Anwar Jalal Shemza (b. 1928, Simla, India – d. 1985, Stafford, UK) was born in Simla, India to Kashmiri and Punjabi parents. Shemza attended Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, graduating in 1947. In 1956, already an established artist and writer in his home land, he relocated to England to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. This move marked a significant change in the artist’s life and practice. While studying he was astonished to hear one of his lecturers, famed art historian E. H. Gombrich, characterise Islamic art as purely functional. This was a pivotal moment, leading Shemza to abandon previous work and embark on a journey to create a dramatically different style and visual language. His diasporic perspective allowed him to explore modernism through the double prism of Islamic and Western aesthetics. Throughout his career, Shemza’s visual vocabulary drew on an array of deeply studied and lived experience, from carpet patterns and calligraphic forms to the environments around him: Mughal architecture from Lahore and the rural landscapes of Stafford, England.
Shemza was devoted to a singular practice in which multiple histories, cultures and experiences were distilled and expressed in pure shape and colour. For the artist, pictorial autonomy was more important than human autonomy, his interest lying in Constructive Picture Formation.[1] The artist had an unwavering dedication to form and process – repeatedly breaking down the structure of shapes to come to a resolved understanding. Parallels can be drawn between a looping structure of language found in his fictional writing and the arrangements he developed through painting. In his compositions, layered elements are distilled into an intensive exploration of geometric abstraction and pattern, built up mostly using just two simple forms: the square and the circle. Inscribed in Urdu script on the surface of his painting One to Nine and One to Seven, ‘One circle, one square, one problem, one life is not enough to solve it.’ (1962) Through this exploration, he cultivated an exceptional formalist vocabulary in the tradition of Mondrian or Klee with the calligraphic strokes of the Arabic alphabet.
Shemza continued to teach, make, and exhibit art until his death in 1985. An established artist in Pakistan before his move to the UK in the mid 1950s, the young Shemza was an active participant in Urdu literary circles, publishing multiple novels, poems and radio plays, and he edited the journal Ehsas. In 1952, he co-founded the Lahore Art Circle, a group of young artists interested in modernism and abstraction rebelling against the uniform socialist realist style espoused by some progressives. Shortly after his death, Shemza’s spectacular painting The Wall (1958) was selected for inclusion in the seminal exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, organised by Rasheed Aareen at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. In 1997, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery staged a large solo exhibition of his work. In more recent years, a solo display at Tate Britain (2015-16) and inclusion in significant exhibitions such as Haus der Kunst’s Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945 – 1965 in Munich (2016 – 17) have cemented Shemza’s position as a central figure in a post-colonial reappraisal of 20th-century modernism.
Shemza’s work is in many public collections including Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; Tate, London, UK; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Lahore Museum, Lahore, Pakistan; Sharjah Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates and Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN, USA.

[1] Shemza, A. J., What is in a Name, unpublished manuscript on art education, 1979