In Praise of Illegibility

There is a strain of abstract art that I don’t remember ever being the subject of an exhibition in New York, a city where more than 600 languages are spoken and written: asemic writing. An exhibition focusing on “writing without the smallest unit of meaning” could include works by Xu Bing, Henri Michaux, J. B. Murray, Cy Twombly, and Isidore Isou, founder of Lettrism. To this distinguished company, which transcends cultural boundaries, I would add Nadia Haji Omar, whose work I first wrote about in 2018.

Haji Omar, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in Sri Lanka, grew up learning different languages (Arabic, Sinhalese, Tamil, English, and French), some of which she studied after moving to the United States. It is out of the confluence of cultures — she is of Syrian, Indian, and Sri Lankan descent — and their written languages that she has developed a visual vocabulary of lines and dots. 

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Her current exhibition, Nadia Haji Omar: Secret Garden at Kristen Lorello gallery (April 19-May 27, 2022), includes 26 works on paper done between 2017 and 2022. Given the number of letters in the English alphabet, I don’t think the number of works was arbitrary. It is also worth noting that the Sinhala alphabet has 60 letters, of which only 57 are needed, while the Tamil alphabet has 247 letters. 

Nadia Haji Omar, “Round Flowers” (2022), ink and graphite on paper, 8 x 6 inches

Working in graphite, colored pencil, acrylic, ink, watercolor, dye, and wax, Haji Omar makes intimately scaled drawings (between 8 by 6 inches and 12 by 9 inches) in which she repeats small abstract marks and shapes, along with flowers and eyes. Although a few of the titles suggest these are studies for paintings, all the drawings stand on their own. Despite her circumscribed vocabulary, in which repetition plays a strong role, Haji Omar does not settle for making variations on a theme — each work is distinct. 

In the ink and graphite “December” (2017), the artist uses six different configurations (according to my calculation) of dots and lines to make an asymmetrical abstract composition. They include two stacks of loose linear bands containing wayward rows of stacked rectangles, each filled with a dot alternating with rows of blank space, oddly rounded outlined shapes that bring to mind jigsaw puzzles and aerial maps of lakes, a thin band whose interior is marked by a row of single dots, and other simple and precise configurations.

The first drawing I saw when I entered the gallery was “Square Font” (2020), composed of a checkerboard pattern of tiny black and white squares. In each white square is a red dot. Within this field are script-like rows of red squares with black dots and black squares with red dots. Each row brings to mind computer pixels and the relationship between letters or sign and grids. 

While “Square Font” evokes digital signs, the time-consuming process of making the drawing raises questions about time-saving devices. What do we gain and what do we lose with each new invention? The fact that the shapes never become letters and the rows do not become sentences is part of the work’s meaning. Can we look for the sake of looking, or must looking always be about gaining and extraction? 

Nadia Haji Omar, “December” (2017), ink and graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches

In their invitation to be read, and their successful resistance to legibility, Haji Omar’s asemic works open up a space that is all their own. I don’t think she is making a secret language, which is what J. B. Murray believed he was creating at the behest of a higher being. The tension between what is almost readable and completely unreadable speaks to us on many levels, starting with our desire to know what we are looking at and why. In “Dark Eyes (the flower)” (2020), the artist’s use of pink and red, and her floral motif, inflect her calligraphic, script-like lines, but do not make apparent what they might mean. 

In “Study for Sear So and So Painting” (2018), Haji Omar stops within a hair’s breadth of being decipherable. The awkwardness of the script reminded me of unreadable handwriting. I was also reminded of letters that never get sent or received, and the dilemma of wanting to say something but feeling that you don’t have the right words for it. For me, the drawing stirred up the frustration of feeling inarticulate that afflicts us all when it comes to communication. Our inability to exchange ideas and adequately transmit our thoughts has been exacerbated by the extreme isolation people experienced during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

In a country where anti-Muslim sentiment runs strong, Haji Omar’s use of an unreadable calligraphic script can be read a number of ways. For one, it touches on this country’s cynical psyche as well as its promotion of monolinguism. The drawings obliquely address this and other loaded subjects. Hers is an art of concentrated attention, a record of small acts of devotion, and of counting time as well as shaping one’s passage through it. It is about the beauty that can be obtained with simple, widely available materials, and on a small scale. In that alone, Haji Omar is critiquing how we spend our time and our materialist desires. 

Nadia Haji Omar: Secret Garden continues at Kristen Lorello gallery (23 East 73rd Street, 5th Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 27. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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