Native Land Of birthplace, landscape and processes of recalling
Recently, two American artists Andrew Saftel and Whitney Baker, respectively from Tennessee of Kentucky, conducted a series of workshops, and in turn egged on the enthusiasm of many an artist for collagraph, a looser, informal method of printmaking. The American Center in Dhaka and Cosmos Atelier71, with the support from the Printmaking Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, jointly organized the three-week art project titled 'Janmasthaan' or Native Land, which folded off with an exhibition at Dhaka Art Center.
The project Janmasthaan was completed in four phases – the first being held at the Cosmos Atelier71 with practicing Bangladeshi printmakers as participants.. It was a five-day workshop (October 10-14) under the rubric Master Printmaking Workshop. The second workshop at the Department of Printmaking, Faculty of Fine Arts was held from October 18-20, where students took part in making collagraph using some new technical elements. The third workshop was a Floating Studio on the river Meghna, and ran from October 22 and 23. The programme ended with an event at Zainul Abedin Museum in Mymensingh. Between October 24-26, the local children produced their versions of Janmasthaan, the theme that bound these widely dispersed participants into one umbrella of an idea.
It was the friendship of Lauren Lovelace, director, American Center, with Bangladeshi artist Rokeya Sultana which prepared the ground for this program. The two American artists who were also inspired by this concept – Native Land, were brought in because their 'art has a resonance with Bangladesh.' Lovelace also points out that the best possible team from Appalachia – which is an area that shares a kinship with this riverine country, a region endowed with abundant natural resources – came to Bangladesh to be part of this imagining which attempted to provide an ideal setting for the participants to align themselves with the given theme of Native Land.
However, the programme, conceived by Lovelace, shows no interest in the 'patriotic/nationalistic connotation the phrase usually carries.' She likes to interpret it as 'birth place' – meaning, where one is from. The partnership with Kosmos Atelier71 which led to the programme, 'developed organically' and the outcome will soon be encapsulated into a book which Lovelace likes to think will be 'a book for all ages'.
Below is an interview of the visiting artists who talked to Mustafa Zaman, editor of Depart, about their thoughts on art, criticism and most of all their experience in Bangladesh.
Mustafa Zaman (MZ): What was your aim – especially when so many artists interested in different artistic goals around you? Was there a methodology that you had to follow? And when you have a theme to work through, how did that go down with the participants?
Andrew Saftel (AS): The theme was a starting point. It was kind of an overriding idea but was not a controlling factor, especially with adults. The students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, they interpreted it very succinctly and directly, but others were more open and poetic about it – taking it metaphorically. The way I see it is that I let artists respond to it the way they would want to. We had five days at Cosmos Atelier, where we had major Bangladeshi artists working with printmaking. They were like children playing. If you look at the prints, you may see that in some works the theme exerts a decisive influence, but with some pieces you may wonder where is Janmasthaan! Like with one particular work, you may wonder: These are just a few stripes – more of a conceptual piece. So the theme was open to interpretation.
MZ: What about you Whitney? Do you have anything to add regarding your experience with the theme? There was a subject matter to tackle with and we know that an artist usually drops into a studio and works on his/her own theme. So, how imposing was this particular theme for the participants?
Whitney Baker (WB): I think the theme was more loosely inter-preted in the first workshop (at Cosmos Atelier). And I found that Bangladeshi artists really like to stay close to their heart by nature, there was not much deviation from the spiritual interpretation of the theme. At the university, where we started the workshop with Andy's slide show with images of his motherland, the students found it to be of interest. There, however, the subject matter was an important element, to which they adhered.
MZ: It was the Romanic poets who are actually responsible for bringing in the idea of 'landscape' into the narrative. Wordsworth and other English Romantics had an impact on Rabinthranath Tagore and some other modernist poets such as Jibananada Das. With these two major poet, nature is an important narrative. As for the people in Bangladesh, they do relate to nature in the Romantic sense. Landscape goes into everything from visual culture to the textual ones. You would also see Rickshaw paintings that tackle a lot of landscapes. So, was there a different perspective to the theme before you set the task? And the freedom that I have seen in works – like you were talking about Anis's work. Where it comes down to just plain lines, how did that come about? What was the input from your end that made it happen?
