As children, most of what we read came with accompanying illustrations that focused and inspired the range of our visual imagination. But the experience, of course, could never be total-- at least not as all encompassing as a visit to the cinema. Somewhere down the line the very idea of having what you read illustrated for you came to be imbued with a certain juvenile overtone: suggesting that only books for children or those with a comic tone should come with pictures. With the likes of Marjane Satrapi however, things began to change – graphic novels dealing with somber ‘adult’ issues came to be accepted seriously. Sometimes this new form of novel would even run for pages only on the strength of its images with words appearing now and again as the occasional accompaniment.
Hence the present moment was probably a good time for Wasim Helal to ‘appear’, since pictures always communicated to him far more profoundly than the written word. Wasim started working with ad agencies as a graphic design student for Applied Arts. His first break came in 2006 when he was offered the chance to illustrate the bilingual ‘Cuentos de Espana’ by Spanish writer A.R. Almodovar followed by the autobiography of Maarife Fernando Bolanos (Spanish diplomat and writer). Working with such international biggies inspired him to become a full-time freelancer and he devoted his full professional energies to designing book covers. This is what he found 'most interesting', for book covers, like posters, function as visual blurbs and play a pivotal role in making or marring initial responses. 'It was a hugely challenging responsibility', he says. By 2007 Wasim was designing covers and generating illustrations for the biggest publishing houses in India and abroad: ranging from Orient Blackswan (Delhi); Deccan Chronicle (Spark India, Hyderabad); P&M Records (Kolkata); Sandesh Magazine, Rupa Publications (Delhi); BCCL(Kolkata); Westland Books(Delhi); Amaryllis publishing (Delhi) and beyond.
In the process, he reconnected with his story-teller self and sought to create images for his own narratives – remaining ever focused, however, on creating images that could stand on their own in a gallery space, unpropped by written aides. The series of visual narratives, ‘Sequentials’ displayed at the Bricklane Gallery in London (2011), was just such a labour of love that featured hand-crafted calligraphy, a medium Wasim strongly believes deserves the same space in a gallery as other traditional mediums. Does it bother him that most look upon the ‘Sequentials’ as comics displayed in a gallery? 'No, the distribution of frames and the abstraction of narration necessitated a gallery space', he affirms confidently.
(Wasim Helal, Sequntials; Courtesy of the artist.)
Influenced by graphic novelists like Sarnath Banerjee, Amruta Patil, Joe Sacco, Rutu Modan, Joann Sfar, Marjane Satrapi and Craig Thompson, Wasim has now broadened the ambit of his creativity -- transforming a series of paneled ‘sequences’ into full-fledged graphic novels. ‘Monochrome’ which is ready for publication, is the first in a chain of short graphic novels executed, as their title suggests, in the duo-chrome of white/sepia and black. Although deeply concerned about the fate of graphic novels in India vis-à-vis the West – where critical appreciation seems greater – Wasim is committed to styles and themes that are identifiably Indian in their tone, tenor and temperament. 'The idea is not to imitate or reproduce what the West is already producing: the idea, instead, is to visually articulate the local flavour for an international viewership.' The result is a stunning corpus of solid vibrant colours ensconced within neat bold outlines.
What keeps Wasim busy these days, beyond completing his ‘Monochrome’ series, is preparing for an upcoming solo show entitled ‘Assembles’. This takes him back to one of his first loves – hand-made paper collages, an art-form that he finds intriguing for the diversity it allows, for the vastness of scope it opens up, for the unpredictability of its final outcome. 'You see, it is very like our post-modern predicament; once uprooted from their sources, the very identities of these individual scraps, changes irretrievably, giving rise to newer ones, having virtually no connect with their "original" ones.'
(Wasim Helal, Monochrome; Courtesy of the artist.)
Through working in different media, different forms, in different styles and for different purposes, the thread that binds the entire gamut of this young artist’s oeuvre, is his passion to tell a story. And indeed, his brush is mightier than the pen!