Performing the self
Dilara Begum Jolly speaks to Depart about her 30-year long practice traversing a spectrum of interests that includes gender, motherhood, moulvi-led Islam, imperialism, and industrial disaster
Mustafa Zaman: As an artist when did you first try your hand at what we often refer to as 'experimental' work?
Dilara Begum Jolly: Before I go on to shed light on that, I would like to stress the fact that my entry into the world of image-making had not been a planned one. It was rather a fluke that had me landed in art college in 1976. Though I had no prior preparation, the very process of art-making immediately caught my imagination. What piqued my mind was the prospect of finding my own voice. It is determining my aesthetic language that finally led to the question: where is my voice in the society? What inspired me – or rather spurred me to rethink my position – is the desire to know what are the barriers that curtail my journey, obstruct my voice… this is how the issue of gender was invoked as an inevitable consequence of the search for my own voice – to tell my own story. Also there was this aspect of seeing the world through a gaze that is patriarchal. As you know at art college artists like Novera was never recognized and women artists too perpetuated that seeing – one that never considered Novera as one of the modern masters.
As an artist you have never been totally engrossed in gender issues, as your praxis had always been layered with other social and political concerns.
Yes. That is correct. What led to raise a gendered voice from time to time is the fact that what I intend to do cannot always be materialized as I am a woman. And it is by way of tackling such a social reality that I started to address the gender issue. Art college, despite being the center of the gaze that failed to see Novera as a major talent, had an ambience at that time that had opened up doors of possibilities. Especially, the support I have received from my friends made a huge difference. It was here that I had the chance to meet people from different cultural fields. Prior to that, my mobility was rather restricted to a small social circuit. It was my mother who first ignited in me the inspiration to transcend all social barriers at a tender age; she used to say that women should become educated, and to achieve a voice of their own they need to be economically self-sufficient. My mother was a schoolteacher and it was her principle that had been etched in my mind forever. The idea of humane living too has been inculcated in me by my mother who thought it is in human nature to help others. My father too was a liberal man and he always made sure that my mother could do whatever pleased her.
The family environment too was important for your growth.
Yes it was. If a couple cannot achieve a healthy environment the family cannot thrive. The wellbeing of the husband and wife simply depends on their mutual striving for a healthy environment. What they had started or inculcated in me, I believe, I am putting into practice at present. It is not that no bars – those that may restrict the movement of any girl growing up in a middle-class family – were there.
The language of art – one that you and many of your generation began to use was informed by politics of their time. Quamrul was perhaps the guiding light for those who began to script politically fraught languages; one whose contribution we often overlook. I am talking about the surge of political art – or call it socially aware art, in the 1980s. The artists' group Shomoy alongside artists such as Rhitendra Kumar Sharma and Ra Kajol and others who made contributions in radicalizing the artistic space of that time, how do you sort of place yourself now in that playing field which was rather new back then?
I had friends who had this urge to break newer grounds and they were also given to progressive ideas; I too was a member of the Shomoy group. And Rhitendara was my classmate. But I was never a member of any political party, but I was politically conscious from the beginning. As I have already said that the issues at hand, had paved the way for me to co-opt a language that allowed me to address my own situation, my own existential realties. Arrived as I did from Chittagong, I was approached by Chhatra Union, and before that, while I was in Chittagong people involved in theatre activism had also wanted me in their group, but I was determined that the medium [art] that I was to explore would be the only vehicle to freight my own political thought. I defined my own area of interest in terms of my own political thoughts. And I need to add that the political voice in me was never a dominant one. I always thought that the things I wanted to say could be said by way of artistic means that I have chosen to explore.
Being a member of a middle-class family I was determined from the start not to be engaged in activities that might have been deemed unacceptable. I chose not to explore avenues for which I had to face obstruction and objection; I decided not to get involved in too many things which would have forced me to remain outdoors for too long which would have resulted in an end to my every venture/passion, so I had chosen one passion and that was art. I feel a momentary charge inside me when I work, when I set out to paint; whether I succeed or not, I enjoy that moment thoroughly.
One is able to determine phases in your creative journey as you keep scaling one rung after another. In my personal experience, your linearity seemed to have served as the bedrock; it has always determined your final imagery. And it can easily be linked to traditions that still prevail in the country – from pat paintings to Kolkata modernism to Bangladeshi artist Like Quamrul Hassan's indigenous modernism.
Let me clarify one thing first, when I was a student, the academy was a place where drawing and painting meant following in the footsteps of western naturalism. The way we used to draw from live models, and from still-life etc. were methods borrowed from the west. From the very outset I failed to accept this tradition from my heart.
I would like to add that the British empiricism and naturalism through which we have come to accept art as a vehicle of depiction – served as a test of ability.
