Continuity of stilled moments
On the occasion a solo exhibition, Depart faced the expatriate artist Monirul Islam to scan his realm with the hope of externalizing the psychic, social and material evidences linked to his art
Mustafa Zaman (M Z): The 'joie de vivre' which is strongly sensed in your work is not to be found in others. Compared to the other abstract painters in Bangladesh who are inclined to a kind of 'snooty' or purist mode of abstraction, there lies in your work a sense of the lived experience; the joy is perhaps linked to that.
Monirul Islam (Monir): After all, I, as an individual, can never stay away from certain things. Every day I am traversing paths, meeting people, facing circumstances that are only natural for a person of my age. And also the fact that the place I grew up… spent my childhood in… the memory of it all always stays with me.
As for spaces in my work I see it as dimensional, as they are in reality. Even though the canvas is flat it is possible to go inside and explore as there prevails a sense of the spatial. One can enter this world, and is able to build on it with one's own imagination. Thus it can be considered an irrational space. A painting is basically a design; one can initially see it as a design.
Shakhawat Tipu (S T): When did you made your entry into the art institution in Dhaka? Please tell us a little bit about the background.
Monir: I got admitted in the College of Art and Craft (now Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka) in 1961. Following the matriculation exam, I felt as if I had no other options but to become an artist. All I wanted to do was paint, this was my ultimate decision. However I didn't think much about the person I would like to become – one who would be an artist. Now, after many years I realize that 'not all artists are artists…'
M Z: Like Poet Jibanananda Das – who once said, 'All poets are not poets'.
Monir: Pretty much like that. Simply stating, does one become an artist by merely acquiring a certificate from an art institution? And even if one shows extraordinary acumen and produces excellent work… as, I believe, there is no universal measure for excellence… it is always relative.
Shahman Moishan (S M): Who then, in your judgment, is an artist?
Monir: The term 'artist' stands for a particular mind-set. Up until now, my view is that an artist is one who has already in possession of a realm of one's own – an interior world. Doesn't matter be it complex or simple; not until one is in possession of a universe of one's own, one is entitled to be called an artist.
I find this to be rather distasteful that one should be called an artist merely because one is given to the tendency of creating some kinds of design or composition. I cannot bear the fact that an artist will just keep perfecting the craft by producing balanced compositions throughout his/her life. An artist must deposit all of his energy, with honesty, into his art. The attitude towards his life and his thought should also speak of such earnestness.
Secondly, one cannot rely solely on the discharge of emotion through one's art, but also needs to strive to saturate it with intelligence. In contemporary times it seems that art has been pushed into the realm of 'intelligence'. The artist has to break through the walls of inferiority complex which besets many a creative personality in our country. In the end, the artist must have his/her own interpretations of reality. For example, the famous printmaker late Carlos Saura had his own vocabulary, own thoughts and processes; then there was another artist, with whom I have apprenticed. I still keep his prints… symbolic and nicely done. Yes, I have made couple of works following his organizing principle, however, not with the intention of imitating his language. In Spain about five thousand artworks can be found done in the vein of the master Velázquez. Even Picasso had appropriated his 'Les Meninas'. This practice of appropriation is a way for an artist to incorporate in his/her own domain one's own interpretations of another artist's famous work. Picasso used to believe that copying is bad, but interpreting is good.
M Z: You once said that it takes courage to paint…
Monir: Definitely, most definitely, courage is needed. What I was implying is that courage is surely required, and in the sense that one works in the capacity to even destroy one's own painting. Someone told me in Spain once, 'no destruction, no creation'.
S M: In what sense do you employ the word destruction, is it about literally setting fire to one's own paintings?
Monir: No, there are other ways. I don't set fire to it, and I don't tear it up either. I overlap one painting with another. And this doesn't mean it is destroyed either. Besides, even if it were burned and destroyed, it actually doesn't cease to exist. Many painters have actually set fire to their paintings to start anew.
