The normative and the notional in art : Mohammad Kibria and modern classicism
One of the pioneers of abstraction in this clime, Mohammad Kibria is no more. The following article attempts to summarize his art and life.
No matter whether the words normative, notional or classicist are explicatory of condemnation, or tropes to define a trend-setting (in Bangladeshi context) artistic mode, Mohammad Kibria, with his strain of creativity, has successfully eked out a career that summarily ended on June 7, 2011. One of the pioneers of abstraction in this region, whose non-representative prints and paintings have been, for many, the measure of Modernism, Kibria has breathed his last on a Tuesday morning at a hospital in Dhaka.
Born on January 1, 1929, in Birbhum, West Bengal, Kibria showed signs of talent much early on. The school that he had gone to facilitated art shows and cultural events providing the opportunity for young Kibria to be exposed to works of the Indian giants – among them there were once works of Rabindranath Tagore, to whose impassioned expression he took a definite liking. There was a drawing teacher who administered such effective ways of learning that attentive pupil like Kibria was visibly awakened to have become aware of his calling. Under the teacher's aegis, Kibria used to contribute images to the school's hand-written wall-magazine, and this is the very site where the early marks of talent were deposited, making visible the first creative sparks of young Kibria.
If his drawing teacher was one who instilled in him the desire to become a painter, Headmaster Wazed Ali Chowdhury was instrumental in preparing the ground for his graduation to the next level from where to embrace art apprenticeship at a professional institution. It is at Chowdhury's instigation that Kibria later enrolled in the College of Art and Craft in Kolkata; being one of his mentors, he influenced the family to let him go and pursue a career in art.
By the time his language of expression congealed into a viable vocabulary following the end of his apprenticeship in Japan, which left him emboldened enough to have mobilized his own sets of desire and to pursue abstraction in his art, the tumultuous 1960s dawned. Breaking away from the historically/culturally entrenched art practices of the 1950s Dhaka, when Zainul Abedin and Quamrul Hassan, along with other modern pioneers, were engaged in artistic creation that aspired to intersect Bengali identity with modern-day expressivity, Kibria chose to draw a new line on the horizon, showing only faint signs of location and lived experience. To sum up his departure from the identity politics and its representation one can say that he inaugurated the art of so-called 'universal identity' by interiorizing a few necessary tools from the most dominant art movements of his time – Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) and Art Informal. His art, though beholden to mid-century AbExers attempts at the voiding of contents, apparently is homage to the temperate abstractionist strategies that he encountered in Japan. His textured canvases read like an antidote of irrational, passion-infused process paintings of American AbEx origin. Of all the artists who had the opportunity to course through the Japanese cultural landscape by way of acquiring scholarships for higher study, Kibria seems to be the only one for whom this intercourse proved gainful in retrospect, the only other famous Bangalee to benefit from similar interaction being Rabindranath Tagore.
The element of Japan in the discourse of Kibria brings up the issue of temperament, and we come to discover that Japanese modern artists like Gutai et al, with their radical expressions brought forth as impassioned responses to American AbEx, failed to inspire Kibra. In contrast with the de-skilling that defines the craft of the AbExers, whose most urgent preoccupation was of translating existentialist individualism into gestures and broad sweeps of brush-strokes, Kibria's attention to micro-level details aligned him with more traditional strain of art – especially those expressing a strong naturalistic impulse. The surface he created in each work not only called for exhaustive skill, but a consciousness that is in full agreement with the Ruskinian diktat that nature cannot be harnessed without attentiveness to minute details, which only a naturalist can muster.
Kibria's works were primarily a means for him to zero in on the abstracted urban surfaces – micro-worlds of weathered walls and topographies of tree trunks. Through process and representation there emerge an ambivalence between concrete and imaginary iconography.
