Through a woman's Eye
Rokeya Sultana's fame as an artist is entwined with her most famous series called "Madonna". This series of etchings that she had embarked on in the early 1990s had been the conduit through which her motherly love and emotions found an expression. Her 10-day-long 9th solo art exhibition that began on March 13 at the Alliance Francaise, Dhaka, was an occasion for her to amass her prints of the last 25 years under one roof. SWM's Mustafa Zaman talks to her about printmaking and her preoccupations with women and their dreams and aspirations.
Rokeya at work
SWM: Why did you plan an exhibition where only your prints are exhibited?
Rokeya Sultana (RS): Printmaking is a distinct method of picture making. I have been planning to have a show of my prints for quiet some time now. However, it takes a lot of time to produce prints as the process is technical. Sometimes it is the dearth of material that hinders the process. At present zinc plates have been out of market. With print the image is developed on a plate (zinc plate as in the case of etching), and it isn't till the time the impression is transferred on a paper that the result is known. This exciting aspect of print makes one enjoy the process. I teach at the Department of Printmaking at the Institute of Fine Art, Dhaka, and I felt a compulsion to hold a show of prints for my students to see how I developed over the years using the medium. That's why I've amassed the works of last 25 years in this exhibition. I've included prints that I did during my student years in Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, back in the early 1980s.
SWM: Printmaking can be referred to as a populist medium. Several prints can be rolled out from a single plate. As such prints are less expensive. Why do you think this medium has not become popular in Bangladesh? Artists who are pursuing the medium too are few, why do you think it is so?
RS: One thing that I believe has worked against the popularity of the medium is that it involves hard labour. And the other thing is that one can work on a painting while at home, but for printmaking one needs a studio. If one plans to do etching one needs a press, acid bath, with which one needs to be very careful. There is also a need for running water. At present there are a number of ex-students of the department who have set up studios where other printmakers can work in exchange for a fee. I myself
once had a press at home; however I couldn't accommodate it in the new apartment that I moved into. And on top of all this you have to look at the ratio of artists who are coming out of the institutions. There are only two or three in every ten years who become regular practitioners. Therefore, with printmaking the number is even fewer. As for the acceptance of printmaking among the thriving middle class, I thing it is our failure. If there were more artists who practised printmaking, if there were more print shows, the scenario would've been different.
SWM: The middle class has not been made aware of this medium which is cheaper. Perhaps the media could've played a role here.
RS: In this show I've kept the prices within the reach of the middle class. There are prints that have been priced at five or six thousand. I know that there are people who are unable to collect my paintings because of their high prices, they would be able to collect my prints. Print is popular in other countries only because the price remains within the reach of the middle class. Those who are unable to collect a painting by Dali or Picasso can easily afford a print of these modern masters. Most renowned painters dabbled into printmaking and their prints are cheap.
SWM: What are the things that inspire you in your effort?
RS: There are times that I don't see any hope in doing what we do, but the resolve to make the best out of even the worst of situation has kept me going. For me making art is a passion, I cannot live without it.
SWM: You have started using a different medium called tempera in recent years. Tempera is a process of painting. Do you think that your experience with tempera has influenced the way you work as a printmaker?
RS: With etching you work on a metal plate. It is a technical medium. However, I've tried to incorporate effects that are usually associated with pencil or watercolour. The subtle characteristics like watercolour-like washes are linked to my experience with water-based tempera.
SWM: In Europe and America most of the Printmaking studios are set up by group of artists, why do you think it is not happening in Bangladesh?
RS: This is our failure. I myself was involved with a group of printmakers once and we failed to remain together while trying and establish a studio. I still dream of a studio owned by a group. Perhaps the next generation artists would be able make some headway in this direction.
SWM: There is a woman's perspective to all your images, would you elaborate on that.
RS: Being am a woman and I constantly try to bring that into play in my work. All the stages of a woman fascinate me. The woman who falls in love, the woman who is alone, or the woman who starts a family and becomes a mother, I can relate to all of them. You can look at all these stages of a woman from a point of view of a human being, but I feel that as a woman I can look at them with the empathy that otherwise would not be there. Sometimes I feel that I'd address the roadblocks that come in the way of women in their struggle for emancipation. But then I feel that as I myself have crossed all the hurdles in my life that is not what I want to bring to light. I feel that women represent nature and this has informed my imagery.
SWM: Do you always try to equate nature with woman in your pictures?
RS: In one of the pictures I've depicted woman amidst turtles, snakes, fishes and snails to allude to the fact that women is part of nature. In another work a female figure remains prostrate in front of a forest. These are images where I try to emphasise the fact that women live in communion with nature. Even in my "Madonna" series I have made it a point that the mother and child be put against a sky. For me depiction of nature is very important.
SWM: Women are present in your picture, but you don't deal with women's plight or directly address the issues of women's empowerment. What do you have to say about the art that directly tackles women related issues?
RS: I don't depict the travails that lie in the path of women's progress. I feel that these are trivial matters. What I bring into play is a spirit that guides women in their struggle. As I myself have reached this point by overcoming the obstacles I feel that I shouldn't dwell on the problems that assail women in a modern society. For me women's relationship with nature is a perennial source of rejuvenation. The things that I in my mind feel that I should be doing, like savouring the beauty of nature while sitting on a lakeside, is what I depict in my works.
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