A R T S P E A K
Aminul Islam unloaded
One of the earliest adherents to abstraction, who, along with his compatriots, departed from the early modernist position embodied by Zainul, Quamrul and Safiuddin, passed away on July 8, 2011. Following are some key passages from an interview Shawon Akand took in 2005, interrogating the ethos that guided him while emphasizing the historical context that led his generation to seek newer avenues of expressions during the 1960s.
Shawon Akand: I consider you important for various reasons. You have been intimately associated with the institution that has been the fulcrum of the modern art movement in Bangladesh – as student of its first batch, its teacher, and also as its principal. Meanwhile you have also established yourself as one of the more important and foremost artists in the country, having played a significant role in the modern art movement here. Right at the outset, therefore I would like to know, in this long journey from around 1948…
Aminul Islam: Fifty years. Fifty-sixty years…
Standing at this juncture in 2005, what would you say is 'art'?
Answering what art is like attempting to answer what life is. There is no answer really. There is creativity in every human being, which can manifest itself through paintings, through literature, through poetry, through music, through theatre…. The basic creative instinct of man has always been to transfer his immediate three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional form. And this is an unconscious process – almost like magic. This power to be able to change dimensions through art has led to a connection between art and magic since time immemorial. The other ancillary things like religion or the instinct to hunt are all secondary. But I haven't yet read any serious anthropological study on this process or this relation.
Anthropologists have a different take on primitive art.
Yes, I agree. But nobody among them has accepted that this phenomenon is magic.
In what sense are you labelling this as magic?
you are being able to change from one dimension to another. You are empowered if you can foretell the future, if you can bring the fourth dimension in your control. That is magic.
At the same time, isn't it a kind of power related to skill?
Yes… all magic is just that; whether it is inspired by faith or just the zeal for hunting.
Again, can we say that this is just the manifestation of the inherent creativity of man?
Yes, that too…. But the magic still remains.
Even though we are labelling this as magic, it is after all a reflection of creativity. Cave paintings etc are but expressions of man's imaginative power.
To be able to draw cave paintings is magic in itself. The three-dimensional world is becoming two-dimensional. This is what American anthropologist Greenberg too has emphasized. And I have realized this even without reading Greenberg. The other thing is man's instinct for imitation: whatever we do – walk, talk, run – are all imitative actions. If you raise a human child with an animal, his instincts will be similarly bestial, isn't it?
The other thing is that… there is a physiological influence.
How is that?
All that a human being does in terms of physical activity is conditioned physiologically. The 'vertical' posture for instance, implies that you can stand, and therefore denotes strength: running is angular, lying down is horizontal. All these activities have effects on our bodies, as well as minds. We don't usually think about these. There is someone called Carl Sagan, right? In his book, Dragon of Eden, he has put forward a scientific explanation of the development of the brain. In specific positions, our nerves work in specific ways. All activities like running or sleeping are controlled by the nerves. The human body is therefore important. It is from the body that the ideas of expressing beauty stem.
Then this idea of man is a universal one, not confined to any region…
Yes, absolutely… it is universal.
What I am now going to ask you about is, your opinion on 'modern art' today and those who are claiming to practice this.
Let me first finish what human physiology leads to. There is geometry in nature. Even our body is geometric; the spine gives the body a sense of symmetry. Most animals, plants, leaves, all have geometry to them; each icicle is also a different hexagon. Modern art derives its inspiration from all this – this tendency to geometricize. A lot of scientific developments were happening at the time when Cezanne had introduced geometry in his landscapes. A creative mind like his had unconsciously incorporated these developments in his art. Of course, Emile Zola, even though a very close friend of Cezanne's, considered him to be a second-grade painter!
Yes, he has even been hailed as an unsophisticated painter.
But what he did came from intellectually advanced ideas, from intuition. All great works of art derive from intuition, the effects of which are appreciated much later. Kandinsky, Malevich or Juan Gris (the Cubist) are essentially theoreticians. Geometry is the most powerful form; that straight line is far stronger than a curved line is what they believed. Scientists too began to agree that geometric forms predominate in nature as well. The geometry of crystals, of stones, all these played critical roles in the coming of modern art. And this phenomenon was not confined to any particular country; it was the manifestation of the consciousness of the entire human race. Since the concept of nation will come even later...
You have used two words, two concepts here – intuition and aesthetics...
Intuition, science and aesthetics (sense of beauty).
Let's set science and intuition apart for the time being. Can the idea of beauty/aesthetics not differ over time, space, culture etc?
In that case, which idea/sense of beauty are we to accept and which among the accepted forms are we to designate as being the best?
I don't really believe in the idea of a 'best' form. Every individual has a sense of beauty: when man became socialized, he learnt to theorize this sense, like the Greeks or the Indians, for instance, did.
