Over the past three decades the domain of art has widened globally both in terms of forms and materials. Perhaps what best characterises recent art is its tendency to elude our attempts to categorise it. Artists are bending rules and reinterpreting traditional concepts of form and space to give the artistic frame of reference a thorough shake-up. The boundary of painting is being redrawn to accommodate photography, film, and other non-painterly activities and techniques, and the concept of painterly space has also been thoroughly transformed. Sculpture, too, is merging into ambient spaces. It is as if artists everywhere were attempting to reinstate the avant-garde ideal of uniting art and life. Image construction now extends into areas far beyond the traditional confines of visual art. Art in its border-hopping exercise has even ventured into the world of fashion. If we turn our eyes from the global scene to the art of Bangladesh, here too drastic changes seem to have taken place that have redefined art and set new parameters to art practices. Bangladeshi art has, over the same period, combined high points in Western art and culture and reinvestigated the local tradition to create meaningful images of our time. The art produced by the generation of the 1990s in Bangladesh, to be more precise has offered many different routes to familiar questions about interpretation and intention and invited its audience into newer and multilayered relationships. It is worthwhile to take a look at this particular time frame if only to arrive at an understanding of the dynamic nature of Bangladeshi art that seems to have drawn in older artists as well.
New Kids on the Block
The artists who dominated the Bangladeshi art scene in the 1990s largely drew their stylistic inspiration from two different sources: one group found their driving energy in the free abstraction of the early modernist Mohammad Kibria and in the lyrical abstraction of Monirul Islam; while the other group emphasized the spontaneous expression of feeling and adopted neo-expressionism to voice their worries and concerns about life. There were sporadic attempts to explore new possibilities of art in installation, using television, video and computer. The artistic opportunities that K.M.A. Quayyum began as a romantic, but soon social and ecological concerns drove him to experiment with new ideas and forms. His work began to reflect anxieties about the loss of innocence, and his style explored the intricacies of form and space. Often emphasizing on details, Quayyum's canvas opened up depths where his concerns would find appropriate metaphors and metonymies.
Mohammad Eunus, who hit the Bangladesh art scene in the early 1980s, is a key artistic figure of the decade. His exhibition earlier this year manifests the fecundity of his creative imagination. His amorphous images are a reminder of abstract expressionism's interest in primitive elements. After graduating from the Institute of Fine Arts of Dhaka University in 1978, Eunus did his MFA from Tama Art University in Tokyo, Japan. His experience at Tama, he claims, has opened his eyes to newer possibilities of visual language. He is playful in constructing the surface of his canvas. In his recent show he has used burned corrugated plastic sheets - a parable about the individual facing a difficult time. Eunus now looks at time, as one critic has said, "through the eyes of an individual lost in the maze of contemporary history."(Bangladesh Art: Collection of Contemporary Paintings, 2003). Tarun Ghosh came into the limelight in the mid-1990s by winning the best award in the Asian Art Biennale held in Bangladesh in 1997. His canvas offers an interesting synthesis of neo-expressionism and an investigation into local myths and legends. His style is free flowing and his brushstrokes, applied with verve and panache, create exciting images drawn in a multitude of vibrant colours. Tarun went to the MS his contemporaries, Ranjit Das also went to the MS University of Baroda and worked under the legendary KG Subramanyan. Ranjit won the Grand Award in the Asian Art Biennale in 1995. Dhali Al Mamoon portrays panoramas of suffering people, in settings that are harsh and uncompromising. Memories of the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971 and its gruesome images still haunt his canvas. His paintings create a vision of a world that is cruel and unfriendly. His violent and distorted figures are clear symbols of greed, deceit and corruption. Mamoon's A Painting on a Trifling Matter-2 is based on a picture of a woman widely published in the Bangladesh press. The woman was molested by a group of New Year's Eve revellers in 2000. Blue, red and yellow splotches of paint drip and flick onto the canvas to highlight the horror of the moment where a helpless woman is being hounded by a group of ghostly figures. Mamoon draws heavily from everyday life - from newspaper photos to objects of daily use. His work is distinguished by experimentation and a desire to break new grounds.
Though Nisar Hossain belongs to the generation of the 1980s, his artistic self found its voice in the 1990s. Nisar and some of his like-minded friends formed a group in the early 1980s called Samay or Time, with an aim to reinvestigate contemporary currents in Bangladesh art. They rejected the ethereal and non-committal abstraction followed by many contemporary artists. The group mounted its first show in 1984. Most of the prominent names of the Bangladesh art scene in the 1990s were members of the group. They stand out for their social commitment, their bold new expression and their keenness for experimentation. In the brochure of their 1986 show they wrote, "We are consciously against the concept of establishment of an artist, the hollowness of present art institutions, the incompetent art critics and connoisseurs, and our socio-political system as well." Post-colonial issues also came into the consideration of the group. They also declare in the same brochure that their intention is to challenge the 'rootlessness of idea and experience in the name of internationalism and individualism, which is an expression of a hidden inferiority complex that has characterized our visual art of the last three decades.
