maryam Eisler, Harper's Bazaar Art, Tate Middle East North Africa, Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq
Maryam Eisler, Co-chair of the Tate Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee in London, was acquainted with the work of Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq with the help of Peckham-based gallerist Hannah Barry. When Maryam first encountered the works of the artist, she was immediately mesmerized by the linear simplicity, precision, and sharpness of Mohammed’s sculptures in relation to the light and their occupied space

Maryam Eisler: How would you categorize the degree of spirituality in your work? To note, I am not talking about religious spirituality.

Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq: It’s difficult to separate religion from spirituality.

ME: What I’m referring to is some degree of meditative content, especially in your graphite works on paper.

M: The drawings take a long time to make. There is this amazing point where you start a drawing. You’ve got this huge bit of paper and you think, ‘Oh yes, this is so good.’ It’s a huge bit of paper and it’s totally perfect, straight. Then you draw the circle on it and then you draw the geometry and then you stand there and look at it, and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is going to be the drawing.’ Then you draw the first line and you’re thinking about the first couple of lines, right? ‘Cause it’s like you’re drawing for the first time. And then you don’t really think about it until it’s almost finished. I don’t want to say it’s an automatic reaction to what’s in front of me, it’s just that I know what the goal is when you start the drawing. The geometry is there and you know what the lines are going to be pointing towards. I only realize it when the work is in its last couple of minutes. You’re drawing the last lines, and all of a sudden, it’s done.

ME: Do you mean to say that you lose yourself in your work?

M: I don’t really. I mean, I know we’re in 2015, but I don’t quite know how I got here. The works are not about instant gratification. Even making the cardboard maquettes takes a long time, or the sculptures… it’s a massive process, and it takes time.  In the same way, it’s like a sheet of steel that has to be transformed into this greater vision …

ME: What about the repetition in your drawing? Are you trying to reveal a personal or collective memory?

M: I’m not sure. You’re talking about these huge journeys that take place over the course of anywhere from eight to ten hours a day-my drawing journeys that is. When you’re working every day for such long hours and you’re listening to an opera (generally Wagner) on repeat, nothing really changes. I’m not sure what the memory is. I’m not sure what I want to remember or what I want to forget.

ME: There’s a fine line between remembering and forgetting.

M: Yes! Because obviously I remember making these, but at the same time I don’t know how much I remember of the time that I have spent making them, you know?

ME: Talk to me about this immaculate mathematical precision in your work, this incredible order. Are you trying to instill some order within the complex world we live in or better yet, are you trying to give some order to your own life, to what you can personally control?

M: Absolutely. Control is a massive thing. You have control of the pencil and you have control in how you make the work. It’s difficult to see beautiful things sometimes, especially when you’re in your own little world. Most artists live in their own little world that’s all fantastic, for whatever it’s worth…. There was a period when I had one of the big drawings in my bedroom. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I’d look at this huge black disk. And I would say, “That’s really good.” I love waking up and seeing this silhouette; it just sort of works because I don’t really like much stuff. I sort of like nothing, really.

ME: What about the significance of light in your work?  Critics always talk about darkness when referring to your art. I’m interested in the light you incorporate.

M: Oh, light’s beautiful, isn’t it? The more light the better because you just can’t have darkness without light. For example, if you went and walked from right to the left of the drawing, you see yourself in a completely different light. I think that’s really amazing. That activation. We’re sitting here, the work’s black, the wall’s white, the floor’s grey, there’s no color. But as soon as you shift, you see the outside reflected in the drawing. There’s an amazing sense of being alive, experiencing something that’s not just flat, or monochromatic and boring. Even in the studio, when I’m working on them, I’ve got a really powerful light bulb, and it reflects everything around it.  Blue skies are particularly amazing when they’re reflected in the drawings.

ME: On a more philosophical level, are you seeking enlightenment or existential affirmation?

M: Probably affirmation… maybe.

ME: Your work - it’s light, yet it’s very anchored, right?

M: Yes, but even with the Falling Stars, I see them as sort of light frozen in time. I just see them as captured in that moment when they fell to earth. The drawings, I feel, are more solid and grounded whereas the sculptures are more escaping and of another world.

ME: When addressing the reciprocal tension between your drawings and your sculptures, I see a dialogue between the two.

M: Absolutely. When I was just focusing on making 3D works, I felt there was something missing. Not that there was something missing in the work but something missing that would help complete it. I’m also a bit weird about using circles. You know how difficult it is to make a circle that’s perfect, let alone a straight line? It is completely mental.

ME: But are circles not eternal? Perhaps a return to the source?

M: I’m going to have an anxiety attack talking and thinking about it…. a perfect circle, that’s pretty bad… I don’t know if I can deal with that.

ME: Then don’t. Think of a line. Think of projecting yourself into a linear horizon instead.

M: I just thought, “What’s more perfect than a black hole?” …. “How can I describe something that resembles a sculpture, but with a pencil?” The only way I thought of bringing the two together is by creating some sort of geometry in opposing directions.

Some works you can navigate through while having a great conversation with them. For example, when you see the interplay between light and dark. The drawings started off as ornamental, and then I realized that I needed to readjust the parameters. So as you said, talking about perfect circles, I wanted to get close to a point where the drawings were as near to being circular as possible, while also not being able to tell if they were either coming towards you or receding.

ME: So, moving away from this perfect circle, how has your background informed your work?

M: I’m a human being and I make art, that’s easy. 

BY

Maryam Eisler, Harper's Bazaar Art, Tate Middle East North Africa, Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq