The Art of Papercutting

Tusif Ahmad
August 24, 2020

As a teenager growing up in Pakistan, Tusif Ahmad would take a van from Rawalpindi to Islamabad to visit the National Art Gallery to look at paintings. He had a deep yearning for art, but going to art school was not an option. So he got creative.

Not far from the gallery was the house of Sadequain, one of Pakistan’s most famous artists. Tusif came to know Sadequain and had the pleasure of keeping the artist company as he worked on his art for hours on end. The experience planted the seeds of what would later become Tusif’s life passion.

Tusif earned a degree in computer science, and for the next 20 years worked in several fields from furniture manufacturing in Kuwait to jewelry design in Cyprus. He moved to Australia in 2006, when he established his own information technology consulting firm and worked as a software developer with companies around the world.

A few years into his newly settled life in Australia, an ordinary moment catapulted his life into an unexpected direction. One day, Tusif’s five-years old daughter said to him, “Baba, I’m bored.” Tusif picked up a white piece of paper, folded it several times, and started snipping its corners with a pair of scissors. When he unfolded it, it looked like a sunflower. He was amazed at the beauty he could create with a simple piece of paper and a pair of scissors.

Tusif fell in love with the art of papercutting. “This is my ishq,” he says. He has created and exhibited hundreds of pieces in galleries around the world and has won numerous national and international awards.

Tusif was nominated this year to submit a piece for the prestigious Jameel Prize, for which he created a work of art on an unprecedented scale for himself: the creation of five massive pieces that connect together to depict the major events in the life of Prophet Muhammad. Tusif is the only paper cutting artist in the world whose work depicts Islamic stories. His other pieces have shown the story of Prophet Yunus and the whale; the opening verse of the Quran’s Surah Fatiha; and the Kiswah (covering) of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Papercutting art is a multi-step process, and each piece can take up to six months or more for Tusif to complete. First, he researches the subject he wants to depict. Coming up with creative ways to reveal a theme, assess the positive and negative space, and ensure each part of the design feels connected, is the most time intensive part of the process. Then, Tusif spends several weeks, even months, sketching out his designs. He is one of the few paper cutting artists in the world who creates using a single piece of paper; nothing is glued or attached. Cutting the piece takes immense concentration and focus, as each small detail needs to be cut precisely; if a small part of an Arabic letter is not cut correctly, Tusif starts over, even if he’s near the end of a piece.

Tusif welcomes the time-intensive nature of the work. “I never get tired of working; in fact, working gives me energy; the more I work, the more energy I have,” he says. “It releases my stress and tension. I can’t change the breaking news that comes on television about the growing number of deaths from Coronavirus, but I can divert my attention. This is meditative for me.” He works on his dining room table, listening to qawwali music by the Sabri Brothers on his headphones; he often loses track of time as he works through the night.

Tusif has two goals in creating a work of art. First, to achieve the “wow!” factor by making something so precise, detailed, and unique that viewers are completely surprised by the outcome. He appreciates the time viewers take to examine the intricacy of his work, asking questions about the stories and verses that are represented, and finding commonalities with their own faith. This allows him to fulfill his second objective – to use his art to build bridges of understanding and respect. “I hope that my art can reveal the beauty of my faith and perhaps even help dispel misperceptions about Islam.  Because for me, it’s not just about selling a piece of art, it’s about sharing something beautiful, making a connection, and leaving a positive mark on the world.”

 Originally written for the American Pakistan Foundation blog.

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