Other leading members of the group are Shishir Bhattacharjee, Dilara Begum Jolly, Wakilur Rahman, Saidul Haque Juise, and Lala Rukh Selim. One of the significant trends among the artists of the 1990s is their eagerness to reinvestigate the expression of a child's drawing. Shishir Bhattacharjee, one of the key members of Samay, appears plainly disgusted by the decaying society of disordered morals, debauchery, corruption and the rise of fundamentalist forces. He has expressed his disgust and anger through biting satirical caricatures. Shishir's pictorial language draws its inspiration from the German social realist George Grosz and to some extent from Francis Bacon. Fantasy and fun mask Shishir's canvas where life is beset by political conflict and malfeasance. The 1980s was possibly the worst time in the recent history of Bangladesh when the military dictator Ershad trampled the ideals of the country's war of independence. Democracy took a back seat while corruption and greed had a heyday. Shishir's involvement with Left politics in his formative years has much to do with the strong political tone in his work. But his work never assumed a propagandist slant. His Come and See the Game series depicts devils in human disguise, power-hungry politicians flashing sharp weapons and jackals and dogs feasting on the bodies of innocent girls. The animals in men reveal their true self in grotesque images on Shishir's canvas as a scathing commentary on the social condition. Shishir, along with a few of his contemporaries, were responsible for bringing postmodern issues and concerns into our arts.
For many postmodern theorists commodity consumption characterizes our social being and interrelationships. The French writer Jean Baudrillard has done most to highlight 'commodity consumption'. Baudrillard argued that the stable, intrinsic values which were attached to goods during the earlier from his childhood in photographic detail. His application of bright colours with whirling strokes in an expressionist manner sheds light on the psychology of his figures. Afzal's Childhood is a dispassionate commentary on the distressing situation of child labourers in Bangladesh. In the painting, a child in the foreground is engrossed in work at a metal workshop while being watched over by other bare-bodied children. The deep dark splashes of brushstrokes in black, yellow and red focus on the bleak future of these children who are lost in the unfriendly city. Afzal's art underwent long development before finally turning to photo-realism. His training at Tsukuba University in Japan was crucial in alerting him to photo-realistic techniques.
GS Kabir, who now divides his time between Dhaka and Tokyo, is known for his vibrant abstract paintings. Strange amorphous palaeolithic shapes float or stand in interesting relationship with other forms in Kabir's intricate blend of surrealism and abstract expressionism. Fantasy, dream, reverie along with primitive elements recur on Kabir's canvas. While no reference to the real world can be seen in his paintings, they capture a particular feeling, moment and atmosphere. He drips, flicks, splatters splotches of paint onto the canvas with controlled abandon. In Inside Story-1, a strange bluish flower droops from an unreal plant. It vibrates with an intensity of colour, whose existence is uncertain yet impossible to disprove.
Angry Young Men of the 1990s
The young artists who emerged on the Bangladesh art scene in the 1990s began to reinvestigate some of the fundamental issues of interpretation of reality and the relationship between man and nature. Artists like Ashok Karmakar, Iftikhar Uddin Ahmed, Ahmed Nazir, Mahbubur Rahman, Rafi Haque, Mohammad Fokhrul Islam, Md. Anisuzzaman, Mohammad Iqbal and Ronni Ahmmed showed a genuine aspiration to free themselves of all the constraints - theoretical, material and moral. Their passionate desire for freedom is reflected in their bold approach to their subject.
Iftikhar Uddin Ahmed expresses himself in bold and fluent brushstrokes where contrasting images of his childhood memories and the incongruities of metropolitan life jostle for space. For Ashok Karmakar the driving energy of his creativity is again the Bangladesh war of independence. His installation on genocide in Bangladesh titled Dark Hour captures the horror and devastation of March 25,1971 when Pakistani occupation forces began their genocide. He recreated the drama and horror of the night through effective lighting and music and by using burnt black woods on a pile of ashes, bloodstained clothes, torn nets and shredded garments to suggest the mindless brutality of the Pakistani army on women and children.
