Saleem Arif was born in Hyderabad, India and arrived in Britain aged seventeen when his family emigrated in the 1960s. He studied at Birmingham School of Art and then the Royal College in London. On graduating in 1975, he returned to India to rediscover the country he had known as a child. In the following years he travelled widely in North Africa, Europe and the Asian sub-continent, his work fusing and assimilating the influences of Eastern and Western cultures, including his own Indian and Islamic background. He became fascinated by the jewel-like style of Indian miniatures and their fabulous, mythic content, as well as Islamic calligraphic traditions and the modernism of Matisse (1869-1954) and Klee (1879-1940). He was also greatly influenced by the poetic, oral and mystical traditions with which he came into contact, being particularly drawn to Islamic Sufism and the poetry of Dante (1265-1321). Both explore visionary ideas of the journey through life as a spiritual quest or pilgrimage, concepts which would underpin Arif's developing work and his metaphorical interpretation of travel itself.
While at the Royal College Arif became fascinated by Dante's Inferno. Over a five year period he produced more than five hundred gouaches, prints and paintings exploring the mythic narrative. Focusing upon heroic figures and fabulous creatures apparently taken from some imaginary heraldic bestiary, Arif was fascinated by the common links which emerged between Dante's Christian fable and the traditional tales of Islam. Later works continued to draw on the multivalent and resonant symbols and narratives of spiritual literature.
Landscape of Longing draws upon notions of spiritual quest, expressing wonder and awe at the nature of things. In an unpublished Tate interview Arif has described how the image is to be interpreted as a 'Celebration of Life with all its inexplicable mysteries.' However, unlike earlier works were figurative symbols were instantly recognisable, Landscape of Longing consists of seven seemingly abstract cut-out forms mounted on the wall. Arif employed a jigsaw and shaped sections of board which were punctured with a variety of different forms and motifs. The boards were covered with muslin and then a thick mixture of oil paint and sand. The paint was dragged, raked and incised to create a textured surface reminiscent of a ploughed field. The soft browns and greens served to enhance the works associations with landscape. When hung the cut-out forms appear to float before the white wall, the forms evoking a map or islands seen from above. In an unpublished Tate interview Arif related the painted forms to the sinuous strokes of Islamic calligraphy.
Landscape of Longing consists of both the painted forms and the negative spaces (the areas of wall) between. Arif associates these invisible spaces with the Sacred, referring to them as 'pregnant spaces' and employing them as positive elements within the composition. As in many of his works, these negative spaces evolve into evocative shapes which suggest male and female principles and a relationship to nature. Arif has described how the work contains the figure of a woman symbolic of longing, or human aspirations, a male profile and a variety of more abstract, punctured forms which it is possible to see as leaves, pods or birds. The apparently abstract painted form on the far right is intended to be an oil lamp and is symbolic of illumination and the human quest for knowledge. (All above references from unpublished Tate interview.)
The work was made during a time of change and consolidation for Arif, its celebratory theme relating to his personal life at about the time he met his wife.
Mary Rose Beaumont, Saleem Arif: Gardens of Grace, exhibition catalogue, Arks Gallery, London 1997
Sue Hibbard, 'The Art of Saleem Arif', Third Text, no.27, Summer 1994, pp.37-44
Tony Godfrey, The Paintings of Saleem Arif, exhibition catalogue, Newport Museum and Art Gallery 1991