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Gulam Mohammed Sheikh

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1937, Surendranagar, Gujarat
Lives and works in Baroda, India

His painting formats vary from handmade paper to architectural sculptures. Alongside being a painter he is also a writer, art critic and poet. His source of motivation, since his school days has always been the well-known poet-saint - Kabir which can especially be seen in his paintings. His art aims to stir people out of thier cocoon and his images and the text from Kabir create that mix.



Painting, Royal College of Art, London


MFA (Painting), Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda


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UNDERSTANDING Gulam Mohammed Sheikh

The political and communal in his works

His interest in several traditions of world art and the search for a linguistic-theoretical foundation resists monolithic constructs of identity or tradition. For him Kabir becomes a figure of inspiration as he keeps recurring to juxtapose Kabir’s words and his own images. His work Kaavad: Travelling Shrines: Home is a large-scale narrative of the riot-ridden world but also an attempt at communal harmony by composing images of popular culture together. Alphabet Stories is based on his relationship with Kabir. The inspiration for it came from political parties changing and reinterpreting history in textbooks in order to promote partisan ideology which often leads to intolerance and violence. Sheikh satirically rewrites the alphabet book: Ga for Gandhi, Ksh for Kshatriya, Ka for kamal, La for lotus and Tra for trishul. His works continue to have an intense engagement with politics in his investigation of communal violence and community formation.  It is also filled with hope and people like Gandhi, Kabir, Sufi saints and the Speaking Tree.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Kaavad: Migration, 2011, casein with pigments on papier-mache relief mounted on ply board, 29.5 x 69 x 59”

Sheikh broke away from the national modern art practice

During his stay in London, Sheikh was exposed to Rajput paintings and Pahari miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Along with this his travels to the continent also allowed him to observe Renaissance paintings, especially in Italy. These two varied art forms influenced his art so much so that he formed the 1890 group along with 11 other artists to break away from the modernism inspired from the School of Paris to formulate an idiom of his own. He did not seek inspiration in Expressionism or Cubism but in Pahari and Mughal miniatures, Bhakti and Sufi poetry traditions and magic realism, combined with his interest in Renaissance paintings that have shaped his specific approach to story-telling. Sheikh’s canvases are populated with historical and fantastical figures, narrative vignettes, and intricate maps of the cosmos—they illustrate his own memories, historical and mythological scenes, and, ultimately, the universal experience of being human.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Between Memory and Music "Passages" Series, 1991, oil on canvas, 42 x 84"

His works are an eclectic mix of autobiographical and art historical

He has been instrumental in initiating and theorizing the narrative and figurative tendency in contemporary art as he attempts to explore the subliminal reaches of human existence and self. He does so by incorporating elements of the surreal and extreme organicity in his works to construct and reconfigure memory and history which is at once autobiographically intimate and universal so that the self embraces the other. Musings on place, on the cultural environment of the individual are of importance, to him; the physical and the transcendental meet in his work. In Speaking Tree he uses his favourite trope of journeys to insert self-portraits in a circular formation which refer to his childhood memories and experiences and his friends, mentor, Sufi saints all in the company of a mythical Speaking Tree which stands for various cultures in India.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Speaking Tree2005, archival inkjet on arches 300 gsm paper, 93 x 96”

City of Baroda and contested landscapes

The city of Vadodra/Baroda is a recurrent landscape in Sheikh’s oeuvre. His installation CITY: Memory, Dreams, Statues and Ghosts: Return of Hiuen Tsang is a map of Baroda re-imagined on a Google Earth map as to how it would be perceived if 7th century pilgrim Hiuen Tsang were to return to the city in search of the relics of Buddha. The image is in contrast with the violence now associated with the city. The city is itself split into two- the standing panels map as the living city marked by recent violence and the floor panels as an archaeological site, marking the time when Hiuen Tsang came to India in search of enlightenment and scriptures that showed him the right path. The installation has to be viewed on triple screens and is called Mappa Mundi – Beyond Borders. Sheikh utilises Mappamundi or the map of medieval Europe (a 13th century circular map of the world that was destroyed in the Second World War) to convey beautifully the loss of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. He uses the chinar tree and Kashmiri shawl as the backdrop. This long book also shows Kabir at his loom, St. Francis preaching to the birds, Majnu looking for his Laila, Mary Magdalene rushing to touch Christ, and so on.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, The Mappamundi Suite 4. Marichika II, 2003, Digital Collage: gouache on inkjet, 55.5 x 70 cm

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, City for Sale, 1984, oil on canvas

Employs diversity of form and media to capture multiple stories

His storytelling contains multiplicity of narratives, perspectives and histories, without a linear sequentiality, enabling the viewer to enter from one story to another in a continuous narration. This allows for a dialogic nature in his works which suffuse writing and painting, religion and violence, private and public, and myth and history. His media varies from handmade paper to architectural balance. Mixed media techniques allow him not only to go beyond the frame of the painting but also accommodate multiple voices in his attempt to reinvent a history of art. The narrative style is evident in Ark, 2003, a digital work, in which the city colonises the sky with its buildings and roads is employed to explore the future of Earth and its resources. In other works he uses these techniques to explore the self in the context of the world around him.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Ark 2, 2003, gouache on paper, 56 x 76 cm