One of the greatest concerns for the generation of the nineties is that they feel that forgetting the spirit of the Bangladesh independence struggle has given birth to all the post-war evils in the society. They have taken it on themselves to remind the society of the horror and cruelties that were inflicted on Bangladeshis in 1971. This realization has affected the visual expression of almost all the artists of this generation. Ahmed Nazir is known for his deft handling of a range of diverse media - from etching, lithography, and mixed media to installation art. Nazir's The War File series again clearly refers to the Bangladesh war of independence. His poignant x-ray images with drawings of hands are highly symbolic. The series suggests how war has damaged the backbone of the nation. His use of original x-ray plates in the series is haunting. Mahbubur Rahman is perhaps the most celebrated young artist of the 1990s for his striking and bold installation work and his piercing commentary on contemporary life. Inspired and influenced by Shishir Bhattacharjee, Mahbub blends personal memories with the collective experiences of the mass-media generation. Elements of popular culture, video, internet, computer games that have been marginalized within the realm of so-called high art crowd his canvas and installation work.
Rafi Haque is one of the few romantics of the decade who celebrates the innate lyricism and harmony of line and form. His draughtsmanship and handling of subjects says he has a great respect for the rigour of technique. His Angel's Eye depicts a delicate balance between geometry and free-flowing lines. The images of red and blue hearts and white bars of concrete in the work suggest that the time is hostile to lovers. Rafi's intimate paintings suffered a jolt when he visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1998. The human misery that war brings shocked his imagination. The nuclear bomb tragedy of Hiroshima provided him the images of destruction, devastation and human misery to relate to the pains and agony of people during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. The series of works that Rafi did after returning from Japan was devoted to anti-war themes. His Dairy: 1971, a paper lithograph, applies collage technique to capture the images, sentiments, spirit and horror of the 1971 war. He has used the collage technique in the manner of keeping a diary of events. Mohammad Fokhrul Islam is an innovative artist. After painting in monochrome on paper, he punctures and perforates the painting surface. He uses printer's ink and mustard oil to create his enigmatic cosmic subjects and metaphysical landscapes. His paintings represent a symbolic and physical escape from the usual flat surface and traditional use of colour. His porous and slashed surface creates a new dimension and conveys a sense of infinity.
Md. Anisuzzaman, on the other hand, is down to earth. His Complexity series in woodcut documents the real estate boom in 1990s Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, and comments on the complexities and tensions of metropolitan life. The ubiquitous presence of building materials and hectic construction work are symbols of the monstrous growth of a lifeless city. Mohammad Iqbal's canvas is unique in its single-mindedness. For years Iqbal has been crafting a distinctive visual language to convey the life and philosophy of a marginalized group, the mystics of Bengal, who have rejected the norms of civilized life for the sake of a spiritual life, a life that is peaceful and unpretentious. The mendicants on his canvas, bearded, with a mane of unkempt and braided hair and in loincloth, mock the mechanized life of the metropolis. Iqbal's canvas is huge and stylistically simple. Ronni Ahmmed is the youngest in the group but has already shown a great deal of promise. He has reinstated surrealist techniques and methods in his work. He takes us to the Max Ernstian world of dream and Lewis Carrollian fantasy. He questions the traditional concept of composition in Forms are Not Always Formal. Inspired by the German artist Joseph Beuys, he is more interested in mythologizing his own existence. No wonder he has titled his recent exhibition "Mythoronnia" (myth+Ronni). Less bothered with style, Ronni is focused only on subject matter. His mind-boggling canvas, with its wit and humour and strange-looking creatures that play with all serious issues of philosophical concern, challenge our familiar notions of art.
A Room of their Own: The New Breed of Women Artists
A major event on the 1990s art scene was the rise of women artists who for the first time began to assert their voice of individuality and demanded parity. They also demanded a critical rethinking of the art scene which had consistently seemed to favour the creative efforts of men. Artists like Rokeya Sultana, Dilara Begum Jolly, Fareha Zeba, Niloofar Chaman, Atia Islam Anne, Kanak Chanpa Chakma, Laila Sharmeen and Tayeba Begum Lipi put forward feminist thoughts and concerns in Bangladeshi art in the 1990s.
Rokeya Sultana's canvas deals mostly with her own condition of being female. The image of a modern Madonna keeps recurring in her work. Her Madonna is seen holding her daughter in one hand and an umbrella in the other or huddled in a bus on her way to office. Her works are in some sense palimpsestic: the surface design conceals or obscures the deeper levels of meaning. The protective and loving mother portrays the "eternal feminine" and seems to refer to the ideal woman of the patriarchal myth at the surface level. But at the deeper level, the mother is fiercely independent, fighting her own battle for existence. By simultaneously confronting and subverting patriarchal standards of creativity, Rokeya has asserted her authority as a woman artist. She says, "My Madonna series is a tale of my personal sufferings and a protest against the inanities of patriarchal ideology."Figuration has made a bold comeback with women artists of the 1990s. Unlike their counterparts, women artists found figuration an effective means of projecting their thoughts and concerns. Dilara Begum Jolly adopts satire, incisive irony and at times direct statements to expose the inequalities in the society. A host of strange birds, aquatic plants, wildflowers, butterflies and figures crowd the vibrant field of colour of her paintings. A constant play between fantasy and reality marks Jolly's canvas. In her Emergence-1, two bespectacled women in the foreground are garlanded while the rest of the canvas is filled with ghostly faces of women. Jolly clearly points out that in this male-dominated society women who comply with the norms and values of patriarchy only are rewarded.