In Africa again, there are different ideas of beauty, of aesthetics.
Yes, so these ideas depend on those tribes, those people.
So, the idea of beauty is associated with the particularity of the time and place, right?
Absolutely. When I started out, I didn't have much idea about such details. Intuition and a love for the arts led me on. And this was an internationalist idea. I had wanted different kinds of work to be done in Bangladesh, not restricted by any 'ism'... and I had wanted to practise this myself, and see it being practised by others after me.
The exhibition you did after you returned from Italy in 1956, and for quite a few years after that, you still hadn't turned to formalism at that stage...
No, I did do a couple of abstract works.
You turned completely to abstraction towards the middle of the sixties, right?
No, even before that, around 1959-60.... We had an exhibition at the Bangla Academy in 1961. Wait, let me show you the catalogue... (Aminul Islam brought out the old catalogue from the next room – a catalogue of a group show, published in monotone, which displayed Islam's abstract composition.)
Sir, I would like to know why did you and your contemporaries incline towards an abstract mode of expression?
None of my contemporaries did at the onset. I was the only one. Later...
Mohammad Kibria also followed suit?
After he returned from Japan.
He returned around the same time, right? 1961?
No, 1962.... He went in 1959 and came back in 1962.
He was in Japan during this period?
Yes. (Zainul) Abedin did not like our art, and would tell his students to wait for Kibria to come to learn what real art was all about. But Kibria, once back to Dhaka, had no place to live in; because, he used to live in a mess before he left. Then I used to live at Azimpur, and offered to have Kibria stay with me. Abedin shaheb vehemently opposed, and suggested that Kibria live with his friend from Bardhaman who then lived in Gandaria. He feared Kibria may go off Abedin shaheb's track if he mixed with us! (Laughs)
But the reasons for leaning towards formalism are still not clear. Was it only for freedom?
No, no. I didn't want the picture to become a mere illustration; didn't want it to have a direct message.
Did you feel a strong impetus to break out of the mould of the likes of Zainul Abedin or Quamrul Hassan?
Yes, of course.
In an interview taken in 1965, you had said that it takes a lot of courage to practice abstraction in art in Pakistan. What exactly had you implied by 'courage'?
There was no market for abstract art in Pakistan. No one practised it then. Even though Mansoor (art-critic Abul Mansoor) went ahead to claim that abstract art was catching on in Pakistan… that such art was getting sold in Karachi...
Did it, really?
I have done a lot of exhibitions in Karachi, not a single abstract work got sold. Many people would say the foreigners who lived there appreciated that kind of art, but I can tell you that wasn't true.
So, sir, we may say that your leaning towards abstraction was largely driven by your need to break prevalent norms.
That's one, yes; the other was to establish abstraction as art.
Therefore sir, could we hail you as a pioneer of an art form that people of Dhaka, of Bangladesh weren't then familiar with?
Here my question to you would be, on what basis and rationale did you venture out to initiate a completely new art form to a people who were totally unfamiliar with it?
When the poetry writing began here, there was no precedent. Lalon fakir, Jasimuddin come to mind.... Why did Bankimchandra start the novel? We did not have a precedent for that either.
I beg to differ on the point that there was no precedent for poetry-writing...
Yes, poetry used to be written of course.
I believe you are talking about the modern form of poetry.
Yes. Rabindranath apart, Jibanananda Das, Amiya Chakraborty, Buddhadev Basu..
And the five poets of the 1930s...
Yes, they have all spoken about their own country. Even though they were modern poets, they have alluded to the country of their birth. The same can be done in art as well. I did that in my 'Transformation Series', to denote the transformation that I felt Pakistan was going through.
You did the series in 1968.
Yes, we were undergoing a transformation then... not sure whether the nation would stay or be partitioned again. I expressed all this through my abstract art.
But again, at the same time, in the 'Statement' of 1968, you compared the practice of painting to the act of making love.
Yes... an artist does not always deal with or is inspired by only one thing all his life... there are indirect influences working all the time.
You and your contemporaries, who were once involved with Leftist politics...
No, let me say... our poets – Shamsur Rahman, Alaluddin al Azad...
B K Jahangir was also among your friends, right?
Yes, him too... Just like the poets of the thirties, they too started with Baudelaire and Mallarme; would you say they copied these foreign poets? A new form was given to poetry...
The fact becomes obvious at this point that they accepted the form of the Western poetry.
Yes, they did.
From what I understood, you people also accepted and used the Western form in art as well?
We have always taken from different sources, from nature, from different cultures. Tagore had said that one must know how to draw from different sources, for otherwise, your artistic practise becomes static and lifeless.