M Z: For example, Francis Bacon had a history of destroying his own work…
Monir: Yes! For an artist, a work of art, at times, leads to a certain psychological state, which may arise from two reasons. Firstly, the person has not accomplished what he has been trying to accomplish. Secondly, the sufferings that come with stress, nervousness and tension is offset by the symbolic act of burning and also one sometimes wants simply to see what happens…
M Z: It is part of a new beginning brought on by erasing the memory of the unsatisfactory result of the Previous experience.
Monir: Yes, this affects the artist psychologically, thereby sparks something different in him or her as the process progresses silently.
M Z: Perhaps it gives the artist more strength.
Monir: It gives strength, yes! Take for example the Durga puja. A lot of money and energy is invested in sculpting the magnificent statue of the goddess Durga; but in the end, all is sacrificed when the devi is made to immerse in water on a designated day. Interestingly, the kumars (potters) get busy from the very next day. This is the nature of their work, it is a symbolic cycle, and its analog is also found in Europe. It is true many artists cannot bear to destroy their work of art, but to me to destroy means starting all over again. Last year I painted images that are still remaining with me, and at present I feel these are overdone pictures; now I keep searching for another door to open. The thing is that the image is holding certain moments in time into its folds. A particular time is frozen on the image and now I am working on it, but to no avail. It is after all time that is represented in a work, whether it's on canvas or on paper.
S M: Is your art then strongly time-specific. There is an organic relationship between time and space… does your art make comments on that?
Monir: The element of time is of prime importance – very likely the most important aspect of art-making. In 1943 Abedin sir (Zainul Abedin the teacher) painted scenes of the famine, and he never looked for appreciation. The viewers will experience those historical moments through those images.
S M: There was a particular social and political reality that shaped those works by Zainul Abedin… but that's behind us now.
Monir: Perhaps, there is no value of it in the contemporary context. That period has passed and all they hold for us is historical value. However, the reality of the people in 1943 is encapsulated in these creations which have a kind of 'illustrational value' for us. Therefore, there is significance of that body of works as historical document. Nowadays people are yearning to see new images – brand new products of aesthetic import.
S M: The Famine series by Zainul Abedin registered a socio-political environment of the colonial era profligacy. How does your work connect to the present day sociopolitical realities of Bangladesh?
Monir: I was living in Spain during the Liberation War, but in the post-war era, I worked with Bangladesh on my mind. There always exists a certain expression that refers to certain times. Goya's 'Capricho' series of etchings portray the horrors of the war and the political repression of his time.
S M: We would like to know about how your art is related to the realities of Bangladesh?
Monir: There is no direct correlation. Well, a relationship can be discovered by examining the various elements. Up until now, I hardly produced any dark images where space is constricted to an interior reality alone… very rarely. I desire open space as found in the outdoors where the land and the sky are the essential elements. The autumn clouds… the image of the River Meghna – although, at present, there is nothing much left of the Meghna anymore. The horizontal expansion of the sky under which you find a rippling body of water… this is how I remember the Meghna, which in turn is a source of one expansive 'spatial reality' for me. I have often represented this spatial vastness in my work.
M Z: At the onset, you were speaking of your work from the 1970s which is indeed a dark-hued series, and the relationship to Bangladesh is unambiguous in those prints.
Monir: At that time, few of those images almost looked too provincial. I later deemed that sort of process to be a 'trap' for an artist. An abstract painting with recognizable images in it is a suspicious work… it even made the series very difficult to handle, especially in the sense that an image established on the basis of its abstract quality is being injected with another layer… it is a tough job. Now, about the colours of my work, after forty years in the Mediterranean region they have acquired a character all of their own. The influence of the Mediterranean jauntiness is there.... Particularly in Spain, painters work with bright hues as their lives are of a different rhythm always passionate and joyous. You can find mainly three characters in most Spaniards: passion, anarchy and individualism.
M Z: What is your response to the fact that an artist may choose to have a political commitment? Many artists are politically motivated. This may be observed in Shishir Bhattacharjee's work. The influence of leftist sensibility was predominant in the early 1980s as he then set out to depict the decadence of the ruling elites, a tendency which now has subsided making him geared towards confronting religious obscurantism...
