The theatre of the non-theatrical
Jamal Ahmed's take on the mundane
Jamal Ahmed is a 'naturalist' by choice; though his art has little to do with the paradigms that the movement by that name brought to the fore in the nineteenth century. An upshot of the French novelist Emile Zola's aesthetic more, Naturalism always had societal implications.
Etymologically naturalism is linked with Auguste Comte's 'scientific naturalism', but for the artists – especially of French denomination – who followed the footsteps of Zola, it soon became a conduit 'to depict the plight of the poor.' Visual artists, thus, 'enlarged the social dimension of the naturalist movement', and this bit of history does not inform in any way the world of Jamal Ahmed, an artist whose concerns rest on naturalistic depiction of models in his studio, models as well as common people against the scenic beauty of Bangladesh and pigeons, his pet subject for the last fifteen or so years.
Recently, the exhibition 'Midnight Dream', provided the gallery goers a chance to look at his latest yields, which also revolves around the same subject matters and veers more to the apolitical, retina-pleasing art of the Dhaka's creative circle, where he enjoys a special niche because of his nonabrasive expressivity brought on through a draughtsmanship that gives a new spin to 'academic realism.'
As an event, the inauguration of 'Midnight Dream' has been a hyper-real concoction, a canny act to attract the attention of the Dhaka cognoscenti. Against the all-night-long programme on the launch day the libidinally invested dusky Bengali women depicted against riverscapes or in studio environ only heightened one's curiosity. Images brought forth using a naturalism loyal to 'truth' in the photographic sense, and the affectation that easily turns the photographic into the photogenic seemed geared towards celebrating an oeuvre that reminds us more of Hemen Majumder than of Zainul Abedin. The latter's name comes up as Jamal himself feels 'a spiritual connection' with this Bangladeshi master – a realist whose famine sketches evidence a naturalism which, during his time, had clear political implications.
But Jamal's works, especially those that act as a window to the visible world – either drenched in rain, or kissed by the wind – places him at odds with the Bengali naturalists of sociopolitical intent.
Effects that Jamal achieves in most paintings through his own process of laying down the final layer of paint with a quickness that leaves its signature texture, and at times, a faint fogginess, make his work all the more comparable to those kitsch that occupy an important place within the family environment of the affluent. But this is exactly where Jamal's motivation to depict the humans in the most disarming fashion could have enabled him to shuttle the most mundane subject matter to the space from where the construction of Otherness is initiated.
With images to establish a counterpoint to an already saturated high art milieu, Jamal could have had the upper hand by giving full recognition to what is kitsch leveraging its power to problematize and destabilize the 'grand cultural narrative' of the bourgeoisie buttressed by the hierarchy of 'taste'.
Bad taste coupled with the spirit of subversion could have been a way for him to embolden the language that curiously lends status to what is mundane, middling. As what it does is that it plumbs the power of a world which lies outside the confine of good taste and high art. To say Jamal's images carry a caustic edge is an exaggeration, but to expect this kind of bland, matter-of-fact realism/naturalism to speak in full throat is one way to underpin its possibilities, to envisage the trips yet to be taken.
The degree of perkiness that we witness in works like 'Good Bye' or 'Boy in the River', and solemnity, unusual as it may seem, in 'Midnight Dream', where the portrait of a Bangali damsel marries a calmness absent in most pieces, may not be the threshold leading to the space mentioned above, but they are images that may last in our memory.
If the absence of irony has rendered many a human figure comparable to autochthons – people without existence and habitat in actual locales, some imagery are rescued from the 'cloned effect' they give off only when a sincere attention to the personhood of the model is contemplated, as in 'Wearing Saree' and images mentioned above.
Jamal's diction certainly is in need of a new face, a new character, and the portraitures that he explores in this exhibition do not signal a change. Rather they constitute the stagnation that ails the artists, a condition from which Jamal must stay clear out of to achieve a separation to aim for what his long-time friend, writer Tony K Stewart calls 'punctum' of the imagery, borrowing Roland Barthes' formulation. Which may help him excavate the otherness of a subject matter to lend a new dimension to his anti-theatrical, literalist vocabulary.
'Midnight Dream' was showcased at Dhaka Art Center, October 16-23, 2010.
- DEPART DESK