Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq, on his Rotring compass set
GB Tell me why you chose this
MQA It’s one of two things that I really love. I don’t think I’d let anybody else use it. My dad gave it to me when I was at school and I still have the original pencil lead. I do use it but I take care of it and sharpen it. So everything in the box is original. I used to take it to school and it was the only thing I owned that was genuinely beautiful. No one else could get one and no one else could understand why I’d have this.
GB It’s a very grown-up thing to have when you’re a kid.
MQA I think I saw in this compass set what my father’s dreams were and I thought maybe I could carry on his dreams of how he thought he’d live his life. He was a mechanical engineer for a while but he ended up working in a restaurant to support the family. So I felt like the compass was best put to use continuing that potential and I thought I could achieve something in line with the way he’d imagined his compass being used.
GB So there are a lot of elements to this beauty – the function, the aesthetic and also an emotional, sentimental side.
MQA Part of it is definitely how it looks when I look at it in the case. I love the ochre colour inside.
GB If you’d found it in the street and it had never been used by your dad, would you say it was beautiful?
MQA No but I’d look at it because it’s Rotring. Beyond that my attachment to it is because it was my father’s.
GB Did you use it when you did the drawing for your Black Sun work?
MQA No, but I used it for some small sketches to show how the drawings would work. But whenever I go away I take it because I feel that this is more valuable than anything else I’ve got. Sometimes they come up on eBay but those ones don’t mean anything to me. Although when people talk about compasses, there’s that specific set that everyone had at school and this is not that sort of thing. It’s so beautiful because it’s chrome. It looks totally amazing. And it says West Germany on the side so it was made before the wall came down. For me, as a kid, it was the most excellent example of fabrication. My dad would save up to buy the one good thing. He obviously saved to get the best compass, knowing he could use it forever.
GB Is that what you tend to do? Have less stuff, but the best versions of it?
MQA All my stuff is stuff I want to live with for the rest of my life.
GB Would you expect other people to find this beautiful?
MQA Probably not. I think people might think it’s a nice compass set but then it might make people uneasy because it looks difficult to use.
GB Is beauty something you aim for in your art? Is that a response you have in mind when you create it?
MQA I think I’m just trying to make the most simple thing and that’s beautiful to me.
GB Do you have an ideal viewer?
MQA No, but it is fascinating to see how people react to Black Sun, which is on display now. You see a weird power to the work and I’d like to see more reactions to my drawings but it doesn’t work so well when they’re aware that you’re there watching their reaction.
GB Is Black Sun more about awe than beauty?
MQA In the sense that you’re scared by the grandeur of it? I think this is more simple. I’m not playing any trick on the viewer. They’re seeing exactly what they’re seeing. I didn’t want to make it too flat. You can still see the marks on the wall beneath. There’s a sort of balance that keeps it whole. Then you get quite an emotional response to it.
GB Is it a bit of a Rorschach ink blot test? Do a lot of people see something mystical in it?
MQA Yes, a lot of people do see spirituality in the work. Not just Black Sun, but the drawings as well. I don’t sit there and decide to use the spirituality box. It’s something that naturally happens. There’s not much to the work. It’s often just one material so it’s quite pure. For me, they’re quite home made.
GB Do you mind what people do with your work once they’ve bought it?
MQA No. You make the work but you don’t have to tell people how to react to it. They can have it or hold it or see it however they like.
GB Do you find beauty in mystery? I know you like the monoliths in Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey.
MQA Yes, mystery through time. But beauty has been here for ever and it will be here longer than any other thing, so why not add to the beauty. I think these things have been around forever but it just so happens that it was me who made them now.
GB Graphite is a fascinating material. I don’t see it in a spiritual way but there is an infinite amount of carbon stretching out into space and we haven’t found much else.
MQA But that’s quite spiritual in a way, going back to the point at which we were made. There was a moment when there was nothing and then we were here.
GB Are you influenced by Islamic art?
MQA A little bit. I don’t think Islam is a big deal in my art. Being brought up in Scotland is a bigger deal. I was also very influenced by going to see a Dali exhibition when I was young. It was the first time I ever saw love in a painting. Gaia was looking up at Christ on the cross from the bottom left hand corner with a sort of golden dress. The way the folds were painted and the look on her face were love. I realized that if I was reading that without knowing Dali that well, then we can make things that have a massive effect on people.
GB So you were never afraid of straightforward beauty? It was never a dirty word to you in art school?
MQA I always wanted to make things that were aesthetically exactly how I see them in my head. I don’t associate beauty with that straight away but beauty is part and parcel with simplicity. That’s why I love the Bauhaus. And I love that they made everything from tea sets to architecture.
GB Do you relate to Abstract Expressionism? It’s a long jump for a Bauhaus teapot to a Barnett Newman.
MQA I don’t really look at them. It’s not an influence. I’m not a painter. It feels like they were trying to describe a place or a sensation whereas I feel like I’m trying to make it.
GB And yet you listen to Wagner while you do this? That’s not simple!
MQA Do you not think so? I think Wagner creates huge amounts of space. He takes you on a journey and it is about love and trust and honour and pride. The Ring Cycle is relevant to any age in history. But Wagner is very aware that he’s going to have a massive emotional impact on his audience. It will be dark in the theatre and they’ll experience this massive journey. They’ll be completely wrenched. I like that but I’m not trying to replicate that. I want the viewer to come and look at the work and then leave if they want to.
GB But then I guess making the drawings is an epic journey in itself.
MQA One drawing takes just over a month. Wagner keeps me going because I want to make something great that will be around forever. It would be amazing if someone could look at a piece of my work in the way I look at this compass set and that my father looked at this compass set.
GB But will you be devastated when Black Sun is painted over in a few weeks?
MQA No. I’ll be happy because it will exist in a completely different world. It’s nice that it’s there right now and people have to go and experience it but no one can have it. The art market says, make things, frame them or put them on a plinth, sell them. But then where does the challenge go? If you’re just drawing things on paper and they’re getting sold, where is your brain? You’re not thinking about making something that moves us on if you’re only worried about doing something on paper. So why not make something that’s there for only a limited time and you have to be there to experience it?
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?