DHALI AL MAMOON speaks to Depart on crossreferencing, symbolism and the stratagem of recall
On the occasion of his recent solo exhibition entitled 'Elimination', DHALI AL MAMOON speaks to Depart on crossreferencing, symbolism and the stratagem of recall. His show was dedicated to the millions who died in the war of independence.
Mustafa Zaman: I would like to start off with a quote from one of your favourite artists Anselm Kiefer, who once said to an interviewer: 'I am a story teller with a broken history.' His work addresses history by invoking the experiential through a maximalist impulse. We find parallel in your recent installations. We witness in your recent sites that modernist symbolism is being married to timeless ahistorical frame of reference. For example 'shapla' (water lily) being a national symbol, is time bound. You let it collude with other forms or references such as 'cut hands' – to address trauma of the genocide. The hands are organized into a sphere, which is a timeless symbol – a reference to the sun or even the cosmos, or just plain geometry. Human body too, is at the same time historical and ahistorical. The cut hands as metonymic fragments of the whole – the body, together address the fraction and the wholeness. Shapla being our national flower, there appears another set of duality between nationalist and non-nationalist references. Please give us a glimpse into your thought behind them – what lurks behind such crossreferencing?
Dhali Al Mamoon: Art is often seen through a set of premeditated ideas. Art, on the contrary, is also a communication tool. We connect to others through art. Since I am journeying through a particular time in history, it is only natural that I will pick up things that are related to the current discourses, media, and references which naturally I incorporate into my idiom.
In our civilization 'objects' play a major role. Interestingly, object itself is an entity, as they have the capacity to create their own vocabulary. Objects themselves mediate history and communicate meaning. On the other hand, in relation to objects articulating their own language – we observe that earthology, anthropology, and botany – these disciplines, they have their own way of bringing to the fore important aspects of our reality. Notions related to these disciplines have been addressed in my work.
Another aspect to reality is that nothing is objective in our experience, everything is subjective. Still in relation to objects we are able to discern an 'objective condition'. The selection of the objects I use may be subjective, my objective, on the contrary, is to let the objects speak for themselves – to communicate a sensibility on their own. I am emphatic about one thing – I don't want to create any particular meaning. Rather I try to create a phenomenology of meaning.
The dualities you are referring to have various nuances to them – they are linked to the local and universal, time and timelessness, and also transparent and opaque. These dichotomies I wanted to address in this exhibition. Those who enter the exhibition space, for them I have in mind a psychological effect. The entire exhibition is framed around the discourse of trauma expressed in various objects and their visual effect; one stands witness to at once a circle which is actually not a circle, there is stacking of hair and wilted water lilies. One element looks black and another is very, very whitish. These combinations are deliberate.
There are formal qualities that you also explore in your presentations…
The gallery is problematic. It has been built with two dimensional works in mind. It was challenging for me to negotiate the space. I began looking for ways to maximize the possibilities to explore unused spaces – areas which were not meant for display of art.
I did not want to address nationalism as such; all I wanted is to let the object – such as sheaves of dried lilies to speak for themselves. It is a botanical notion brought to bear upon the work. Shapla – a national symbol and a natural element – from the point it has ceased to be a living plant it has entered a time frame – the start to decay. I look at it as a fundamental notion of genocide; also when something is stacked that too as a pictorial language relates to genocide.
Keifer too sorts of provides an account of materials in similar fashion. For him the evidentiary value is of little concern, rather the 'experience' the work generates is what he considers as his theme. The way some artists pick a symbol [of nationalist significance] and let it stand for a particular meaning, seems problematic. We always witness a linear conceit being employed when the memory of 'muktijuddho' (the liberation war) and the genocide that the Pak army was responsible for is to be archived in art. You somehow avoid the linear relationship between symbol and meaning. What I feel is that you are out to generate an experience through which viewers are to search for meaning.
Yes that is correct. I do not want to burden the viewers with meaning – I prefer that the viewers be free to find their direction towards meaning – to which I only refer to… Kiefer may be an influence on me. I was overwhelmed by Kiefer's work in Germany. I had witnessed a huge two dimensional work – where the trauma of the Second World War was the theme. I feel that it is Kiefer who is the only German artist who – to this day – remain traumatized by his war experience. History provides one of the important points of reference to him besides the explication of trauma. Through objects he enters an abstract realm. Through objects, which are palpable he enters the domain of the untouchable – the unexplainable.