People of this country are even less familiar with abstract art than they are with Zainul Abedin's or Quamrul Hassan's works. Yet, no efforts have yet been made to mitigate that gap [between artistic and discursive practises].
Why, Abedin shaheb did a lot of landscapes... Syed Jahangir spent a good 25 years in West Pakistan doing landscapes. Then Abedin shaheb, using ink and watercolour, did a lot of landscape in the Chittagong Hill Tracts... all of this was part of his professional strategy. They sold very well.
So are you saying that behind the huge popularity of landscape painting commerce played a decisive role?
According to my personal observations about your work, I think two issues have deeply influenced your oeuvre. One is the pure form of art, in pursuit of which, I believe, you switched to abstraction – something that formed a crucial part of your work. Secondly, a significant change, possibly because of your involvement with the Left, could be observed in your art from 1971 peaking in the early 1980s. 'Aahato' (Wounded), for instance...
And in many others...
I would like to identify these two trends specifically. One is where you valued nothing above 'art'. On the other hand, your role as a social being has also come through in some of your works, receiving equal importance. How would you respond to this observation?
I can tell you, in this context, about one particular work of mine. When the Marshall Law was decreed in 1958, I was working on a painting in the same year, wishing it to be a non-figurative work. But while doing it, I realized faces of two figures gradually appeared. This was an unconscious reflection of my anger towards the Marshall Law. It was called 'Victim' and it's there in my book – I don't know if you've seen it or not. I developed it some more and finished the work. However, I never set out to produce a work with the intention that it would stand out against the Marshall Law...
At this point of our discussion, I would like to ask you whether you think 'modern art' tends to alienate the majority of people, being, in effect, the practice of a handful.
(After a brief pause) I think, except for religious art, most other forms have been only for a minority.
Take for instance the art patronized by the rich and the noble that gave rise to their portraits, hunting or war scenes where they participated...
But sir, what we today categorize as folk or tribal art has always had the intimate involvement of the common man. How would you explain that?
What folk art did we have?
'Pat' painting, for instance; its story, its execution of drawing, its presentation, its performance, necessitated the involvement of a lot of people.
Yes, this is a form of entertainment.
Won't you call this art? Is art never entertainment?
Yes, to that extent, art is entertainment.
What then is art? What we refer to as 'modern art' creates a chasm between common man and the art appreciating public. Therefore, we can assign a set of different values to folk art that...
We had a 'craft' base here.
Are you saying we never had 'art' in the 'art proper' sense here?
Yes... some, perhaps... in poetry maybe; that too, either panegyrics for kings or for gods and goddesses.
This is the communitarian tradition. This region of ours is primarily rural; how many cities do we have, how many of us is 'urban'?
You and your likes often make the mistake... you know folk art has been the subject of discussion all over the globe from even the 19th century, and every country has its own form of folk art.
I'm not saying we have to practise folk art; but the fact that, to recognize folk art as a completely separate category of art was unknown to us.
Folk art always had value as craft; for example the potters' used to make murti or sculpture, and dolls were made mostly by women and children. And interestingly, the forms that dolls/toys took, remained more or less similar across the world.
There were differences too...
True, but the basic tradition is similar. As are the tools – the clay and the crafting fingers remain the same. These toys were sold in villages and towns. There was a demand, a market for these. Would they have created these had there not been a market?
'Modern art' that we agreed, catered to a handful, too has a market...
Yes, it has a market, of course. Moreover, the 20th century has offered modern technologies like photography, cinema etc that is attracting man. Who will want to ride a cart with the railways around?
Are we then to understand 'art' as that which exists in different regions of the world only to fulfil the needs of the people of that region?
Yes, of course, that's just it.... Man does not do anything that serves him no purpose. Religion too has been invented in the interest of man.
What would you say about artistic freedom, then?
That is only a recent phenomenon. Prior to that, poetry or art was composed as panegyrics.
A person may create according to his own satisfaction; but to determine whether that at all is 'art' does depend on external judgment, does it not?
No. If I am satisfied, then, it is art to me.
Let's take a trend that is not particular just to Bangladesh, but to the rest of the world – that an artist does not get his due in his lifetime; here we are reminded of van Gogh, for instance. The prevalent art of India wasn't recognized as that by the colonisers.
It is from the colonial period only that Indian art has been perceived as craft – good craft.
In the 'Handbook of Sculpture' (1864), not more than one paragraph was devoted to Indian art and architecture. In another book of 1899, Indian art was categorised as 'vulgar', 'barbarian', 'ugly' etc. Hence it leaves no room for doubt that art of this region was never appreciated and was clearly subject to neglect.
This has happened in all colonies.
Here the issue of colony is important, for power is intrinsically related to it.
Power has always been important; of religion, royal power, feudal power...
In that case, does the importance of art not become dependent on power?
To some extent, yes.
