<%-- Page Title--%> Art <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 127 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 17, 2003

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Turning Back The Clock

Artist Abdur Razzaque talks to the Star Weekend Magazine

Mustafa Zaman

As an artist, Abdur Razzaque is bracketed with the giants who grew up under the auspices of Zainul Abedin. Later, when he came back in 1957 after completing the Masters in Fine Arts from the State University of Iowa on a Fulbright scholarship, he identified with the exponents of Modernism, who strove to severe all links with the Zainulian past. Along with pioneers like Md. Kibria, Aminul Islam and Murtaja Baseer, Razzaque too had fashioned his own niche drawing upon the western Modernist mode of creation.

As a reticent exponent of Modernism, Razzaque cultivated anonymity, and perhaps because of this that he remains the only artist of his generation living in relative obscurity till these days. Gallery Chitrak took the laudable initiative to put up a 15-day-long solo of the maestro. It was his seventh solo in a long career that took off back in the fifties. In conjunction with the show Chitrak also organised a ten day long workshop on drawing, that Razzak conducted. SWM talks to this septuagenarian artist who candidly extricates the ideas and beliefs that he and his generation are made up of.

SWM: Drawing played an important part in your work, tell us about its importance at this stage of your life.

Abdur Razzaque (AR): I always had a knack for drawing. Even when I went to America to study, my teacher at the State University of Iowa was keen on students' skills in drawing as it is the basic structure of any given picture.

SWM: The participants of the drawing workshop have all completed their masters degree, and are at the stage of what we often refer to as “experimentation”. Why do you think they need to enhance their drawing skills now?

AR: Drawing is the most essential element for an artist. Even an abstract piece of art draws its strength from the sense of space and construction; this is where drawing comes in. Drawing makes one realise the relationship between the negative and positive space. These participants have practised four ways of drawing the human figure. Figures restrict an artist within the confine of certain principles as regards to structure. It enhances the sense of proportion and composition.

SWM: In your drawings and sketches the Zainulian effect is visible. The strong presence of line and the indigenous tilt in colour and expression are the qualities that Zainul Abedin wanted to hand down to the next generation. But many of your canvases are abstract, how do you look at these two tendencies? Is there any conflict or relationship for that matter?

AR: The ways of executing drawings that I introduced here, several of them were taught by Zainul himself. Naturally, as I was his immedite student he had an influence on me. In his art the main concern was drawing, as it provides the basic structure of a picture. With my abstract painting, too, I begin with drawing, but later on it gets hidden under the layers of paint.

SWM: You and your generation went abroad to study in the fifties and were introduced to Abstract Expressionism, a mode of art that was later brought to our art world. How do you think this new, alien language of art would be evaluated in the context of the one practised by Zainul, Kamrul and others?

AR: Zainul Abedin and his generation belonged to the British school and they never could envisage art without figures. He went to Europe and came back, experimented with semi-abstract representation, but as a whole, he remained faithful to figuration. Kamrul bhai too had always been figurative and was tradition-bound. And Sultan was the ultimate figurative painter. We, who went abroad and had this chance to witness all those “isms” in art, and had studied the development of modern art had to search for more. As a student, I had to memorise fourteen thousand slides of artworks. We had learnt everything from prehistory to the modern developments, from the occidental to the oriental. Perhaps even in my abstract art these experiences are expressed, perhaps this happens on a subconscious level. The current exhibition contains a lot of works, both from the early years and from the recent yield. Not that I am satisfied with these works that are in display. I have presented works that date back to 1953, I see this show as a turning point in my life. I want to leave all these behind and turn a corner.

SWM: Do you think that each and every artist needs to learn history of art?

AR: Yes, of course. Without a clear understanding of art history one cannot make any significant contribution to it. One can become artist while both “knowing” and “without knowing”, but it is evident in the artwork when it is done unknowingly. Perhaps those who are especially gifted can become artists unknowingly.

SWM: You are thinking of turning a corner at this age. In the context of how all the established artists are doggedly pursuing a single mode and it seems that they want to go on forever, your resolve to start anew surprises us.

AR: When the children's art section was started, I was one of the teachers along with Amin. I always learnt from children. As a result I always considered myself a student, learning every moment. If an artist cannot think of turning a corner, he or she is dead.

SWM: The act of repetition is rampant in today's art world.

AR: I want to avoid repetition. And the other thing is copying. I was never into copying others. I have arranged a new studio, I have spent a lot of money on it, to start all over again. I will continue my work in every medium that I used to do, printmaking, oil and sculpture. Hopefully my studio will be ready within two or three months.

SWM: You had this excellence in printmaking, where has the artist who produced superbly expressive self-portraits in the fifties gone?

AR: I still have the press. I still have the willingness to work in this media. I still have a bulk of self-portraits with which I can put up a solo show. I always used to do portraiture, both as a student and as a working artist. Wherever I went I drew portraits, especially in the villages, I always captured the women and men of the countryside. The renaissance artists always inspired me. I was schooled in the fashion of the renaissance artists. As a student in the USA we learnt how to make frames and even how to adorn the frames with goldleaf.

SWM: The students of our country are losing out on two counts -- one is that they are not being adequately exposed to history of art and the other is that they are being out of touch with reality as soon as they start doing the so called experimental works.

AR: The Impressionists used to work outside the studio. Even the Cubist paintings developed from outdoor study. I had the opportunity to see a grand Picasso show in 1957 when I was in the USA. There were so many studies that he did from real life; it showed how keen he was in continuing the touch with reality. I took more interest in Picasso's studies. Leonardo used to say “if you want to become an artist watch the clouds and dilapidated walls; you get everything there”.

SWM: You had been a student of painting in Bangladesh, how did you become interested in printmaking?

AR: I always liked the sensitive quality of the works the etching and lithography used to discharge. I even participated in the America-Canada twenty-first printmaking show in 1957. I was also one of the members of Iowa printmaking society. In the America-Canada joint show that was held in the Smithsonian Institute, only four of us among 400 or so candidates from Iowa were accepted. Zainul had the chance to see the show. It was an achievement then, everybody started congratulating me over the phone.

SWM: How did you switch to sculpture?

AR: I was always interested in sculpture. In the last phase of my scholarship, the German teacher of the sculpture department Hamburg Elbridgio asked me to join his contingent. I spent one semester under his supervision, and then wanted to quit. But he insisted that I continue. During this time, I remember that I did nude figures in the vein of Renoir, the French impressionist. Plaster and wood, these are the two mediums that I had had grounding in during that period.

SWM: What is your philosophy about your work?

AR: I think that artists are in search of things that go beyond the visible world. We look at leaves and see the colours and patterns, but we do not see what secret a leaf holds in its inner constitution. We can doctor a seed but cannot create one; creation is beyond us as is death. My belief is that art constitutes the act of “placing of things in space”. How to place what and where is important. Zainul Abedin used to take us outdoors to paint scenery, and when our vision was fixed on a particular subject, it was he who used to encourage us to incorporate a lot more from our surrounding. So the vision, the way one looks at reality is also important.

SWM: A few words for the coming generation.

AR: I think that here in Bangladesh artists of different lineage are emerging and the best way for the young to pave a future would be to blend the Western ideas with the Eastern ones.


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