The test of ability is exactly what I abhorred. Many a time I was advised by my friends and fellow students; you will not score well if you fail to follow the naturalistic way of depiction. The light and shade studies that consisted of imitating a few bottles amidst flowing drapery never suited me. While I paid less and less attention to model drawing as an academic feat, I supplemented my interest in art by contemplating folk art, kantha art etc. I myself was a collector of folk art. Those artifacts inspired me. Since the time when I was in third year, I began to deviate from academic naturalism. And it was probably in 1981 as part of Shomoy group that I began to critique the moulvi-led Islam – as it occurred to me that their interpretation of religion constrains my activities. I was amongst the few who raised a voice against moulvi-centered narrative of Islam. It was at this point that one of my friends Munna said to me that since you are concerned with political Islam why don't you read Laal Shalu. I navigated through Syed Waliullah's two more novels – Chander Amaboshya and Kando Nadi kando, and these three works spurred me to depict things drawn from the storyline, though I would not call them illustrational. Laal Shalu became a huge source of inspiration and I kept translating my ideas around this novel into paintings, drawings and prints.
Your art thus established a link with literature from early on…
So you have been intertextual from the start… as you have clarified already that you had drawn from folk art and objects, and later literature too became a source. Your text thus became connected to other texts.
I was attracted to Santal Jaum (yama) pat – I was fascinated by the vigour of depiction. Even Gazi pat was a source of inspiration for me and they helped me set the contour of the figures in my work.
Your art has gone through a change in the late 1990s. We have witnessed a change in approaches to art as a whole during that time – which included changes in the media. New mediums began to surface with their usage defined not only as plain experimentation into the medium but also as a means to capture the new circumstances as well as to negate some aspects of modernism. We see its impact on you – as in your recent performances. The change that resulted from the attempt to work across media has not yet been fully accepted here in Bangladesh. Those who follow norms set at the academia sees painting in relation to a set of abstract qualities – one cannot go beyond those. As for you, even in painting you have departed from norms by marrying it to kantha-like imagery and also by borrowing from folk tradition.
The treatment is folksy but actually my works are not folkish.
Some do try to replicate the source images. Your strategy has always been assimilation. The sensibility is folksy, as like Quamrul Hassan you strengthen your language by borrowing some of the features of folk art – one of the features is certainly linearity. You are not producing replica… many an artist has failed by attempting to do so.
I agree. Kantha has been replicated by some, and it is like reproduction of the folk motif or design.
As far as Quamrul's effort was concerned it was mostly about breathing new life into an old form of art.
Quamrul was a huge inspiration to me. I never walked on the paths he had traversed but he provided huge sustenance. And also while I was in Santiniketan I was simply taken by the copious supply of drawings from Mani da (K G Subramanyan). I have seen twenty or so trunk-full of drawings by him. For example he had shown me up to five hundred versions of fishes, trees, monkeys, turtles – everything had spurred him to produce drawings in immense quantity. I have witnessed the length a man could go to study an object. In relation to that we seem very, very unclear about our practice – one or two drawings seem enough for us. I feel that art too is a kind of a meditation and it takes a lot of effort to capture a particular emotion; this fact often escapes us.
I once asked him following an interview with Depart whether Parisian avant garde had any influence on him, he flatly said 'No', emphasizing that the tradition of this region had influenced him instead.
When I set out to draw I feel as if I am possessed by many, many things – they motor my act of setting out the contours. With pencil or brush in hand I am never driven by logic or thought – I just witness something appear. I have felt that this is always spontaneous. Suppose at one point I wanted to stop doing works based on and around the aumora or the placenta and wanted to explore other things. I have explored the emergence of aumora (placenta) in painting, installation and drawing. I can tell you that interaction with a particular mother had given me such a jolt that I still wonder how a few words from that mother could lead to many, many works. At the outset I was engaged in the political/social construction of motherhood, which is sometimes foisted on us. My direction changed as an acquaintance of mine who, following the death of her own mother, decided to marry her child off at an early age. I was arguing with this mother on her drastic decision. Her reply was clear cut – she felt that she had little time left before her death so she was determined that her 'responsibility must be completed before that.' The ceremony of akth (betrothal) was arranged to make the union official. The mother was insistent though the girl was resisting vehemently. Following akth the mother realized her mistake as she soon discovered that the family she had chosen would never be suitable for her child. The mother wanted to bin the fiancé, but at this point her daughter resisted saying that she couldn't be a prop in the hands of her mother. Given the social context, in such a situation the mother was overwhelmed by remorse, and she said 'If it were possible I would have taken my child back into my womb.' Eight days before the marriage ceremony, the mother died, and these words remained with me forever. It shows how in this time of crisis a mother was desperately thinking of reversing her act of giving birth. A mother is so powerful that if she decides she may stop the process of procreation which will impact the future of a civilization. These words moved me so much that it made me feel that a mother is so empowered that if she opts out – the world will stop. Following this incident I have kept returning to the subject of the womb in my art time and again.
