Post abstraction is possible! : Colloquy with Fokhrul Islam
In a recent encounter with the abstraction's most prolific progenitor, who emerged in the 1990s, setting forth a language of art which easily conflate the passionate with the meditative, Depart taps the very substance that made Fokhrul Islam's oeuvres of the last fifteen years possible
Shahman Moishan (SM): What is the main purpose of your art? Is it just for aesthetic pleasure?
Mohammad Fokhrul Islam (FI): Oh, of course! Even you look for pleasure, for happiness in life, don't you?
SM: How do you relate your personal happiness to that of the rest of the world?
FI: I don't belong outside society. How can art exist outside society? Am I unsocial? I cannot exist without society. The landscape-like image that you see hung on my wall reflects my joy, my pain, my nostalgia, and a lot of other things…
When I'm asked what sort of commitment I have towards society, I respond by saying that I paint. That is my commitment to society.
Mustafa Zaman (MZ): You said that an artist is by far, far more social. Could you please expand on that?
FI: Yes, an artist is always more social. If I don't feel the pain of society, then it's of no use. This is my work. Society will not get disturbed because of me; I, on the contarary belong to it.
SM: Is there social angst in your art?
FI: Of course! Every single painting of mine is a reflection of pain.
MZ: Does it then imply that society is undergoing a fragmentation that finds expression in your paintings?
FI: Yes, that. This fragmentation leads to a despicable condition. And what's more, it is an all-pervading situation, where people are exploiting each other on a massive scale.
MZ: There is romanticism in your works with regard to 'land'. This land, which has variously been addressed to as mother, a gift of Allah etc, is no longer being hailed as such. For, the moment in which land becomes a saleable commodity, there is an immediate reflection of that in society. Nature occupies a large section of your oeuvre…and a concern related to its loss – a feeling that the loss of the natural world is inevitable. The main cause for concern in a modern world is this destruction of nature.
FI: Yes, the loss of nature does pain me, and I mean to symbolize life-pain through the dot. But I don't concern myself solely with the expression of pain; I thoroughly enjoy the process of painting itself.
SM: I had once seen a painting of yours at the Zainul Gallery, which did not appeal to me much when viewed from up close. From a distance of course, it sort of filled me with a certain peaceful, almost divine, serenity. Do your paintings therefore have anything to do with meditation?
FI: I hadn't fixed any title for this painting. It is just an image. Now the point is that you are viewing this painting from your own personal standpoint, isn't it?
FI: Take for example a river or a river with a boat in it? Both however could be meant to imply either joy or sorrow. When I look at the river, I may feel pain, by reminiscing my past or through observation of how it has been thoroughly degraded…
MZ: There are different kinds of pathos, of which nostalgia is one reason. This implies that nostalgia plays a crucial role in your art. The crux of certain psychological problems of modern humans stems from the destruction of nature, followed by the destruction of society, the latter being an equally significant reason to raise a voice of concern. In the first step, there is a visible decline of all things that once existed. No matter how structured, how planned modern society may be, it is hugely responsible for the decline of nature; a fact that was not noticed in pre-modern societies. Ancient kings and emperors, or even the mighty Mughals, who were ruthless with mankind when necessary, never interfered with nature.
FI: The effect of new money is evident here…
MZ: How do you view the relation between money and art?
FI: See, art does not function outside society. Is it possible then that art remain untouched by money? Isn't this money that of a kind of loot? The expatriate artists are all coming back to Dhaka now. This is because, the pillage going on at home has impacted the art scene and that, in turn, has led to a frantic desire to return. Earlier these artists would not exhibit, saying there are hardly any proper galleries here.
SM: Is ego therefore a bad thing for artists?
FI: Positive ego is a necessary attribute. How is it possible for an artist to function without his ego? His passion is his ego; without his passion, he would be indistinct from everyone else.
