Siting the image outside the cognitive realm
Fokhrul Islam (1964-2012) and his performatively generated surfaces
Prior to the emergence of the Romantics, landscape as such has been only a peripheral presence in the European art. In contrast, China's tradition trails a long history, but the performative/meditative nature of Chinese landscape art only impacted the artists given to calligraphic or linear interpretation of the natural world. To put in context the works of the recently deceased artist Mohammad Fokhrul Islam one is tempted to recall the rise of the naturalist landscape painting in nineteenth century Europe and its influence on Asia and, additionally, also place that fact on a platter full of relevant mishmash, ie, emergence of abstraction in Bangladesh in the 1960s, the growing discontent of the art students with the curriculum and methods of teaching in the then Dhaka's sole art institution, and the urge to create a new horizon through uninhibited experimentations which gained momentum in the 1990s. In fact, if Abstraction à la New York school, which is painterly and had sprung from the concept of the sublime, has been appropriated and indigenized to a degree by artists like Mohammad Kibria, Kazi Abdul Baset et al, it suddenly, though belatedly, found a new wellspring courtesy of a young exponent of abstraction who had trained as a ceramic artist and, since the beginning of his career launched in the early 90s, had begun to display a flair for diversity and novelty.
In retrospect, Fokhrul's entry into the world of image-making can now be construed as a highly individualized plot that began to unfold by abjuring some of the conventional techniques of painterly abstraction. Having instigated a renewal of the retinal painting, he went on to become the most important abstractionist to have emerged from the art scene which now seems to be trapped in clichés as it is caught between media-savvy images of nationalist validation at the one end of the spectrum, and a restrained individual experimentation at the other. Obfuscating the mainstream abstract idioms, Fokhrul started to produce energy-infused images that recall nature. And his prolificity seemed to have unhinged us from our fixed loci of expectations and spectatorship. The act of physically subjecting the paper to extrusions through both perforations and cuts – can now easily be dubbed as a point of departure from established norms of deshi abstraction.
His praxis actuated a jump from the surface to the process. The physicality of the process itself forms a testimony to the desire to connect. It exteriorizes a mental ability to translate the energy derived from nature into the act of painting, which, in turn, is ambiguously connected to nature as well as the nature of image-making itself. The language he had arrived at through empirico-psychological reflexes (GC Spivak's phrase) was publicly launched at a solo exhibition in 1996. Though its fuller, mature version only emerged later in the year 2000, at a three-man show mounted at the Zainul Gallery, of what then was the Institute of Fine Art, Dhaka University.
One of the most prolific painters of his generation, Fokhrul, at the onset, was inspired by Soviet-era World War II movies. The vast open landscapes that had often formed a core part of the monocoloured mise-en-scène in those films, and the rural beauty of Bangladesh, which, as a constant traveller Fokhrul often had the chance to gorge on, formed the two seemingly disparate ends of a single spectrum of interest. But one cannot help but be attentive to the fact that Fokhrul's interest easily flowed from one domain to another as he approached them with spontaneity and high octane energy.
He had launched his career in a three-man show in the mid 1990s, where his first batch of ceramic sculptures was showcased alongside prints and paintings by two of his friends. The show mounted at the now defunct Gallerie Atelier set up by Akku Chowdhury, of Dolce Vita ice cream parlour fame, served to bring attention to the intentionally low-fired sculptures by young Fokhrul who, because of his inability to set up a kiln, later took up painting.
Fokhrul had once remarked, 'There are people who go to books, but how many of them are able to read nature?' His posture vis-à-vis the natural world and how an artist draws on the vital energy of nature to translate sense data into 'real' forms of expression, places him in the vicinity of those artists and thinkers who would not sacrifice the 'concrete' in the pursuit of the abstract. In an interview with Depart (7th, 8th double issue), he displayed a reluctance to brand his art as 'abstraction'. They (artworks in general) must possess a thing called 'reality' which is, of course, a reality of their own – to become animated with life, otherwise it would be plain representation or imitation, he believed. Therefore, the formalism that had once informed the entire art scene had little sway over Fokhrul. Not that the organizing principles of such art had not influenced his oeuvres. Yet, for him the emotive force or feeling, which is construed as 'concrete' in Western philosophy, was an important mediator between the sensory experience and the achieved plasticity, the latter is arrived at through the process of constructing imagery using the subjective energy (instead of the memory of looking at nature) as its driving force.
