Politics of Painting: Ra Kajol's Colonized Humans and Decolonized Expressivity
As the early 1980s set the stage for Ruhul Amin Kajol aka Ra Kajol, to appear and inscribe his own signature on the art scene of Dhaka effectuating a renewal of the figurative symbolism, which in many other forms became a norm representing that era. It was a time when the idea of social change still had some sway over the urban middle-class. And he, along with other exponents of social-political art became the personification of an artistic subjectivity that was the direct outcome of a strong determination to supersede years of political impasse that caught the urban populace into the throe of a mental stalemate – one which subsequently trapped them between hope and despair. As new urban messiahs, some artists and poets, amid such state of inaction and uncertainty, strove to articulate a fervour for change and become its self-propelled 'agents', one who carries the cross for the rest, by choosing to channel the collective will for social transformation into the realm of art. They arrived at such a crucial juncture by surveying the real with a critical prism resulting in what can now be referred to as de-aestheticized creative acts.
The first exhibition Kajol mounted was tilted Colony (1984), where the civilizational implications were laid out in simple visual terms: the inhabitants of the Colony were depicted in subsections of the surface area of each canvas captured in a state of inactivity as they were doing nothing more than being aware of the gaze of the viewer. This technique of articulating a society in divided sections through portraitures and human figures in near-profile position, while the protagonists are made to look back at the viewer in skewed and/or sharp or squinted eyes, became the signature element of socially engaged imagery Kajol began to put forth on a regular basis. He, in order to entrench his art into the 'real', threaded together some revitalized visual techniques drawn from both European new figurative school (of Ron Kitaj et al rather than Bacon) conflating that with popular art of Dhaka. Kajol apparently managed to forge an individual response to an array of languages, rather than just plain sourcing them and making one thing out of many.
In the succession of the next few years, his work lent more weight to art as a social mediatory voice employing a confrontational mode of expression which stared directly at social stagnation. In an exhibition titled Society the representation of clustered, yet alienated humans amid a blazing fire, became his signature, as such, replicable 'social tableaux'. Kajol clearly exteriorized a sense of disillusionment about what is perceived as the modern society – in its dehumanized, fragmented state, powered by modernist values. Being in a position to rebel against the mainstream ethos was for him the only viable way of exacting the effectiveness of his language.
After years of elaborating on the concept of the social through a more or less well-defined linguistic framework, he began to readjust is foci – not on society, but on the techniques of representation. His works, in contrast to other socially engaged artists, began to share space with the irrational vectors of the psyche and became potent with allusions to elements that usually spring from a silent navigation of the consciousness. At this point, sleep as well as dream entered his oeuvre, and the pictures that best exemplify the new development marked by poeticity was Man Watching Sleeping Girl (1988), Bird and the Girl (1989), part of the series done under the themetic guise of Love.
The layers of textual references as well as references to nature seemed to have thrust his former tableaux into the domain of the surreal. Yet the concept of the social-political kept resurfacing as did the absurd human condition in a social setting where cause and affect seemed to have been displaced from their simple frame of relationality to become blurred and overlapped. Kajol, as a keen observer of the global political drifts, also remained attentive to the 'Third World' conditions and the straight jacket his home country had to accept as it kept embracing the idea of progress in its capitalized/fincialized dispensation. He kept coming back from his country of resident Denmark to have his solo exhibitions at the home turf as he kept at the aesthetical interventions inaugurated around the concept of society and political orders that govern modern life.
The early 1990s onward, we discover him exploring the themes with full linguistic blast; thematics such democracy, religion and civilization are cannily reproduced denoting the 'state of the world' in hybrid formations such as Democrazy, Killigion, and Evilization – his titles for his three consecutive exhibitions in Dhaka, respectively in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Though the images produced under such politically loaded subject matters seemed, at that time, devoid of the poetic quality the name Kajol stood for; yet the kind of visual energy they released had little or no match in the artistic language of the Dhaka mainstream.
The entire gamut of languages explored during the last three decades of this 50-plus artist has been shored up in one moderately large retrospective – which worked as a site of rekindling old romance and also to begin new ones – with the pictures of course. For example, the aesthetic enterprise with the social-surreal slant which had manifested in a number of exhibitions during his early career, for which many may have born a lasting affinity, can now be compared with some extraordinary images that one might have missed out in later-day shows where he was more inclined to address issues of political import rather than attempting artistic innovations. His series titled Headless Head is a case in point, which went into the body of work that came under the nomenclature, Killigion.
This particular retrospective at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, though a truncated representation of his entire career, successfully creates an opportunity for all to appreciate and re-evaluate Kajol's multi-feceted approaches.
Aside from the street paintings, which are more a result of his intention to decorate a site than to satisfy his aesthetic purposefulness, of which his canvases are the best demonstrations, we get a large enough view of his career and come a way with questions and issues related to the huge dearth in good paintings now-a-days.
As an important exponent of the generation of the '80s, Ra Kajol's works make visible the guiding spirit of their time, and the later-day works make us aware of the changes and growth that went into the making of the artist he is today. As a strong socially antagonistic and existentially/mataphysically probing, questioning voice he may boast of having generated several cadences, though it is debatable which one, whether the poetic or the prosaic ones, are his strong points. If the last solo at the Zainul Gallery (2008) is considered our last source material, it is the marriage of the political with the poetical that has so far yielded some delightfully jarring as well as nuanced imagery.
The exhibition Philosophy of Life was held at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, 9-21 February 2012.