WB: Anis works very methodically and slowly. He was kind of behind everybody, and having seen his work later, I realized where it is coming from. His piece is more than visual; it is also auditory – spiritual – and is connected to solitude.
MZ: His ideas usually revolve around lines, squares and forms that can easily be related to architectural landscape of Dhaka.
WB: Even his woodcuts of twisted metal and the concrete – to me they are very peaceful imagery.
MZ: There is this prevalent concept here in Bangladesh that teachers are mediators; they bridge the gap. Perhaps you two worked like a conduit through which this entire project got materialized?
AS: This workshop was more of a technical conduit. The theme was put out there and anybody could interpret it on whatever level they wanted to. We were introducing a printmaking technique called collagraph where you develop a plate by arranging scarps and cutouts and have it inked to pull out prints.
MZ: They are already familiar with collagrpah. As far as I recall it was Kalidas's work that prompted the art student to experiment with collagraph in the 1990s. So, what are the new elements that you introduced?
AS: Making it more of a looser process using oil paint.
MZ: Which is, I guess, evident in the informality of expression…
AS: The artists and the students in particular, were very excited to have been introduced with a technique which is direct, and which is applied without any chemicals.
WB: Introducing plaster as part of the collage elements was something they never experienced.
AS: … and also torn papers. You say that teachers mediate, I would also like to add that the students really have power. They have their style and set rules through which they are empowered. Let me tell you how that is used sometimes: when I studied printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, there was a lot of information withheld instead of sharing of information and methods. In their own ways, teachers would withhold information about their techniques. They were like, 'I know the process of how to lift the graphic plate, but I am not going to tell you until you graduate to a certain level.' There was a lot of secrecy. That is why I have tried to be an advocate for making printmaking like painting, open and free.
MZ: The situation was similar here in the art institute in the 1980s.
AS: This way of making printmaking makes it more fun as the approach is looser and, of course, they are not in any way editionable. What Whitney was referring to is that one of the students had a great print; it had architectural elements in it as well as telephone lines. And as he carved the telephone lines into the block and inked it to take out a print, some of the lines did not print as during the process the paper did not make that far. I suggested that he use water colour brush and paint the lines by hand. The artist also agreed that it was a finished print, and I made it clear to him that, 'in my class you could do anything you wished. It doesn't have to be a pure print. Once you have satisfactory impression on hands, you can even cut it up, add additional marks into it, and take up the paintbrush to paint another image on the top.' And they were surprised because as far as teaching is concerned, it is regimented everywhere.
MZ: The printmaking Department has always been the fortress of traditional technique since printmaking was in the Dhaka institute.
AS: I felt that the way we conducted the workshop, with all that freedom, students were so excited. When in the next room students were editioning woodcuts – they had perhaps twenty prints hung up on clothe-line, which were excellent but that's hard work – technically strong but that's hard labour. When I am in an art school and has taken lithography and the teacher's saying that I want you to print thirty exactly the same – like a job – to make me skillful – I don't want to be a lithography printer. I want to be an artist. I have always rebelled against such set rules. I think what we accomplished here is that break things open a little bit without interfering much with the status quo. In this workshop I have seen students getting so excited with the freedom they enjoyed…
MZ: Right before this workshop two Japanese artists visited Bangladesh to teach traditional water-based woodcut, and that was truly about regimentation. Yours was mostly about interactivity and flexibility…
AS: Well the first thing I discussed at each of the workshop is: why do we make a print. It is a way to put image on paper that I cannot do with paint, or you want to do multiples, so you can sell them cheaper than paintings. Or you want to achieve characteristic markings, as with dry-point on a copper plate, which you will not get in any other mediums. When I do printmaking, I do so because it is a lot more fun, or quicker than getting involved in techniques and long drawn out processes.