He does so through informal means, there is no formal abstract quality to his work...
Yes, there is no simple way of generating meaning in his work.
There is meaning to be found, but one which is discovered in a broader framework. The viewers will encounter the work made as an object and will enter a transcendental sphere…
As meaning generation itself is a continuous process. This is how transcendence is activated. Viewers thus, are privileged a glimpse into the transcendental – a realm where division, or opposition is set aside.
Herbert Read talks about the absence of partition in primitive art, he says that the literary and the visual becomes one in the arts of the primitive people. Also, by employing the technique of mise-en-scene, a cinematic conceit, some of the new art are being contextualize today. Much of what we see in art at present – be that sculptural or photo installation – are being contextualized through the category of mise-en-scene. Perhaps the multispatiality and the threading of multiple references are all being read in relation to such a technique…
The plurality of space and meaning…
Yes the plurality of space, symbolism and meaning… in your own work we also witness a system of referencing which is complex – and in the context of history one object is thus referring to a multiple spatial realties – such as badhya bhumi (the place of mass killing). Therefore, through a metonymic expression a particular spatiality is being referred to, leading the viewer to the entirety of the horrifying experience. But what ails our art scene is that we still inhabit a modernist symbolic order. Where do think we got it wrong?
With due respect, I would like to start with Zainul Abedin; as poineer he introduced a pedagogical model which is a copy of that of the Kolkata art college. Whereas, Santiniketan had already been established by Rabindranath Tagore – where we find a pedagogy that negotiated the colonial legacy; about such a situated pedagogy Zainul showed no interest. Why? It is a big question mark. As a pioneer, Zainul might have missed out on the progress in his time [1950s]. But, I wonder why hasn't anybody else come forward to interrogate it in the last sixty years? What was expected was a review and rescheduling of the curricula Zainul introduced. Art is being rescheduled at every moment – with regards to its language and its ability to communicate. We are aware that the development in Western art is parallel to their thoughts – their philosophy. Art is not philosophy – but somehow the two are connected.
We know that even phenomenology impacted the art of the west…
Yes. The relationship can be reciprocal, or vice versa. Critical thoughts and artistic ideas complement each other.
That is how paradigms are established…
I feel that we – even to this day – fail to realize what Modernism signify. Postmodernism is dubbed by many in the west as an incomplete project of modernism. We never contextualize our own modernity. Three prominent artists from the early twentieth century West Bengal are now being referred to as contextual modernists.
Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir coined a fitting term; he once contextualized Zainu Abedinl, Quamrul Hassan and SM Sultan with a single trope –'Indigenous Modernism'.
We haven't really paid much attention to what all these artists of the earlier periods had brought to the view. We haven't read them the way we should have. An unfolding was the imperative – which did not take place. If you look at Sultan, he doesn't fully belong to the contemporary times; he has come up with an attitude to figuration through which we detect a sense of cotemporaneity in him. Though, there are no direct notions contained in his art through which to refer to the cotemporary condition. By contrast, Quamrul Hassan is very much into what was considered 'contemporary' in his time.
I feel we must link the institutional pedagogy with contemporary critical literature. It is essential, and that such a practice doesn't exist bears down on the level of art making. We now notice that the artists who teach art in the institutions are no longer producing works which are relevant to the current times. Our so-called pseudomodernists once used to enjoy a certain stature in the society. But today the situation is different; a shift has occurred and the best artists reside outside the institutions. Because they are free and is aware of the developments of the contemporary times. The social media has ushered in an era of openness ; and it is in this context that learning should have taken place. This is not the case in Bangladesh, that is why our institutions are teetering on the verge of degeneration… and the problem is all encompassing.
On upgrading of knowledge, I would like to refer to how Warhol is reinterpreted today as the producer of 'idea image' rather than a mere Pop artist by a certain critic. What we lack is the spirit of contextualization, for example, you have produced some new installations and images, but no knowledge is out there to provide a reading of such new articulations. Perhaps the media – in a limited way – could have filled in the gap. Do you feel that we have not been able to produce enough critical literature?
There are various different factors that have contributed to such stagnation. One important issue is that a critic is unable to survive professionally in Bangladesh. Another huge gap can be indentified in the method of teaching – there have been no effort to incorporate critical thinking in the curricula. As you said knowledge is important, but also it is a fact that as postcolonial society our problems are more complex. The hegemony of western knowledge we are faced with… we must be capable of negotiating that. We are not even prepared to tackle this. Yet in our art, by the virtue of a natural process – or organically – there is an articulation of an indigenous sensibility. The onus to unfold it lies on the people who are engaged in generating critical literature. Had this aspect of indigenous sensibility been contextualized, or nurtured, the new generation of artists would have thrived along that line. I feel that we are impoverished in this particular field.