Monir: I have seen those paintings. Let me relate to you my personal experience as I was witness to the rule of Franco. There were a number of painters active during his regime, for example Rafael Canogar and Juan Genoves, both living artists. Their work always revolved around political criticism… and they were then suppressed in a heavy-handed manner. There was no press freedom during General Franco's regime, and painters could only protest with images of dissent. The primary references in Canogar were to figures in boots, and hats as well as figures in confinement. Genoves imagery was restricted to people simply running amok in the public squares, and he landed in prison for painting pictures of disquieting circumstances. But immediately after Franco's death, I noticed no one wanted those paintings anymore. What I am saying is that artists do have a responsibility and they do become united at times of great political or social conflagration. They too protest. But art that addresses such realities, lose their relevance later.
S M: So is history of no value to the artist?
M Z: Perhaps something akin to 'transcendence' needs to be attained by every artist. The reality the artist mines is brought to the realm of his/her creativity – which is a symbolic space, and which develops into a spiritually conceived spatial-temporal alter-reality so that all references to the external reality attain a political dimension of their own. And the politics of this transmutation, perhaps, becomes far more important in the long run.
Monir: No, I don't think so. There are many types of artists. For example some relate to the local or social issues as and when they are painting. And there is another band of artists who are not looking for collective approbation, but are determined that their own aesthetic goals would be set by themselves. An artist of the latter kind may be inundated with visual and conceptual information, but not interested to paint those at a certain point of his life. There is joy for the artist in this kind of negation, which is a universal impulse. An artist cannot afford to remain provincial in his or her outlook, and at one point in time he/she will have to reconsider and think in universal terms. Looking at the paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, I see these were already ahead of his time. When any of the elements of my painting, say, an important part of the imagery, or its contour lines and colours receive universal appeal, only then do I feel that I have been successful.
S T: What is aesthetics to you? As you strive to create beauty in your work, and beauty is related to certain abstract principles that drive it; what is your take on beauty which always to veers towards universality?
Monir: There is no 'actual' definition of beauty. What is beauty? Take for example, the painting, 'Three Graces' by Rubens. The women are fleshy, fat… hardly considered beautiful in today's standards. Or, a rose may be beautiful but the artist could be amused by the beauty of the skin of a frog. Placing it under the microscopic lens enables us to see the amazing textures or colours which are absent in a rose. This is beauty… no wonder there is no fixed definition of beauty. The widely held belief, 'beauty is truth, truth beauty', too is a misplaced one. There is something called 'kind art' – pleasantly beautiful with its soothing colours, and do not disturb the viewer's psychic equilibrium. There are other artists who prefer to issue nervy imagery, for example, Jackson Pollock. Whereas, our Kibria sir paints with a unique calmness, always working minutely, slowly; he is a slow painter, very slow…
S M: The art of Mohammad Kibria carries forward strong formalist and elitist codes, does your art have any relationship with it? And how would you define the distinctiveness of your work?
Monir: No, there's no relationship, but there is individuality. As far as the issue of individuality goes, he prefers to apply paint evenly. He used to paint in a motion which remained unchanged for a long time; perhaps this has led to the general absence of variation. He arrives at his images working very slowly, he is a slow painter, but an honest person. The role of drawings and linear techniques is less pronounced in his work since colour presides over everything else. I look at his paintings, and I like them. I have seen his work extensively, and I also know of similar work by others.
As for me, sometimes I look at my work and think that perhaps three-hundred other artists might have already painted the same. This rouses anger in me. It is not art when one painting you have contemplated reminds you of three hundred works by other artists. I have already said: how can anyone be an artist unless and until one has created his individual world.
S T: How would you define this personal world?
Monir: When an artist creates an image, what are present within it are the depths or the layers of his thoughts, and these together constitute the personal world. The viewers can easily recognize the artist through each work – be that a figurative or an abstract piece. For example, Picasso would be painting a portrait in the morning, an image of the bullfight in the afternoon and a cubist composition at night – three different types of paintings in one day. Amazingly, all his works are recognizable without his signature.
S M: Do you mean to say that a signature needs to be created?