As for the concept, when we talked about Janmasthaan, it was mostly centered on childhood memories. We said that we were trying to develop images that recall the place one grew up in, and also how our childhood has been, which form a 'mental whole' that stays with us for the rest of our lives.
MZ: We can raise another issue here. People say it all the time that there is this absence of paradigms in Bangladeshi art scene, which is related to the textual practice of what has been done in the critical domain, or whatever texts or narratives have been produced throughout the last 30 years. They really do not do justice to the artworks produced by artists. In the USA we see a connection between the two textual domains – linguistic and pictorial, as they are interrelated.
WB: You are trying to get to the issue of people talking about art?
MZ: Not just talking about it, raising and debating issues regarding the visual culture. That's not happening here much. We have vibrant visual culture but there is a lack of text to testify that or to do justice to what is being produced in the artistic domain.
WB: Our world is a world where you are guaranteed freedom of speech and it is also guaranteed that no one is listening… (laughter)
…there is a lot of information being disseminated… I like to have conversation about art, but I do not expect it to be of importance or to be something which usually is the way for people to draw attention to their art. And most of all, I don't want to overintellectualize…
MZ: I am not talking about drawing attention to anybody's art or any particular artists. What I am getting at is that when you critique something, issues emerge which inform the artist or the artwork. Textual practices do inform artistic production. A critic writes and it has an impact on your way of thinking as an artist…
WB: Personally, I only speak for myself; I am very afraid of criticism…
MZ: For you it is an intervention?
AS: There are so many different levels in the art world where the artists are engaged in art practice, and there are levels where everyone is interested in discourses, and paradigms, and criticism which easily connect to literary criticism. You can talk about all the names and theories…
MZ: Do all these have a bearing on the level of praxis…
WB: I used to read them when I was younger. And, now it is the idea of art making that more interests me than criticism.
MZ: Art is about engaging your body and mind to come up with an image or object. All those postmodern development and those paradigm shifts that we often talk about when all these come in – what is the result? Do they meddle with your mindset?
WB: If you look at magazines such as Art News and Art in America, you will realize that there is a lot of weird crap going on in the name new art.
MZ: There is also this question of authenticity: whether the arts showcased are at all authentic?
WB: They have their target audience, and they are often looking for the next big thing.
AS: They cater to museums and museum curators who are responsible for the next big thing, and there are several sides to it. And art criticism is part of it…. I get magazines full of pictures and articles. It is a lot of words and also a lot of baloney. They don't help in my process; they do not clarify anything. I am in a solo practice way out in the rural area, two hours away from the two cities that have active art communities that I am involved with and have exhibited for the last twenty-five years. I am not interested in the intellectual stuff some people are into.
MZ: Do you think a lot of today's art simply skirt round nature and real life experience?
AS: You see a body-builder. He spends a million hours in front of the mirror building those muscles. You can do the same with reading and learning. For me that's what art criticism is – it is in the end synonymous with building muscles – a waste of time. People are not making art. They are not communicating or connecting to people, which is the most important issue to me. With my work I communicate with people, not to critics. I have had reviews on my art – miles of it. I do appreciate that they are taking their time and writing reviews, but at the end of the day I don't go home and think about what they said and have that affect my work. But there are these higher level of art criticism, done by the very bright people, the philosophers. I respect their work, but it just isn't part of my world.
MZ: Tell us a little bit about your experience in Bangladesh.
AS: I grew up on the water, and that's been part of my imagery. The image I saw on the river trip – great rivers and boats – I painted that all my life. I come here and I saw that it's better than anything I have ever painted. So it has been great and I would like to come back.
MZ: Just a few days back Frahad Majhar, one of our eggheads, was explaining the Bangali mindset. Talking to a German youth he said, 'we are interested in the person not in his/her episteme or knowledge.'He also said that what is important is the 'bhab' one develops with another. Do you feel a kinship with this line of thinking?
AS: I very much appreciated the curiosity in every single Bangali I have met. You don't go to Chicago and walk down the street and have people come up to and say you look different and they want to interact just by asking some pragmatic questions.