MZ: So ego is a must. But an egotistical artist is not what one desires…
FI: Famous artists like Van Gogh could have easily drawn the kind of paintings that were selling in those times, couldn't he? But he didn't do it. He was able to overcome his greed for money. This is why he is Van Gogh. This is where the necessity of ego lies. It helps me realize that I know what I am painting. Because the joy of painting…oh my god! That is a huge level of satisfaction! I've realized that the moment a painting gets sold, a vacuum is created, a rather painful vacuum.
MZ: Many artists produce work that is informed by NGO narratives, which the media props up as brilliant. Apparently, that is because they draw on issues related to environmental pollution or social degradation. This is not the work of an artist, but the due responsibility of every citizen. An artist can, of course, do this as an individual. What is more important is to look at these very same issues from a philosophical or poetical point of view, and to try to gauge whether your sincerity towards the development of an authentic language of expression is enough for any artist.
FI: It is important also to see if I'm sending out correct vibe, and whether or not I'm misusing my power. A couple of girls from the City College came on a Friday for my exhibition at the Alliance few years back. They asked me to say a few things about my paintings, and I told them I had nothing to say to them! I had freed them, for I believe art is the reflection of your 'self'. How do you look at it? If you tell me how you respond to the work, I can tell you what I feel in return…
MZ: So you are keeping things open to interpretations …While many would say, art is a reflection of the artist's 'self', you are saying the process of viewing it should be self-reflexive. This is a matter of interactivity, where you are encouraging the viewer to roam freely in this unknown space that art creates. The artist himself remains invisible here. This is a good thing for it almost erases the author; the imposition that everybody has to view a particular image the way its creator wants them to, is sidestepped. It is possible to withdraw oneself, do away with the author and discover the work of art as an open-ended text. This is the reason why we oppose egotism that leads one to rate 'my view' as supreme. In our country, artists often criticise art-writings when they go against what they intend to put forth. It is highly possible that a critic does not see politics in a particular work, even though the artist may have willed it that way. Art needs to be interpreted not the artist…
FI: Suppose I visit a village and notice its decadence and another person goes to enjoy the affection of his naani – grandmother, – this will create two different perspectives. Even while we went to the same village with the same landscapes, our viewpoints would differ, once we come back.
SM: This is not merely a difference of tastes…
FI: Once two people had come to visit my solo exhibition; they sat there for a long time, and then one of them came up to me and said that I've been sitting for four days now, but still can't figure out the meaning of your paintings, please explain it to me. I jokingly said to them, go inside and see them one more time. I'm giving you five minutes within which you have to come back and tell me whatever you make of my works. I gave him moral assurance to give me his honest response to the pictures, for every man is bound to see 'something' – be that a sea or a mast of a boat. He came back and told me what he felt in a very timid, apologetic manner, and I encouraged him warmly. But I could see he was apprehensive of a 'wrong' answer.
MZ: Everyone from artists to art institutions has taken the process of viewing to a complex 'philosophical' level; as if a lot of erudition is a must to just 'view'. I believe, the natural way of looking should be enough.
SM: Even while your works mainly depict non-images, in that there are no references or form, you call them images. Kindly elaborate.
FI: See, the main thing about a painting or a sculpture, is the image. Without the image there is no life. Do you always see in concrete form whatever you feel? Just seeing a few lines or images can remind you of your childhood days. These are personal feelings related certain images. Without the image you can have neither paintings nor sculptures.
MZ: I think what you are trying to imply deals not so much with real images as with imaginary ones. But again, there is an important relation between the two...
FI: It is important to provide an image, regardless of whether it represents reality or abstraction. I don't wish to cheat my viewers. Each viewer will enter a picture from his/her own position and view it as he/she pleases. One need not even know what I had in mind while I created it; nor even whether it is a painting or a printing.