I believe that the time has come to trash the colonial legacy which burdens us to this day. Today we are being faced with what many refer to as Global Ethnicity, so the world itself is progressing towards a global ethnic identity where diversity is valued. Being a citizen of a postcolonial country we need to negotiate this – it is of prime importance. The bridging between western and indigenous/local knowledge needs to be established.
Recontextualization of local knowledge is also important – many are trying to do that. By reframing Lalon Fakir in relation to western knowledge Salimullah Khan, in a recent lecture, draws an analogy of Lalon's system with that of the Lacanian triad…
Yes, I feel this is what is needed at this moment. As we can never really turn away from western knowledge.
An ethnocentric position would be a foolhardy one – it will not stand the test of the time…
In the name of decolonization if we cast a position which is fundamentalist or purist… it would be an utmost foolishness on our part.
That the exchanges between cultures go back a long way, it is important that we focus on how we enrich ourselves through all kinds of exchanges, and how we are able to enrich ourselves by such acts.
What needs to be decoded is, I think, is 'inferiority complex'. Our standard will not be western art – for a particular artistic practice is always related to the individual's feeling, emotion and reality. So, I as an artist don't need to care about standards imposed from above.
We need to develop our own standards…
Exactly… and that is why I feel that local knowledge is very important.
I always feel that what is considered global knowledge – one way or another – springs from personal experience. Thus, it is related to the location one is part of. Any knowledge will remain relevant only if it is focused on issues – be that 'universal' or 'local'. What is important is how we as locals are generating knowledge through negotiations at all levels. Knowledge helps to finally cast a position, which to me is the most important task. The dichotomy of universal-local is problematic to me.
Herbert Read once said that artists work 'in opposition to the crowd', in reference to your recent exhibition I can assume that what you have addressed is linked to a collective experientiality. The reference to dried shapla frames the collective through the botanical. Here, an individual is articulating a voice to address the collective – it doesn't matter whether the process is conscious or unconscious. Where do you situate your current practice in this regard?
A person is not an isolated individual; there are various different aspects that connect him/her to the entire society. I personally feel that whatever I do turns out be a 'social diary' of sorts; somehow history, collectivity and plurality inflect my work. The psyche of the lone individual has never really made me sway. What I personally am affected by or driven by is somehow connected to the social phenomena. The subjective thus, never overwhelms me as in my work the social reality is made to appear… and multivocality is what is being addressed through what I do as a person.
Do you intentionally play with the symbols – so that they would be naturally received by the entire Bengali population?
I have noticed how some artists make art, full of references to the individual creator. I try to avoid such referencing.
You try to stay outside of the 'self'… Is this a conscious effort, or just part of your stratagem?
I avoid the narcissistic element… it is true that as an artist I like to capture the collective spirit of the multitude. My position is both conscious and unconscious. On the one hand, I am consciously addressing the issue which relates to the multitude… and the other aspect to it is that I do it as part of art making ; so it is a combination of the two.
At times I am compelled to address issues that are linked to the site of mass killing. Such a phenomenon is linked to our collective realization. In my earlier installation Water is Innocent, I interiorized the pathos and problematics that beset a community. The huge work simply resulted from my regular visit to that community of this indigenous people. Or, for example, the installation which I conceived after the death of one of my student Sanjoy, who was killed… that very first installation is linked to that murder which is a reflection of a social-political phenomenon. I always try to grasp the ungraspable in the context of my society and the phenomenon through which I arrive at the themes.
One last question: the way the new generation is working in a climate where there is insufficient or no opportunity to receive a thrust from within the art world, what do you feel that they need to pay attention to most?
I always feel that it is a two-way traffic – what they are giving and receiving both need to be taken into account. They need to be aware that in producing art they have this obligation to find out for themselves whether or not their works are context-specific. Even if their art is something which intentionally decontextualize, they need to produce a recontextualized account of that. In the name of globalization we are talking about diversity; whereas, we are also, often, given to homogeneity, and this is hurting the current art scene. The young needs to guard against such a culture of sameness.
Elimination was hosted by Bengal Lounge from December 6, 2012 to January 6, 2013.