Portrait of an Artist
The moment I saw it I knew I had to have it. In this image, a small round ball, bathed in light, has come to a stop on a dark cliff, a precipice. The scene is crepuscular and restful, and suggests absolute balance and poise. It represented everything that was missing in my life that day, and seemed a perfect antidote to the chaos and cacophony on the streets outside the gallery. Unaccustomed as I am to acquiring original pieces of art, I bought it, and it now hangs on my wall exuding a meditative calm as I head through the door each day into the jaws of the real world. So naturally, when a series of events leads to the possibility of my meeting the artist, Mohammad Fokhrul Islam, I jump at the chance.
A week or so later the rickshaw clatters through the narrow angular lanes of Kalabagan and deposits me at the bottom of an anonymous stairwell. A quick phone call, then the door swings open and there is a beaming Fokhrul, dressed in multi-coloured trousers and a floral shirt, although without his trademark Indonesian-style tupi. Climbing to the third floor, we enter his studio-cum-living space, where a whole gallery's worth of his intriguing works awaits.
As you examine the abstract images that have emerged from this man's mind, your eyes automatically begin searching for meaning. At times, you see the play of moonlight on black water, a dimly-lit village in the deepest, blackest rural night. Or you make out hanging moons, leopard spots, wastelands, dense forests. Sometimes you may perceive darker undercurrents: hints at the erosion of the landscape, the depredations of humanity on the earth. In fact, whatever you find there is plausible: Fokhrul is always at pains to stress that his images, all untitled, are nothing more than a mirror-like reflection of what the viewer brings.
Naturally, this is true of all art. Even when confronted with something as highly representational as, say, the Mona Lisa, no two viewers will be affected in the same way. But when faced with Fokhrul's images, you are more aware than ever of your own part in the creative process. These images simply cry out for your response: they need you to achieve their potential. That day back in the gallery in front my beloved ball image, other friends who were there with me found it by turns mysterious, depressing and optimistic. The ball of course remained silent throughout our discussion: unprepared to divulge its meaning. Furthermore, there was no title to help us decipher its significance. In reality, what we were looking at that day was ourselves. Even at first glance, you make a fundamental choice when looking at these images. Do you sense in them the triumph of light over darkness, or feel uneasy at the encroaching obscurity threatening the remaining pale glimmers? Which of these emerges victorious for you?
Of course, while these images may well be gateways to something buried within us, they are also objects of beauty in their own right. At times your mind needs to stop interpreting, and just marvel at the aesthetic appeal of these creations in black and creamy white, which use printer's ink and mustard oil on paper. (White, Fokhrul explains, contains all colours, while black is the absolute negation of colour. There is little need for anything else).
Whatever you ultimately see in them, it's undeniable that these images emerging from Fokhrul's interior landscape are highly emotive. Their energy, along with their discipline and restraint, speak to something primal in us, almost beyond words. The artist himself voices something very similar in describing his work: “When I create, I don't try to prove my skill. For me, painting or creating an art work is the simplest way to express my feelings, emotions and my love”. Speech, therefore, is useless when confronted with these scenes. All he can do is let his eyes and hands speak. All you can do is feel.
There is as much emotion and passion in the man himself. Sitting to discuss his work, his ideas come thick and fast. A human ball of energy, his hands punch, chop and shape the air as he speaks, and his explanations tumble out, one idea associating with the next in a rapid-fire delivery, which puts you in mind perhaps of a man on a desert island who has been denied conversation for decades.
He clearly applies the same energy to his hospitality. Emerging from a back room with a pile of mishti large enough to feed a cricket team, he plunges into his next idea. All artists, he maintains, should be socially conscious. As well as being about the creation of beauty, his art can be seen as a political statement. It's also about fostering change, particularly in his laments for an earth under attack by the onslaught of humanity.
Great art, Fokhrul goes on, can only come from a place of depression and suffering. Rich and comfortable artists simply don't count. He is scathing about most of the output of the art world. 80-90% of all art, he says, is derivative and imitative. He has no time for commercial artists, and is dismissive of the prizes and plaudits the art world confers on those who conform to its demands and expectations. His own interest in the creativity of others though is undiminished: he remains an avid devotee of exhibitions and takes time to view whatever is new in the city.
It's time for a tour of the flat itself. Each room is a mini-gallery, with these captivating images piled up against each other, whether in frames or still in canvas piles. Sometimes there are whole series, sequences of five or six pictures all with similar themes. But the real creative centre is the small bedroom, which doubles as a studio. Along one of the walls is the work surface where Fokhrul exercises his craft. He began his work as a ceramic artist, and also worked in sculpture, before moving on to his current pursuits, but denies that this represents any kind of shift. The same kind of imaginative ideas surge out of him whatever the medium. But you can see the legacy of this artistic journey in the way he works. There's an intense physicality about it: he not only paints, but works at the textured images, stabbing, brushing, scouring and swabbing.
A work of art, he explains, can take two hours, two months or two years. It starts with the slow formation of a mood in the mind, and then the playful exploration of it through the artistic process. There is no blueprint, no layout for how an idea will take final form. Fokhrul likens this to the way the Creator plays and experiments with his world, allowing it space to emerge never quite complete, always in progress.
An imaginative film director could not conceive of a more fitting locale for an artist in which to work. The mostly bare walls are pale blue, and there is a single monastic bed. The sheets are still rumpled, late in the afternoon. Rather incongruously, an exercise bike stands proud in the middle of the room. Otherwise, the place is a jumbled bazaar of stray objects. Empty green Sprite bottles, piles of papers, pens, plastic bags, sandals, some batteries, a shelf full of ageing audio equipment with a spaghetti-like arrangement of dusty old wires, and of course a whole range of hats hanging on the door. An infant nephew's drawing has been tacked to the wall. And scattered around the walls are a number of little luminous reflective stars, which will shine at night, as the artist sleeps.
Looking around, I am curious as to how easy it is for an artist in contemporary Dhaka to make a living? Fokhrul says he has no problem surviving, as his needs are modest. He is contemptuous of material desires: what happiness can they really bring you? When asked to pinpoint his own requirements, his answer is the same time humble and immense: “All I am looking for”, he says, as he accompanies me down the stairs, “is peace. And a life which is lived absolutely”.
Mohammad Fokhrul Islam's latest exhibition opens on November 9th at Shomotot gallery, House 4, Road 95, Gulshan 1.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007