Monir: No, not a signature. I don't like the idea of trademark.
M Z: The particular process of abstraction closely related to calligraphy was something Kibria sir never explored. You, on the other hand, were attracted to calligraphy. Especially in your early work you based your abstraction on a rhythm which may be termed as calligraphic rhythm.
Monir: Calligraphy is anthropological and it considers rhythm as shape. What tends to happen is that it takes the composition to another level. In the art scene of Bangladesh today, there is an unbridled passion for, say, texture. I don't like it at all… it is a European tendency. I don't want mosaic paintings; at this moment of time this is useless, because this European tendency is age-old. It traps you as does all craftsmanship. Art remains soulful in the initial stage – if manipulated for long it becomes a mere display of craftsmanship. To make a fantastic looking mat-board is not the job of an artist. Art that will compete in the global arena should be free of such limitations.
S M: There is an informal quality in your work, even though finally it does appear somewhat formal. What is your view on this?
Monir: I intend to go on exactly like that. I am living for that. A painting should be informal!
S M: But it seems formal, your images appear to be in a particular order in the end.
Monir: Ordered! I am a Bangalee at heart. The feeling of incompleteness is always there… how do I complete a painting? Can you determine ahead of time when indeed a painting is finished? In the end, some works remain unfinished. I have seen many such painting, for example, Monet, Manet… theirs was a different era, they experimented and developed one colour format after another. From their painting you become aware that there is not much to finish in a painting. Afterwards, came Van Gogh… I have seen many of his work… Van Gogh was so direct, there's no rubbing or smudging, the paint seems always fresh! I became familiar with them in print first, later had the chance to look at the originals. It is a pity that following their precedents of spontaneous processes, the academy has taught us to paint still-lifes. Learning to paint those still-lifes really 'did us in'; sorry, but this is the reality.
M Z: This surely has to do with a particular schooling. Do you ever feel that the English naturalist schooling has a detrimental effect on us?
Monir: Yes, I think so. Although I do understand that one must go through one form of learning process or another. The question is what is the role of the academy? The academy is not able to offer much more than a set of techniques. The course is five years long, but one doesn't need five years to develop a technique. Hardly ever can an institution inculcate in the pupils the ability to paint, write or dance! For example, you can see the lack of personalities in the recent Hollywood movies; the noses are shaped by plastic surgery and they look similar… same hair as well as hairdos, same makeup. Even the expressions are same. And the movies, it seems, are produced in a flat line format – they look the same. They indeed follow a pattern that is the result of a certain schooling. Every movie is made as a product of the Industry.
S T: There is a meditative aspect to your work. For example, in some of your works the white space or the blank area is significant. As in meditation the goal is to empty the mind, and you create in some images something similar which may transport one into a neutral zone.
Monir: The white somehow creeps into my work. I don't contemplate the meditative aspect as meditation is purely a spiritual thing. But I am aware of the power of emptiness…. How 'blank' can you make it, that is a challenge for me. 'Minimalism' comes from this line of thinking.
S M: Then do you consider emptiness beautiful?
Monir: Most certainly. Emptiness is many things to me…
S M: How is emptiness beautiful, would you elaborate?
Monir: Wholeness and emptiness are two opposites. Emptiness too have various dimensions. One is visual emptiness, and the other is the emptiness in life. There is, in Buddhism, an aspect of slowly becoming emptier to make the descent gradually – step by step. One can discover great depth in emptiness.
S T: Are you trying to say, psychologically it is like going into an unconscious state…
Monir: Each work of art comes from the unconscious. It is an accidental entity. Personally, I like a surprise. Whether it comes from the unconscious or through accident or some miraculous activity – the element of surprise is most important to me. If I see no surprise in a painting it bores me. Each time, I am my own critic. I can ask myself during execution, 'why am I doing this, and what am I doing this for.' At that moment I am the critic, I am the artist.
S M: In your work memory or nostalgia is an important element; in that context what actually does memory contain? Sometimes, memory instigates detachment. What is really the strength of a detached person?
