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A Tree without Roots

Nader Rahman

Monir Islam looms large over the artistic landscape of Bangladesh and it is ironic that his presence is only truly felt in his absence. Living in Spain for just under four decades he has still managed to remain a real force in Bangladeshi art, from his iconic prints to his mixed media mélanges he has continued to invent and reinvent both himself and his art. In a candid interview he shares his thoughts on his early work, life and everything in between.

How did you end up in Spain?
Well actually I think it was probably just some good luck that got me to Spain. In 1969 I won an art scholarship to Spain and left the country just as tensions were reaching boiling point. Within a few years the scholarship that took me there was revoked, because that scholarship was for a Pakistani national and there was no way I was going to accept a scholarship by giving up my soul. I refused it, saying that I was Bangladeshi and not Pakistani and all I got in return was silence, they used to mutter on about how their country did not recognise mine and so on. That was all because of American pressure, Gen Franco befriended America and would do anything they said, so only when they recognised Bangladesh, did Spain follow suit. Aside from that if Spain accepted Bangladesh as a new country it would incite the Basques and ETA into pushing for independence of their own. But in a very basic way that is how I got to Spain.

After reaching Europe and then witnessing Bangladesh's birth through assorted newspaper headlines how did you feel and how was your work inspired?
My first feeling was that of relief that the genocide stopped. But then that relief was tempered with anger at what had been done and the only way to express my feelings of anger and at the same time my feelings of excitement at the emancipation of my people was to paint. I clearly remember at that time that I was deeply moved and inspired by Goya's dark period or as they are commonly known his black paintings. I tried in my humble way to emulate them, to express what I felt about our struggle for independence and the joys of achieving it. For a young painter in a foreign city, it was all quite daunting, but I made the most out of it.

You did not return to Bangladesh till 1980 a good decade after you left, how did you fill those years?
First I must say that it was not easy, not easy at all. Spain had been wonderful to me, but still it was not home, the home I longed for. What I decided was that I would travel around Europe for a bit and then assess my options. After having seen enough of the 'western world' in my various journeys it came to the point where I was ready to settle down. I returned to Madrid and decided that I would stay on, and no matter how though it got, I would brave the storm.

How tough was it? How exactly did you brave the storm and where did you go from there?
What I did was immerse my elf in my art, I then dedicated my life to art and how to make an honest living out of it. That was also generally not the right time to be a freethinking artist in Spain, many great artists, writers and film makers had been driven out or persecuted within the country and the creative climate in some areas was stifling. But then Franco died and four decades of repression had been brought to an end and the country opened up artistically. Even though the change took place before my very eyes I realised a few things along the way, some artists and poster makers were provocative for the sake of being provocative while Franco was in power and they garnered a huge cult following, as soon as he died their work became useless overnight it was interesting to see that. Those years were difficult for me but I learned a lot and took a lot forward with me.

What has your relationship with Bangladesh been post 1980?
Well after spending a few months in Bangladesh in 1980 I went back to Madrid only to return four or five years later. That trip was followed up with another trip about three years later and since then my visits have been far more frequent spending as much time as I liked in my homeland before I had to go back and earn my living. I never consider Bangladesh as part of my past or another side of my life, it at the forefront of my thoughts and I will never be far from it, even if I live and work in Madrid.

From watercolours on paper at the start of your career to possibly the most famous print maker from Bangladesh, how did the transformation take place?
Well actually I always had a fascination for prints, but it was only after I had worked, physically worked in making the plates for some of the most famous painters in Europe did I truly come to accept the medium. After that my love affair with prints has just continued from etchings to mixed media in fact I like most mediums but I guess I am just better known in one over another.

Do Bangladeshi or Spanish themes mainly dominate your work?
Well that is a tough one, while Bangladesh is visible quite openly in many of my works, it would be a fair assumption to say that most of the themes I use is Spanish. But that part of being an artist abroad, it will always be the surroundings that inspire you, even though the memories of a different nation are what made you.

What is it about Spain or Madrid that inspires your work?
I would say everything, from the food, to the language to the culture everything.

Before we end just a few quick questions, I'll mention two names and all you have to do is choose any one of them, the first one that enters your mind. Matisse or Picasso?

Impressionism or Expressionism?

Bangladesh or Spain?
(Laughs) Both!

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