Urban development and eco-degradation Art of Ashraful Hasan
Modernization has impacted the Bengali artists in both sides of the border – West Bengal, now a state of India, and Bangladesh, a sovereign country since 1971 – but has resulted in divergent attitudes towards art. The two regions developed two distinct ways of negotiating Modernism. The predominant tendency in Bangladesh is expressly defined by a gradual move towards abstraction since the 1960s and in West Bengal, by the objectification of decadent everyday reality which has led most artists toward figuration since the 1950s.
If Dhaka remained immersed in beauty and temperate expressions, Kolkata became obsessed with urban existential crisis that pushes the urbanites into alienation and stasis. Ashraful Hasan belongs to the later school of artists, but he still displays a strong preference for the textural configuration of Bangladeshi abstraction in order to treat the morbid content with a deferential cosmetic layer.
There is a tendency to synthesize object and its expressive quality in Ashraf's art. He displays highly refined acumen in handling his craft; but skill is invested in representing images that are often fragmentary. Rarely excavating cosmopolitan thought zones – as he zeroes in on facets and fragments of the whole – even of the given subject matter – the artist chooses to construct his language dwelling mostly on the intrinsic details of the surface of the objects represented. Therefore the cleavage between the image and the actual representation of the objects remains a moot issue in his art.
Though the downgrading of the environment is his primary concern – trees are depicted as camouflage for human form. In short – trees are anthropomorphized in Ashraf's paintings to communicate his concerns for the environment and the impact it has on the urban psyche. In some other works that can be construed as landscapes, the environment created seems desolate where barren trees are present as reference to the decay of urban life. Though the artist laments the eco-disasters brought on by Modern Age, his expression, without much hesitation, sticks to Modernist idiom occasionally taking morbid dimension. His tittles are also in harmony with his expression. 'Image of Agony Time', or 'Painting of a Famine Period' – these are phrases representative of his knowledge base. One may wonder why such clichés as 'agony' and 'famine' are being used to describe a condition that calls for a particularly concerned mind-frame and at least some level of interrogation on the part of an individual artist. It is not that Bangladesh is drought-ridden all year round. It clearly shows that Ashraf wants to represent the Modern Times with the notion of desolation/dislocation. To represent the same he chooses to employ a primary motif in each work – a tree as an injured human being. It is not uninteresting as an image, but he displays a marked slant towards cosmeticizing his images rather than floating a vision or discourse through them.
The way Ashraf overlaps one image with the other, also shows his weakness for the picturesque over the ideographic. For example an image of a butterfly on the wounded torso, on a foot-like tree-form to be exact, looks quite striking but what do they express about the relationship between the idea of abject life, or degenerated environment and the life that is pulsating in nature?
In the artworks 'Floating tree 1' and 'Floating Tree 2' the synthesis between the object and its expression seem to have created the condition for contemplation. With success the artist transports a grotesque form from the imaginary world into the world of signs and symbols that go to creating these pieces. In both works, the artist's intention to create potent sign alluding to the nightmare that is waiting to happen seems to have found its appropriate tenor. In 'Floating tree – 1', the sense of space and the witlessness of the rather cumbersome floating tree trunk that looks like a beheaded giant in deep slumber – together creates an image that dovetails the corporeal fear with prescience as is often found in some surrealist works. The painting 'Floating 2' also represents similar hybrid tree-giant against a vast sky. A shooting rocket at a distance that leaves a conspicuous trail of smoke, for the first time, brings on the issue of technology into the tree-man infested world of Ashraf, and in turn delves into the discursive domain of impending disaster and uncertain human fate in an unknown future.
If the recurrence of the human- tree is a way of expounding a discourse on the environment – however simplistic that is – the newspaper-bound human forms looks like inadequate prop to address the Modern condition. Ashraful Hasan places his paper-men amidst the crisis in the current civilization, but seldom shows the strength of a man who has scoured the world to recognize the source of its ills. Instead he only surveys the symptoms that emerge in the city. The codes that is being served up in his acrylic of canvas works avoids getting into the question of class.
Noted British critic Christopher Cordwell's book 'Illusion and Reality' throws some light on to the subject; while Cordwell's reflection dwells on poetry, we shall resort to it in an art context. He interpolates that modern art is actually the art of an elitist society; and it is Imperialism that gave birth to modernistic ways. And in post-industrialist era, when economization has peaked via non-productinve sectors, the existing situation only widens the possibilities of multiple ways of expressing the same modernist ethos. Not only did modernism bring downfall of both society and nature but it also promoted the mobility of human society. Ashraful's position never makes clear about such dual tendencies of our age; and through his work he hardly ever interrogates the World Order that conditions us to accepting all kinds of onslaughts on nature as well as on human existence.
The exhibition ‘Carnival of Agony’ was showcased at Gallery Kaya, February 11-24, 2011, and at Ijumi, June 17-July 27, 2011.