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Art, Subversion and The Original Scene

Mustafa Zaman

Artwork by Ronni Ahmed and Shahbuddin Ahmed.

Art is neither moral nor immoral, it lies in the vicinity yet to be fully fathomed through rational tools modernism has equipped us with over the last few centuries. But one can be sure it is made of thoughts and emotions akin to dreams.

But, however mystifyingly foggy the landscape seems on which the artists of pre-modern, modern and even post-modern inclination have constructed their landmarks, one can surely determine the fact that this body of knowledge or a spectrum of virtual experiences that art has brought forth is an ever-expanding, shifting geography.

In Bangladesh modernism came via the pioneering works of the artist who had first left the country seeking higher education abroad and came back with “new knowledge”. That was the beginning of the invasion of American Abstract Expressionism, and the agents of change were, Mohammad Kibria, Kazi Abdul Baset, Aminul Islam and Murtaja Baseer et al.

With that bit of history, European Modernism via American vocabulary got its start up in this part of the world. And the separation of art and the local culture has been given its formal foundation.

At this stage the rift appeared among the artists, at one side remained Zainul Abedin and his cohort, who established an art institution in Dhaka which went on to become the most influential art school of the region, and his students who appropriated new language of art that was in vogue.

The same abstractionists, who thrived on cross-cultural references turned a deaf ear when Zainul himself raised a voice against the very act of appropriation. The examples the Bangali pioneers -- Zainul and the legion of younger artists accompanying him had already set a precedent of syncretism by harmonising various modes in one well defined vocabulary. But this tradition has lost its cache among many artists of the generations that followed.

Artwork by Fakhrul Islam.

Abstraction, though practiced without the discourses that it originally accompanied, became the insignia of pride for the artists who considered painting to be a serious vocation. However, in retrospect, its status vis-à-vis the accomplishments by the exponents of the figurative school seem to have suffered. The mode which Zainul favoured has over the last four decades led to a number of successful offshoots. Among them SM Sultan and Shahbuddin Ahmed certainly are the two renowned luminaries who successfully pushed the boundary of what was once defined as the indigenous style.

It should be mentioned here that the Zainulean biomorphic proposition has always been linked with the academic realism introduced by the colonial masters. Only an awareness of the indigenous life and people has allowed him to infuse an obvious “sense” or a “quality” into his work which made him a deshi artist.

As for the newly germinated art of the next generation who boldly put human form at the heart of their visual lore, it too has some degree of indebtedness to the western tradition of figuration. Sultan's forebear can be traced in Michelangelo's interpretations of the biblical stories which adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And even Shahabuddin's galloping figures can be described as an organic evolution of Velcovic's signature figuration.

So, there was no escape from what we can call the melding of traditions even for the bigwigs of the Bangladesh art scene. The only difference between the figurative and the abstract trends is that while the former tends to consider both emotive and cognitive implications of art during creation and in the end result and later arrives at the pictorial solution considering only the visual aspect of it.

Artwork by Mahbubur Rahman.

“Art is a visual proposition,” this is the overused phrase that attempts give license to most of the artists in Dhaka art circle. Even some figurative painters and sculptors give into such pseudo intellectuality in the spirit of the academia.

Yet, it is in figuration, not in the thoroughly abused abstract idiom, that one sees a clearing of the vestiges of what can be dubbed as the tendency to carry the cross of the mainstream knowledge. The belief that art to remain true to its “nature” should be reduced to its visual properties, and on top of that that literary art fails to reach the level of the nonliterary art are exactly what stunted the growth of our artists.

Polyphony could have been the fate of Bangladesh art scene, instead, it is now divided in only two schools.

It is only the strongest artists equipped with self-knowledge who could dump the dominant ideology, or to be precise the pseudo-ideology that dominates the art scene. In this clime, some has accomplished it in various degrees. Mahbubur Rahman, Mainul Islam Paul, Laila Sharmin, Ferida Yesmin, Fahmida Akhter, Salauddin Ahmed, Fakhrul Islam, Tyeba Begum Lipi and Ronni Ahmed are among the prominent names of the lot for which the negation of the academic knowledge has been either a starting point or at least an inspiration.

But before we demarcate the area where the aforementioned artists navigate, one must realise that these artists however far from their idioms that have been in practice, are not homogeneous in thought and in language. So. Certain features of polophony has been achieved by them, and they are neither abstractionist not figurative, but artist with the tendency to formulate now vocabulary using whatever is fits their idea of art.

Going against the grain is not easy; subverting the icons is even more daunting. So, those who did redefine the artistic vocabulary are few in number, and those who could sustain it even fewer in number.

