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     Volume 8 Issue 76 | July 3, 2009 |

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A Travelling Image Maker

Afsan Chowdhury

The invitation to Syed Iqbal's latest exhibition held at Toronto's Cedar Ridge Gallery (April 12-26, 2009) is quintessentially representative of the artist. He stares - at the viewer with the title “No Pain No Gain” adorning it. Syed Iqbal's boyish face has clothesline clips of different colours hanging from his face. It's outrageous of course and mischievous like a child at play. It's also reminiscent of the painters before him like Dali the surrealist or Picabia the Dadaist, who were ready to do anything to draw attention to art by challenging the establishment.

Iqbal says, “I have always been a traveller. It's been almost twenty years when I first travelled to the West and lived for a period of time in California. I soaked up the spirit of the bohemia there, from parties to paintings to appreciating all things artistic. I became friendly with the migrant workers there especially the Mexicans. It was a new world. I understood the meaning of beauty in adversity.”

That sense of beauty in adversity spurred Iqbal to do this new series of paintings for his recent exhibition in Toronto. The Cedar Ridge gallery is really scenic and a creative complex housed in a beautiful rambling building lying in many acres of woods and green. The gallery is inviting and restful, it's for art lovers who will spend a few hours rather than dash through the rooms enjoying art on the run. Syed Iqbal is understandably happy that he has got a chance to be here. It's where you have to be to arrive on the Toronto art scene.

Tears of Nature 20, Acrylic on Canvas

The 'Memories of Laguna Beach' inspired by his California days is an important series that catalogues his free floating life, still and moving at the same time. The paintings speak of both harshness and desperation, of the fight to survive and finding something enchanting all around in even that life. Within them lies an almost secret world of stories that the artist recovers from his memory to share. They are not isolated tales but all of them together produce a powerful jolt. There is nothing half formed or 'abstract' in the conventional sense of these paintings though the realistic images share space with the riotous textures of colour and designs. It's in contemplating these that the stories buried in each are revealed to the viewer. In spirit they may seem like miniature folk tales.

But once released, Syed Iqbal's oeuvre becomes easy to enjoy because in many ways the metaphor for this artist is his sense of travel. They are physical or mental diaries of a creative person whose pain is part of the gain as he moves on and on.

His paintings are like topographic disclosures of his travelling soul. Sometimes it's geography, sometimes it's his artistic style but he himself also strolls through a minefield of colourful surprises. His paintings are not really representational yet a closer look reveals many images, human, natural and even divine. From a distance they seem slightly mysterious but they establish an intimacy with the viewer quickly. The conversation between the paintings and the audience is real and connecting, a feat that Syed Iqbal achieves more easily than most Bangladeshi artists without drawing sylvan scenes and the obligatory village damsels with water pitchers.

Yet nature is much of what Iqbal's paintings are about. His 'Tears of Nature” are really that, evocations of nature weeping at its own destruction. This series is probably the most mature artistic meditation on the ravages of nature that has emerged from a Bangladeshi painter. The painter describes rather than pontificate and the images are more powerful than any maudlin attempt to portray nature as a victim of cruelty. It's an accomplished and beautiful series of work.

“I paint in a series format because all the emotions, feelings and ideas that are triggered in me can't be put into a single painting. I paint till I feel that I have put in all that I could to give the initial inspiration some meaning that will connect to the audience.”

One of the more expressive of the series of 'cluster' of paintings is the 'Eye' series which has very recognizable and hugely emotive eyes that the artists uses to create a central point around which he weaves a broader narrative of colours and images. The dispersed images become part of one single image and the painting then becomes part of the series requiring the artist to maintain a long-term rhythm. Iqbal does that very well. In 'Reflections' series the human face dominates while the 'Mindscape' has more abstract images mixing with the figurative décor. 'Aviator' is another series that draws attention and each are superbly executed and reflects the painter at his mature best.

Iqbal has also smaller clusters and some of the best works are in that. The 'Radha' series is perhaps more conventional but he also bridges it with another 'Krishna' cluster making it an interesting collection. 'Peace' will attract as will the superb 'Kalimata ki Jaya'. It's a rich collection of images held together by the central theme of Kali, a secular homage to a religious symbol, fearful, protective and beautiful.

Left: Mindscape - 80, Acrylic on Canvas. Right: Memory of Laguna Beach - 2, Acrylic on Canvas


In fact, Iqbal's rendering of Hindu mythological images are superbly done and he has a wide collection in his Toronto basket. Iqbal mines images and themes from everywhere and as a result the Radhas, Krishna's, Kali's, Buddhas are shorn of their traditional religiosity but left with their evocative beauty and piety touching viewers and congregations with a sacred feeling that comes from human inclusion into multiple societies through art.

There are other pieces that too have its share of admirers. And at the quiet morning of the weekend, visitors came to enjoy the artistic visions of a man from far away at the Cedar Ridge in Toronto where Iqbal is performing another of his journeys. There are expatriate Bangladeshis who feel proud that their own has reached this point of success.

“Sale has been well" says Iqbal. I am surprised that so many paintings have been sold given we are living through a recession. A lot of local Canadians have bough them apart from some wealthy Bangladeshis here. I am quite happy.”

This connection and communication is understandable because the diction of his paintings is more universal than that of most other Bangladeshi artists. Toronto has simply become another stop in his journey. There is a painting called 'Love you Chittagong,' probably the city of his growing up but looking at all the stops in his life it has become a very distant station as he has stopped at so many other destinations. There is a lack of permanence in his lifestyle even in Toronto where he survives without being locked into a typical job like most immigrants, fiercely sticking full time to painting and illustration. That kind of mindset identifies the artist with the paintings he creates ranging from the arresting image of a drowning clown to a superior rendering of Ganapati. The journey goes on, the artist moves on, from image to image.


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