MZ: Medium does not seem important for you. There is innovation in whatever medium you work in. We recognize a predominant tendency in Bangladeshi art – which has to do with texturing of the surface. On the issue of images, there is the view that a figure is a must in an image, reason why academic training in figure drawing is considered compulsory. This bi-polarity has been present in the Bangladesh's art scene, where academic learning reign supreme. You had first employed dots to the surface of the paper and had called it a painting, at a time when this kind of idea on abstraction was unknown. Earlier it would be a broken wall, a weathered wall or some other imagery that we could relate to, in real life. An artist had once told me that the reason behind Kibriya's popularity in Bangladesh was the ease with which the we could identify the references to real life. But what did they identify? Perhaps they can relate to the discoloured walls, but isn't that art form tantamount to Realism? What comprises image for you therefore is what allows you to free yourself from the responsibility of mimesis. They have a reality of their own, without this sense of reality art will lose its vigour. This makes both abstraction and figuration work – and this is the reason why both could become imaginary. Those who do figuration well, do so because of their ability to give shape to imaginary images.
FI: If a work of art moves and appeals to you how do you label such a work as abstract?
SM: You don't wish to call it abstract?
FI: No, I don't want to call it abstract. You cannot draw abstract, you can only feel it, sense it.
MZ: Interesting! Basically what we feel is in real life, and that is almost impossible to trace in the world of art.
FI: Shovan Shome had once said a rather wonderful thing about me, in his review of one of my exhibitions on landscape: he had said that I don't bring in images deliberately. It's not like I hanker after images. The pain and longing that I have within automatically gives birth to images.
SM: What then is your creative process?
FI: Let me begin by telling you that I did not draw many pictures at my department (ceramic) during study. Thing is that I wasn't entirely satisfied with the kind of training I received at the department, and would think to myself, 'what are they teaching!' I have not come here to be a 'Kumar' (potter), neither was I interested to sell portraitures on the road. Truth to tell, the fine arts did not attract me much. I used to sit and chat at the department. Then, at one point I would only do sculpture and had queer titles such as 'Godfather', 'Bosnia' or 'Virginity' for them. I'm sure you can imagine the kind of information sculptures with names like these would give out. But what I would try to project is the reasons behind human victimization and the harmful politics within Bangladesh and the world at large.
MZ: I remember 'Bosnia', the sculptural piece that was showcased in a three-man show, was very interesting. It showed that a political narrative may be spun from a mere broken-down structure, that too was the outcome of a certain process. You made a structure, one which collapsed, and was presented at the exhibition in that very format. Sadeq Khan was very impressed with this work and this exhibition made us realize that we have amongst us a serious artist.
FI: I never make any lay-outs. If I do, my work becomes artificial. I concentrate on working directly, for I myself don't know where I'm headed. I have travelled a lot, and have adequately exposed my spontaneity everywhere. Actually, what is man's disposition? He is not static...
MZ: Your landscape-like works expand on the real horizon we see upon visit to the rural areas, but they refer to the horizon and are something else at the same time. There is a conceptual aspect that comes in here, though you put great value on visual sensation. You started with the dot even though landscape is the main medium of your expression. They were small works but vast in expressiveness. I had visited your studio once in the 1990s and found it very interesting to discover such things as a stick, mustard oil etc as chief ingredients for the production of your works. This is the beginning of your oeuvre. This kind of work (pointing to one) that shows a village, or a snow-covered land, creates an ambience of spirituality...
FI: I have often asked myself, what is it that drives me to draw such desolate landscapes? I must have seen it somewhere and liked it so much that I latched on to it...
MZ: Let me add a little to my reflection....You started with the dot-infused surface – a form of abstraction that you yourself are not ready to accept as abstraction, but then came back to landscape painting. Why this turn?
FI: I really do not know. I did not paint after returning from Paris. You can't work whenever you feel like it. I take to my papers in order to paint, but I don't know myself what I'll paint; don't know whether I'll splash colour on it, or draw lines. Believe me, I don't even want to know. My work becomes stiff when I know what I am going to paint. The natural thing about art ceases to exist. In truth I'm pulled by a form, not constricted by any particular grammar. This however does not imply that I'm against grammar. But you will not be able to judge my work based on a grammatical perspective, because I dont draw keeping any grammar in mind.
SM: Is there no importance of skill here?
FI: I did not begin with skill. I was a student of ceramics. I have no skill in either painting, printmaking or sculpture; I don't think I've even seen anyone use the kind technique on paper I use for my works. I have worked with many artists and have learned immensely from them; but I hold an independent position.