Yet, he never set out to create 'pure objects' by dislodging himself from the world outside of the painting. His works were framed as spatial constructions to house both tendencies of referentiality and self-referentaility. The works at once refer back to nature and point to the plastic elements themselves.
His image seldom used the printing ink, his medium of choice, as the producer of atmosphere but the dots and fissures themselves usually used to effectuate that feeling of depth and atmosphere. It is only after closer inspection that one realizes that the 'flatness', a modernist conceit which lends his forms an architectonic quality, also helped to prepare the painterly space/surface as the repository of the actual act of perforation and cuts.
If naturalism is an attempt at producing the mirror image of nature in seemingly realistic traces, the impression that Fokhrul's images create is that of an acknowledgment of the way we emotively respond to sense data. The works apparently resulted from the bond between the artist as the seer and nature; it is an association which has floated a process of the amassing of traces that are his formal elements, as such, distant from the source. The temperamental tempering of the surface thus is a response to nature, not an attempt to capture the sense-data emanating from real experiences.
Wilderness is the key concept around which Fokhrul framed most of his oeuvres, and as he created his responses, transcendence was his only viable end. Anish Kapoor once said to the Indian press that it is not through mysticism or spirituality that his art takes the form they do; rather it is the concept of transcendence, which he believes, propels his objects into the sphere of metaphor and meaning. Fokhrul's images, though in no way comparable to the works of the Indian-born British artist, can also be contextualized through the philosophical framework of transcendence.
The landscape-like works, which Fokhrul used to title Image followed by a numerical quantifier indicating the numbers, thus connect us to a plain where the earthy image invokes the archetypal image. As he toggled between the empirical and the cosmic, we, as viewers, could rest our gaze upon innumerable artworks along that two separate, yet not so distant lines of vision. His art instituted a shifting of locus as he simply pushed the sphere of solitary musing to the world of actual sensory experience. In the works that appeal to our primordial need for being lost in space, strong emotion runs as its only current; the sheer physical energy that went into the making of his art also is a demonstration of the fact that making art is a performance, a rite of passage, through which one overwrites the art of the past and inscribe one's signature onto the very fabric of history.
But, certainly, if he was out to make us readjust our foci to the prima-mundi originating from the concept of Eden, it was a reflection on a private Eden, not the one related to the collective history of humanity linked with our social-cultural understanding of divinity. An American art writer once wrote that Abstract Expressionism is actually Abstract Individualism, an ethos Fokhrul fervently aligned himself with.
As a producer of memorable visual experience Fokhrul's oeuvres can be clustered into two major streams, one that is earth-bound, as such landscape-like, and another that drifts outside the earthly domain to venture into the heavens. It is in the latter category of imagery where we witness the transcendental cosmicity being harped on, which somehow vaguely recalls an aion-mandal or cosmos, or maybe even a Tibetan prayer mandala, giving rise to many other forms of interpretation. While these works push us beyond gravity, Buddhism or Sufi Islam comes to mind. As we navigate further into their ecology, only to realize that they situate us beyond the cognitive realms we have created for ourselves. The stilled whirling dots in their centripetal deposition, which we encounter in many a piece, are the eye that devours our conscious gaze, so that we experience an approximate form of visual pleasure.
The artist's strategy suggests that like many a good painter, his works too are 'morphological'; and we encounter a self-propelled process which has always been at work. It is this process that sometimes reached a mechanistic automatism leading to repetition.
We were familiar with his vocal and egotistical social personae, but were unaware of the recluse who paid little heed when asked by friends to take care of his health. Married to his work and committed to life-long bachelorhood, Mohammad Fokhrul Islam left his mortal coil on April 6, 2012, at a local hospital after a toe removal operation, the result of uncontrolled high diabetes. He died of a heart failure; the blocks in the arteries having finally caught up with this outwardly embattled, temperamentally resolute, but all time jovial artist.
Artworks used in this article span last ten years of Fokhrul's active artistic life, and each bears the title 'Image'.