Among those who paved the way for younger generation artists to avoid learned pictorial methods, most addressed social ills through visual discourses, and even some remained inclined to conceiving art considering only visual aspect of it all. The most influential artists consider both the tendencies is Shishir Battacharjee and GS Kabir. While Shishir has gained a cult status among the artists with the tendency to make art to talk back to the establishment; Kabir's followers make up the mainstream abstractionists who picked up few of his marked visual ploys namely the vignette as the backdrop and the textural configuration that seemed new in the context of what the earlier generation abstractionists were doing.

Artwork by Tyeba Begum Lipi.

Shishir belonged to a group of young artists who formed a group called “Shomoi”, (meaninig time) in the early 1980s. They took the art world by surprise with their brazen political commentary and poignant social criticism. But by the end of the 80s, they disbanded and most of the artists mellowed, though Shishir, Nisar Hossain and Dhali al Mamoon remained true to the spirit of subversion all throughout. Though they too faltered occasionally along that same path.

The iconoclasts of the 80's also had a predecessor, -- Kamrul Hassan. Though known for his folk inspired imagery, Kamrul, in the early 1970s produced a number of smallish woodcuts critiquing the then thriving ruling class and the decadence that ruled manifested in the thriving culture of opulence.

At present there are two kinds of commentaries thrown at the direction of the mainstream society one that attempts to draw on the liberal knowledge and the other that, for its social and political antagonism, pigeonhole such attempts. Mahbub and Tayeba, a couple in real life, sometimes produces mixed reaction in some dedicated art buffs only because from time to time they modulate their politically charged voice to align with liberal causes. The couple's joint exhibition in 2004 is case in point.

Here one must notice the fact that the pandemonium ushered in by the media and ad agencies, and the change in power play following emergence of corporate giants and their image shaping PR activities have rarely affected the social critics, especially artists who were inspired by the members of Shomoi. Even the artists belonging to Shomoi had not thought things over and remained adamantly modernist in their evaluation of artistic vocabulary and the roles of knowledge and beliefs in society.

On the other side of the spectrum are the artists like Fakhrul Islam, Laila Sharmin and Salauddin Ahmed. While they successfully avoided the rut left by the earlier generation artists, they were could not avoid the attraction of the temperate nature of abstraction held in high esteem in the Dhaka-based art institution.

Fokhrul, right after his emergence as a painter in the mid 1990s, once threatened to summon a force that can be analogized with Vishnu under the spell of Soma, which certainly is rare in abstractionists of the region. But he later chose the path of sophistication echoing the ethos of Kibria, which is linked for its snootiness to the middle-class spirit.

If the taste of the middle-class is considered, then, the Shomoi group and Tayeba, Mahbub, and Ronni together remain a major force against it, at least their visual propositions put them at the other end of the spectrum. They are inclusive in many counts, while the abstractionists, because of the nature of their very idiom itself, are exclusive in expression. They, the abstractionists, are the defender of good taste and as such they tend to reduce all pictorial elements to underscore the “form” in its purest condition, a tendency that distances them from real life experiences.

So, we can conclude that those who emphasise the therapeutic value of visual arts are the ones given to the aforementioned exclusivity.

In this hubbub of ordinariness, there are some who seek to address social and political excess. Among this category artists there are only few who succeeded in formulating poetic discourses. It is because of this reason that an artist like Ronni would beg to be remain clear out of the rest of the gang. At least through his art he expresses a refusal to be bracketed among those who mixed up social issues with power politics.

And there is the issue of being philosophical in formulation of ideas. This is where many falters way beyond they get to even realise themselves. Many artists fail to differentiate between art that illustrates an already voiced philosophy and art that is being done philosophically adding value to already existing body of knowledge.

The master of excess Ronni Ahmed, who wields full emotive and intellectual power to bring to existence a world inhabited by strange hybrids, is given to the postmodern discourses. He is the liberating force of the anthropomorphic school. While as eclectic as any no-hold-barred artists of the pop sensibility, he remains loyal to an absurdist language that is at once linguistically potent and visually energetic.

Seeing art as a mode of addressing today's hyper-reality or at times the absence of the very concept of reality is not easy if you are mired in discourses that have already lost their relevance. For an artist, liberation also means finding oneself at the receiving end of a lot of criticism.

New art is possible if one is aware of the fact that art is conceived as a localised visual lore, and is considered transient when the work is in progress. That same piece of work, after execution, for its being relevant to the preset day reality hold the possibility of gaining the status what we often call “universal” and “eternal”. This bit of learning may fail many, they would always prefer to distant themselves from what is “now and here”.


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