MZ: How does the cosmos feature in your work? The star-studded sky for instance…
FI: Like I said, we are not outside this earth, this universe, this cosmos…The moment something ceases to exist in my field of vision, I feel I am moving away from my position...
SM: This means a cycle…
FI: Yes! Yes! Absolutely!
MZ: Many artists who practice abstraction feel that association with real landscape makes a picture realistic. How do you react to this?
FI: At my exhibition in Pakistan, a woman came up and asked me, where are the houses, the people in your landscape? I told her whether she could see details of her neighbourhood from where she stood. If she could see it, I would come up with houses on my painting too! The landscape I had drawn offered a view from a huge distance, where would I have found houses to fit in it?
MZ: But you are looking at from a realistic viewpoint. What about your imagination, what about intuiting the visual; and your paintings often result from that, don't they?
SM: What do you feel about the presence of 'belief' in your art?
FI: Belief or breath?
FI: What do you think?
MZ: I think this question arises from the fact that a lot of people take to abstraction from disbelief, taking non-representational art as a reflection of negative theology.
FI: Well said! Basically, you want to know if my work is imposed or not. The fact that I'm alive proves that somewhere there is something to which or whom I surrender, and that gets reflected in my art, right? And when I search for the roots of that dependence, I have to have a certain belief.
MZ: The ambience of all-pervasive non-belief that Europe has given rise to through a total embedding in science and rationalism, leading to abstraction, is something you have avoided to the extent that you even negate the term 'abstraction'.
FI: I can't enter that void: if I do, my work will be doomed.
MZ: So, our artist doesn't belong to the No(s); but only to Yes(s). This implies that image for you implies 'presence' not absence; and this is in relation to what is 'there' for one to discover. There is no scope for negation here. Fokhrul, the artist, negates negation.
FI: I may be trying to show humanism, but you may well see nothing of that in my painting.
MZ: There is a difference in what the artist's voice says and what his work brings to the fore…
FI: Rabindranath Tagore had said that it is the desire to express the inexplicable that inspired him to draw and paint.
MZ: Yes! to articulate the unsaid is the ultimate goal – this is where words end.
SM: Yes, it is the expression of what can't be said in words. There is a musical/lyrical quality to your works. What do you have to say to that?
FI: I am deeply involved with music. Some of my works on music are rather interesting; like a few flying strokes on a black surface signifying musical expression…
SM: How does music connect to art? What itself is an image, does it create a third image by getting mixed with yet another image?
FI: Can you explain life? Don't try to explain everything, Allah forbids that. Sit quietly. Feel it. Enjoy it. Rebellion is a great thing, but at my age, I no longer have the strength for all that. Sound and image are in no way, separate entities…
SM: Are you an artist or a human being?
FI: Hundred percent human being; there is only one artist, Allah. Man cannot create. We live in a time when spiritual figures like Dervishes or Sadhus or Sufi saints have all become perverts, and the artist has died. That place of Divinity itself exists no more.
MZ: The Sufis harp on the importance of different states of selfhood, among which the concept of the Allah resides on the highest level. With regards to poets, they would say, it is actually the Allah portion of the self who speaks as a poet and opens his/her mouth. Humanity and Divinity are two sides to the same self in Sufi thinking.
SM: This is why it is always advised to respect yourself as a human being first.
MZ: That everyone does; but how you express that is crucial. Anyway, your recent works have turned towards a new kind of freedom, towards informal landscaping. What plans do you have for its future?
FI: I have an exhibition soon, for which I'm preparing. Let's see where it takes me…
MZ: I've noticed a primal spirit in many of your works – even if expressed differently. We find this line of work rather interesting. You used to say that what people throw away after not getting it right, you would consider that as your point of departure from the conventional ways of art making…
FI: Fact of the matter is that a piece of paper getting wasted after a failed attempt becomes useless. This uselessness causes pain. The feeling that works within me is to want to reach out and understand that wastes too carry symbolic value and this is from where I want to start…
Translated by PAROMA MAITI.