Distant from nature and reality but focused on surfaces of objects found in reality – the duality is projected by way of a subdued set of aesthetic variables consisting of mute colours, measured application of delicate textures and nondescript shapes and a composition to put all these elements in harmonious agreement, his art articulates its allegiance to Japanese garden aesthetics. The rational for this kind of aesthetic predicates has been provided by the artist by underlining the need for a space where the social-political remain silent and the sensuous is articulated in a timid but earnest voice. If catharsis was Kibria's goal, he problematized his vocation by assuming the role of a molifier – one who is out to soothe the audience by providing an antidote for the vicissitudes of modern life. He rarely stepped out of this enclosed precinct; but when he did the result was astonishing.
A much revered figure for his works that have mostly been conceived as a repository of mute visual energy, showing a hermitic tendency towards the subterranean transfer of meaning, or even a total absence of such transmission, Kibria is one of the most successful exponents of that Western concept of 'zero degree' aesthetics in this clime.
He lived by skirting round all kinds diversions – political, social and otherwise – and his art apparently has a similar ring to it – a wholesale fortification against turmoil. The high modernist concept of 'autonomy' of painting enforced a 'distancing', but that alone was not the cause behind his reputation that began to build following his efforts in the first couple of decades of his career –1960s and -70s. He was a perfectionist given to the tendency of striking a fine balance between contour and colour, texture and spatial zoning.
Vigorously active till the end, Kibria's choice of colours and textural configurations had also left a decisive impact on the Dhaka art scene, spawning numerous protégés; though, evidently, no one from his ranks of adherents has so far been able to match his acumen and come even close to emulating the voice that always aimed at striking a melancholy note. The distant, elevated plateau he has been able to create still seems a long shot for many a follower and this perhaps has been the basis for the high esteem with which he has been held by successive generations of artists.
Asserting his being through a taste-defining and trend-setting frame of picture-making, but acting as if he is on the verge of becoming a non-being, Kibria's universe was one of a recluse who has successfully been able to keep himself aloof of the sociopolitical realities of his time. His emergence as an abstractionist in the early 1960s signalled a departure from all other trajectories that either radicalized or circumscribed the positions of artists in this region. He was arguably the leader of the Bangladeshi abstract movement and the only artist to have remained loyal to the language till the end of his life. For him, as well as for some of his contemporaries, abstraction provided a regulative framework – to explore the learned and self-imposed 'disciplinary technique' of the medium called painting.
Back in the 1960s, among the younger generation of artists – his compatriots, who slowly but deliberately moved away from the location-specific Modernism of Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan and S M Sultan, Kibria showed a single-mindedness towards abstraction which remains unparalleled to this day. Unlike his contemporaries, Kibria never veered towards any other modes of expression. He, along with his generation, apparently had reached a consensus to redraw the cultural landscape by borrowing from Euro-American abstraction of signature High Modernism, and this resolve seemed to have had a strong hold on students of the art institution that Zainul and his compatriots had given shape to following partition. Kibria, arriving from Kolkata in 1951, to be part of the firmament enthusiastically inaugurated by an influx of Muslim artists, poets and cultural activists, some of whom returned to their motherland and others who left West Bengal to make the East Wing of the newly founded Pakistan their home.
Kibria came to Dhaka, displaced from his erstwhile homeland Birbhum, now a district of West Bengal, India, three years after partition (1948) – the apocalyptic event that left Indian subcontinent divided along religious line, forcing the Muslims and Hindus to seek refuge across the newly demarcated borders to escape intermittent purges following the bloody communal riots.
Dhaka, the provincial capital of East Pakistan, soon became the epicentre for the culturally-inclined who began mobilizing their aspirations and strengths to ensure a secular and progressive milieu. It is against this backdrop that in 1954 Kibria joined as a faculty in the institution that Zainul and his associates had already given a physical shape to.
One who is now considered a stalwart of non-representative painting in Bangladesh, Kibria started out as a figurative artist in the 1950s. His position was that of romantic given to cubist tendencies; but soon this last layer of reality or the reference to it, whichever way one pictures it, was abandoned in favour of temperate abstraction.
If we are to construct a genealogy of his style, the earliest tendencies can be traced in some of his works produced during his study in the College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, from where he graduated in Painting in 1950. 'There was a study work that everyone talks about in relation to Kibria's tendency towards abstraction. While depicting some scattered shrimp fries on a banana leaf as part of still-life study, Kibria came up with a rather unrealistic interpretation in watercolour – a picture that emphatically brought into view the dampness of the given subject,' points out Nisar Hossain, an artist and teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, who had the rare opportunity to share some intimate moments with the taciturn artist.
