Inside the art world of words
Youdhisthir Maharjan and Khalil Chishtee are transforming the landscape of the written word
Youdhisthir Maharjan loves to pick up books from thrift stores. Old, used, abandoned books which would go on to have a second life. In Maharjan’s hands, they become pieces of art. “I look for books whose titles I can relate to," he said when I met him at the India Art Fair in Delhi earlier this year. “I work with text, changing its structure, grammar and syntax, by cutting each character into their individual parts and gluing them back without a prescribed sequence. I like to present them for what they really are, mere nonsensical marks," says the Nepalese-American artist.
Maharjan looks at text as geometric shapes—the alphabet “o" as a circle, or “p" as a vertical line and a semi-circle. His process involves the accumulation of texts, most often from pages of used books, and their surgical dissection. As a result, a new language is invented, but this time there is no dictionary with prescribed meanings to dictate its interpretation. “I celebrate the incomprehensibility and illegibility of language," he says. “By merely changing the context and composition of something very familiar, the language that we take for granted and use on a daily basis, I present my viewers with something new and alien."
The works of Khalil Chishtee, a Pakistan-born American artist, stand in contrast. In his pieces, Urdu calligraphy is traced on paper and metal. “I would not typecast myself as a calligrapher or even a text artist," he says. “I learnt Urdu calligraphy at a very young age, but I only use it or other text in my work when I feel like responding to an event or situation that demands its use." For instance, during his stay in California in 2004, he saw bumper stickers with the text “Support Our Troops". “I felt that such signs and marks of passionate patriotism could lead us to make mistakes," he recalls. As a reaction, he made a work with neon lights that was displayed at the Exit Art show in New York in 2006. In the work, he turned off the letters T and R from the word “Troops". From a distance it read: “Support Our oops."
Chishtee believes in self-criticism. He does not believe in patriotic ideas or religious constructs that instil fear or hatred amongst people. At the India Art Fair this year, he exhibited a work titled History Is A Nightmare From Which I Am Trying To Awake. “In my work, the horses displayed were questioning the history of Muslim warriors. In my community, we criticize the invasion or influence of foreign authorities, but we proudly talk about our glorious past and how we ruled the world—and I want to question that."
The wall sculpture made of rusted metal depicts invaders galloping on horseback. The work itself has been formed with Urdu calligraphy. The text is a verse by Pakistani poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal.
In another work by Chishtee, titled This Is Not My Religion, he creates a sword using Urdu calligraphy that reads: “Peaceful propaganda about Islam." The sword is a weapon to fight with, but “strangely, it is now considered to be an instrument to keep peace. Ironically, there are countries that bear the sword in their national flags."
In the practices of both artists, text and words take prominence. For Maharjan, the very nature of cutting, burning, or erasing text is political by default. “I do not consciously engage in political or social issues through my works or process. I am not interested in expressing my opinions through my works. I engage in mechanical and methodical processes, where I remain a voiceless agent who brings the work into being," he explains. In his work, he does not add or remove anything. He merely rearranges what is on the page, leaving the original text intact and often legible. But the intent is for it to be comprehended differently. With a limited vocabulary, 26 letters of the English alphabet and a few punctuation marks, he explores new possibilities of interacting with the text.
Maharjan takes printed pages and removes the words, separating them from context. He takes away from the prescribed meaning and understanding of the language. Whereas Chishtee removes the unwanted, the negative space, to bring out the positive in the form of words, sourced from text that conveys the essence of the work itself. They create imagery—Maharjan by re-pasting the alphabet to make abstract forms, and Chishtee by using the calligraphic style of text, where the words themselves form his configurations. For viewers, actual knowledge of the language is secondary. Cultural origin is not important. Words become lines and strokes, aimed at evoking a response.