Social situations and the condition of women at this dysfunctional time is also Fareha Zeba's recurring theme. Masked characters inhabit her canvas suggesting that there are only two groups of people - the tortured or unprivileged and the killers or the rapists. She draws her inspiration from indigenous art traditions and takes her forms from African masks. In Conversation she shows that every conversation of a man with a woman masks a motive to inflict pain or destroy her independence. In the painting a man and woman are in conversation with the man holding a knife in his hand. Zeba distorts her figures to bring the suffering of women into relief. Social injustice and the discriminatory treatment of women constitute the subject matter of Niloofar Chaman's poignant canvas as they do the canvas of other women artists of her generation. But Chaman also incorporates other general themes of human existence like incongruity and absurdity in society. Her canvas is filled with macabre and grotesque figures and she takes a narrative approach. Her Life shows the duality of the male personality - one that appears to be friendly with women and another that is full of lust. In the painting a bearded man is seen looking into a mirror; the image flashing in the mirror reveals his true self of lust. Close to the man is a girl drying her laundry, who does not have a hint of what is going on in the person's mind. Scathing satire and biting jibes about corruption, misplaced idealism, religious bigotry and social discrimination against women are what make Atia Islam Anne's canvas distinctive. Like the post-modernists, she also celebrates non-originality, flouts conventions and hierarchy. Her Women and Society series is a satire on the dominant male myth and an attack on the hollowness of the patriarchal system where women are always sex objects. Ethnic minority issues have hardly found painterly space in the contemporary art of Bangladesh. Kanak Chanpa Chakma who was born into the Chakma tribe of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and later married a Bengali, who is also an artist of repute, has presented the tribal girls as symbols of new beauty. Chakma's canvas is a frank celebration of sexuality, as seen from a female viewpoint. The Girl in a Tribal Festival is happy and content with her beauty. The recurrence of hills, valleys, tribal houses and tribal girls in her paintings suggests that she does not rely on the traditional themes of mainstream art to express herself. Delicate splotches of blue, red and grey decorate the impressive yet intricate and lyrical compositions of Laila Sharmeen. Disturbed and dejected by the inequalities and incongruities of life, Sharmeen seeks her inspiration in literature and attempts to construct an ideal landscape all her own. She is selective but draws heavily from those she admires. They include T.S. Eliot, Baudelaire, Shelley, Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. Her work has a flat, naive quality, recalling images created by children. Her series of utopian landscapes is completely free from optical mannerisms such as perspective or a vanishing point.
Tayeba Begum Lipi, the youngest in the group, is keen about experimenting with installation, performing art, and also enjoys challenging the traditional format of painting. Teaming up with her artist husband Mahbubur Rahman, Lipi has done some exciting installations. Satire, wit, and parody - all these postmodern elements are abundant in her work. The imagery of a new consumer age also finds a place in her canvas. Eclectic in her approach like the postmodernists, Lipi makes mockery of the grid of consumerism and psychological dependency of the developing world on the West. In many of her works she herself is the subject. A recent work, My Childhood, which received a grand award at the 2004 Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, features the portrait of her face with a number of dolls hanging from the canvas. Lipi stares candidly out of the painting at us asking us whether mindless consumerism can give her back her innocent childhood.
Any survey of contemporary art ought to be inconclusive as we are dealing with something that is still growing and breaking new grounds, constructing a new language of expression in the process. What we can do to make sense of the dizzying variety of artistic expressions and languages of the decade is to track down the major issues and concerns of the leading artists who have injected new vitality into the Bangladesh art scene of the 1990s. During the decade of the 1990s the interactions between artists and their audience grew significantly as is reflected in the greater volume of art sales - there are art shows almost every week; art centres are coming up in different parts of the country. The consistent regularity of the Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka, modelled after the Venice Biennale, since 1981, has exposed Bangladeshi artists to the creative endeavours of their Asian neighbours. The last two seminars held in connection with the Biennale were of particular significance. The latest 2004 Biennale took "Duality in Asian Art - The Ethnic and the Global" as its seminar theme while the earlier Biennale had "Indigenous Art: Traditions, Identity, and Challenges" for its theme. These two themes practically summarize the current intellectual and creative concerns of the contemporary artists of Bangladesh . At one level the artists are on their way to resolving this duality in their art and on another level they are getting their nourishment from indigenous art to construct a bold new language of expression.
- Tue, 1 Aug 2006