Aren't the powerful then determining which is to be hailed as art and which not?
You yourself cited the example of Van Gogh... he didn't paint for the powerful.
So if art, by itself is free... it is a thing one can create on one's own. But whether or not one's creation is recognized as art, depends on the judgment of those who have power. I myself have often felt that there perhaps were, or still are, painters of Van Gogh's calibre, but we don't even know about them. This could well happen, right?
Yes, that can be.
The documents that we get on world art history...
No, who is writing this world art history? A handful of uneducated people...
And they are predominantly from the West, isn't that correct?
Recently, I was interviewing artist Monirul Islam, who now lives in Spain, and he was saying the same thing about world art history. And what constitutes art becomes largely consequent on the judgment of gallery-owners, on patrons and most importantly, on those in power. It is the age of the media now, and their role in deciding the importance of art is extremely powerful. What is your opinion, sir?
Media has always played an important role, both media and the gallery. Especially in Europe and America. Don't know if you've heard this story – but Gauguin once wished to come back from Tahiti, he was feeling tired. But his gallerists back home objected saying that the market that was slowly building up surrounding his work would be jeopardized if he came back, breaking the romantic image that was building up around him. Though he is a great painter.... Then, one must also keep in mind the fact that Europe was the cradling ground of modern art: they had to break the lineage of five thousand years that went back to Grecian art.
But theorists are saying that the philosophies of Kant and Nietzsche; different socio-economic factors; various crises together led to the birth of modernism in Europe.
Take Impressionists for instance... the market was not the foremost of their concerns. Since most of them were quite affluent anyway, selling their art was the least of their concerns. Cezanne had a rich father. Degas too was rather well-off. This is the stage at which modernism was born. So if you begin with the Impressionists, you will see, they were far more occupied with their art than with selling it.
If one is dependent on selling his art, does his creativity suffer in any way?
Often it does. Murtaja Baseer had once said, 'What can I do, I have to run my family!' Many artists have had to do that. Abedin shaheb himself did book covers for quite a while!
That is commercial manoeuvring.
This is a kind of craftsmanship linked to one's art. An artist masters a craft and earns his livelihood through that...
Do you think all painters are like that?
So, in such a situation where an artist becomes dependent on his skill/craftsmanship/art for his livelihood, does it hinder his creative mobility?
Yes, there are thousands of examples...
What is your take on this, Sir? That an artist should not be dependent on his art for his bread and butter?
If that can be achieved, then it is ideal.
You have been deeply involved with the modern art movement in Bangladesh. So, after such a long time now in 2005, how do you think Bangladeshi modern art is being received in international circuits?
We are rather quick to declare Zainul Abedin or Sultan as the greatest artists of the world. What do you say to that?
I agree that such a declaration is rather emotional and hasty. I totally agree with you and would want to know what you think of it. At the same time, I want you to reflect on the trajectory of art in Bangladesh from their times to the present; whose work you consider as important and your take on contemporary Bangladeshi art in the global arena today.
In the 1980s I was invited by the American government for a research programme during which I visited the office of the journal 'Art in America'. I asked them over tea, why they chose to write only on European and American art, taking only occasional peeps into South American art, not wishing to focus on the art of India, Bangladesh, Japan, Indonesia etc. First they said, there weren't writers who were qualified enough. Surprised, I said it should be rather easy for such an influential house as them to get any writer they wanted. Then they said, they didn't believe any original work was done in these places that deserved to be featured.
This is what they said?
Yes... they said there's nothing new happening here. We (artists of the region) are basically reproducing the work of the West. Although I don't subscribe to this theory completely, I do agree to a large extent.
What do you think is the reason behind such a perception in the West that we are only reproducing their work?
Then I will ask, why did the West leave behind their five-thousand year long tradition to introduce modernism?
Don't you feel, sir, that power is involved in this whole process?
More than power, I believe, it is money, wealth. Wealth itself is a kind of power.
Does it create a kind of discrimination? I had asked this to Monirul Islam too, and he said, there's not a single artist from Asia except Anish Kapoor.
He is a shaheb! (laughs)
Yes, he said, except Anish Kapoor, no-one else of Indian origin has gained international acclaim of that stature.
This again is dependent on the media. Husain has done fabulous work.
But it is also claimed that outside this subcontinent, no one even knows Husain...
If people don't know Husain, then they don't know anyone! Husain's greatest virtue is that there is an Indian-ness in his works. His figures, his horses, style, repetitions... And he has also worked on contemporary issues, like Mother Teresa...
Many would claim these to be stunts...
Could be. This uproar over Madhuri Dixit or the furore over his nudes... I think Husain enjoys this
SHAWON AKAND is a freelance writer, researcher and artist based in Dhaka.
Translated by PAROMA MAITI.