Monir: Memory holds unlimited power. Detachment and its attendant sadness help develop a person into a mature being. And grief, born out of big tragedy, often sparks artistic activities. Definitely this is considered a wealth. And what is sadness, or unhappiness? In Morocco I have seen a man in a blazer lying still while embracing a piece of stone. You can offer him the whole world, but does he want that? No one can define 'unhappiness' satisfactorily enough in relation to what one has lost.
M Z: In that sense, 'happiness' has a more universal ring to it. There is a universal character to 'happiness', and it is never the same for sadness.
Monir: Yes, art is for joy. Which the poet Jibonanando Das, very clearly brings into view in a verse: 'The deepest sorrow of life when expressed through the sweetest of expressions brings us joy.' And I find this to be true.
S M: So, symbolically speaking, are you a romantic? The extent of romanticism seen in your work testifies to an approach linked to such constitution.
Monir: If you imply that I am a romantic because amour and women figure prominently in my work, I would say that is not the only way to become a romantic.
M Z: The romanticism centred on the passion for living… as you were speaking about 'joy', that itself is a romantic idea.
Monir: Of course it is a romantic idea. How long does happiness last? There is a limit. Ultimately, sadness too is joyful and 'romanticism' is an imaginary state of mind in the midst of all this. There comes a time when emptiness seems everything! In our short lives we stay alive for that moment of joy. This gives us hope, and we are able to continue with a life often impeded by chaos.
S M: So, are you then a visionary? And do you wish to create an ideal 'reality' through which your visions may find expressions?
Monir: No. Instead I can be likened to…. Doesn't the term 'visionary' point to a strong position? I am working and through it I am externalizing my sensibilities by way of scouring my heart, and it gives me immense pleasure. One day when this wellspring of inspiration will die out, all will be gone. Everything will seem old. If a person loses interest in something he has been doing for long, long years and arrives at a conclusion that one has come to know it fully, from that day on the interest will die down… this is what makes you as well as your world seem old.
M Z: We have talked a lot about abstract issues in an attempt to define your vocabulary. But, something more on the line of being pragmatic is now an imperative. After you have come back to Bangladesh and made your appearance in the art scene of Dhaka, amongst the young printmakers, there came a change. For the first time, they deviated from the traditional process of etching. I would like to refer to Rokeya Sultana, who as a printmaker made efforts to apply multiple colours on a single plate. This practice was often frowned upon in the academy. That changed after you taught a workshop at the Shilpakala Acedmy. What I want to get at is that your processes had a discernable impact.
S T: I would like to add to that. What would you identify as the shortcoming of the academy, especially in the way students of Fine Arts frame the very concept of art and artists. Most are learning the techniques, but are they becoming artist? Is this problem an institutional one or is it something that has to do with the complex relationship art has with our society?
Monir: This is a paradox. But what I perceive is that today there's a rush for everything… that you have to achieve what you want in a very short time. The Spanish people say, 'You just started couple of days ago, but it appears to be your end as well!' They say it jokingly to imply that one, at times, begins where one should have ended. It alludes to the fact that fame is the end, not the beginning…
S T: Where do you want to go with your painting?
Monir: I don't want to go anywhere.
M Z: When you have an exhibition, people are exposed to the works – it is one thing you have no control over. Do you have any expectation as to how your work should influence the society at large? For example, Kibria sir used to rely heavily on the therapeutic value of his art… always wanting to create a space where one could peacefully reside. Do you have any similar expectation?
Monir: No, I do not assign any therapeutic role to my painting. The fact that a painting can bring peace depends on the genre the painting adheres to. A painting could also be political. Goya, for example, had painted canvases that address turmoil. I believe in one thing – any good piece of work draws one closer and one is unable to tear oneself away from that work… it makes one wants to keep standing in front of it. This magnetism also has to do with spirituality. Perhaps some innate qualities enable the artist to create that magnetic power in the painting, which is invisible. We have often witnessed that people can display their abilities in many ways. One can bend a spoon simply by gazing at it. Humans can achieve a lot through the means of meditation and dedication.
Translated by SHAHEEN RASHID with DEPART DESK.