Nine years after graduation, during higher study at the Tokyo University, Japan, between 1959 and 1962, Kibria's exposure to Western abstraction and its Japanese interpretations were decisive in his development as an artist. Guided by Hideo Hagiwara, a celebrated Japanese artist, Kibria's studentship was a way for the Bangladeshi young artist to learn to apply 'precision and balance', observes Syed Mazoorul Islam in a monograph on Kibria, published as part of the 'Art of Bangladesh Series' by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
To determine the knowledge-base of Kibria's language of expression one may also resort to some sporadic commentaries that are actually sparse as they are difficult to come by: 'Visuality and beyond – this jump is what turns a picture into a work of art,' this is how Kibria explained about the destination reached through a particularly buoyant painting following his recovery from the heart disease he had suffered in 2002. The work titled 'Composition with Blue', an oil on canvas, contained all the essential elements of a Kibria, but it also had a resonance of a natural phenomenon, showing a marked shift from his elemental paintings where a clement meteorology is built through his personalized method to traffic human pathos.
If we are to contextualize the artistic diction that effectuated continuous, yet controlled outpouring of creativity throughout Kibria's life, a duel tendency is externalized: the great 'outside' that is nature, or society and its cultural ambiance was either renounced altogether or relegated to a 'trace' or impression in his 'domain'. Add to that the paradox of what can be captured and what lies beyond the capacity of representation. In fact, this paradoxical position was exactly the focal point in Kibria's works which often served as passages for their creators to build on the principle of 'pure and transcendent optical experience'.
The essentialist bend of mind apparently seemed to have been consistent with his composure. A reticent man, who rarely spoke of his own life and art, Kibria was an urban mystic – one who applied his craft with caution and chose not to give away his work processes both in his word and his paintings. Therefore, though primarily beholden to the colour-field painters of American origin, his works can never be considered as 'process painting', as has been reflected upon in the beginning.
Kibria's works expressed states of mind, but the solipsist in him always preferred to find a voice through the tactile effects aiming to incite noiselessness and grandeur. The detraditionalization and the secular utopia of constructing the 'autonomous' by evidently avoiding the 'autochthonic', Kibria created his own 'real world', which remained a world apart giving rise to a unique template of art-making to remember him by. Along with his compatriots – Aminul Islam, Murtaja Baseer, Kazi Abdul Baset et al – who later renounced abstraction for other modes of expressions, Kibria aligned with the concepts and ideals connected to cultural imperatives of his own devising where the tools were of Western origin which neatly dovetailed with the placidity of the urban middle class.
For his life-long devotion to painting he received Ekushey Padak and Independence Award. After his retirement in 1997, the University of Dhaka made him a professor emeritus in 2008. Mohammad Kibria – the artist and teacher –left behind his wife and two sons and a school of admirers.
Notes extracted from memory
Depart has recently picked the brain of Nisar Hossain in order to reconstruct the following reflections by late Mohammad Kibria
- 'The prayers that have remained incomplete' is a Tagore song that left an indelible impression on me – working as a source of constant inspiration. The portion that always alighted my imagination goes like this: 'The flower that fell and faded into the earth/ Before it even bloomed, / And the river whose course is no more, / Somehow they are not lost to oblivion.' This awareness about incompleteness has always guided my artistic activities.
- It was after my excursion into Japan that my works have gone through a radical change, but it didn't happen through the influence of contemporary artists, rather through my encounters with Zen philosophy, and particularly, through those Zen-inspired rock-gardens. They taught me how to create works by my own hands which somehow attain the aura of transcending the touch of the human.
- I will not be able to testify to the merit of my own works, but I can always vouch for the fact that I have been sincere in my efforts.
- Some artists are workaholics, constantly churning out paintings. Others are keen on the quality their works, therefore they produce in moderation. All good things come in small quantity – perhaps to make sure that they are always recognized as something special.