Maternity as well as gender is a social construct as we know a woman or a man is compelled to behave from within a normative frame. But you have discovered a nuance that brings into view a rather emotional and traumatic side of motherhood.
I am sure that the works I have done exploring the emotion of that particular mother has yet to be encapsulated in a language that adequately harnesses my reaction to it. I am yet to accomplish that. I had been visited by similar dissatisfaction while I was engrossed in capturing the feel of Laal Shalu. Perhaps, this is why I keep producing a series on a particular subject matter. I always return to the same subject time and again to say to myself that I have tried but the concept keeps eluding me. After working on the placenta for many years, I thought I would give up producing a series on any particular subject for a change. Then Tazreen fire happened and I was so shocked that I felt compelled to produce drawings to underline the trauma. And then it led to this performance as it occurred to me that I will not be able do justice to the subject using any other media.
The attire you don in the performance, is it made of garment wastage?
I thought I would use garment wastage, but as they were too heavy to be used as a loose garment that I had in mind, I later changed to a very fine, thin and light garment called tissue fabric which is popular for it is cheap and has the feel of Muslin. I chose a colour which resembled dried blood. The performance was arranged on the rooftop of the Chittagong Shilpakala Academy and deliberately at a time of the day when the light of the setting sun makes the loose threads of my garb look like fire. After shooting the performance I said to Jihan (Jihan Karim) who was helping me with technical support, that the video will not look proper if the natural background is retained. While purging the footage off the background we discovered that if the colour is made intense the fringes of the garb resemble flame.
So you sort of arrived at that due to the media you chose to use. Especially the formal quality of this video is linked to the medium in use.
Yes. Light was an important factor in achieving that. For the first time in my life I could bring into my art what I personally felt inside me. The trauma and hurt that I felt got externalized to a degree. As you were referring to the use of new media earlier – I always had the knack for working across media. Though a student of Drawing and Painting I worked in parintmaking, watrecolour, drawing – the mediums that were then available to us. I have been with Mamoon (Dhali Al Mamoon) for so long, yet it never occurred to me that I would do installation. It was during the workshop organized by Porapara Artists' Space, when Seiji Shimoda came to Bangladesh for the very first time, that I became interested in performance. I was always too shy to try performance as an expression, it was while I was working with Seiji that I, a person who can never work without having a grasp of the subject, have been able to find my place in that language. I was ambivalent about my first attempt and was compelled to flee to my home in the evening when my turn came, but I got over it and came back to the venue. Three workshops later I realized that performance is the language through which I could express myself. The appeal that this medium has cannot be found in painting and other mediums. I started working with Porapara artists such as Palash, Jhuma, Ripon in an atmosphere of camaraderie. Although in the last couple of years I have ceased to do painting, but I continued with drawing and performance.
Don't you feel that medium is immaterial… what is important is whether you are able to arrive at an effective 'roop' or 'form' by way of employing a method or medium.
This can never be understood until and unless I choose to explore a number of mediums. This particular performance – one which has been turned into a video work – can never be replicated in painting. It is quite impossible to achieve the same effect using oil on canvas. I have always thought that it is best to remain open to all sorts of mediums.
Your entry at the last Asian Biennale was a sculptural installation.
I have used sponge in that piece and it looked a bit kitschy; and on the bed which was the central piece I had laid an especially-made garb, one that is also used in a performance video that I projected onto the wall. The work traces how the dream of a girl fizzles out in our society. The 'ghar' or 'the house' that becomes a singular motif of the dream that the society enforces on a girl-child is what sometimes becomes the source of her woe – that is what I wanted to excavate in this project. What I do to offset any dystopic imagery is agglomerating references to birds – a glut of them and also at times flowers.
In the paintings I have encountered in the last five years show congregations of birds. Most of these works are colourful – where we see marks that echo knatha stitches. But we also see a strange amalgam of nature and a critique of modern civilization. Tanks, guns, and artilleries share space with the Venus of Willendorf. If you could shed some light on your motive?
It all began with the Iraq invasion… my realization that, it was nothing but a sham – everything is part of a monopoly – led to a series of works. When I went to Brazil to join a workshop at Sekatera in 2004, where I submitted a project on womanhood; from the beginning the processes that I was subjected to was anything but offending to me. I had to go through an ordeal to get visa and had to leave a hand print before entering the country where I was awarded a residency for project on women. They were overtly vigilant. So I decided to work on the theme of world dominance; I realized that in my country this would mean nothing, but if I worked in Brazil on this issue I would at least be able to bring it to the notice of some people. With this thought at the back of my mind I carried on with my series where there were four paintings executed initially. Among those there were two that were overtly political where I also incorporated the American flag.
Still your work tilts more towards an aesthetic understanding of the world.
Later when I planned my solo exhibition at Bengal Gallery in 2006 I decided to base my works on this theme. It is at this point, while I was working with watercolour that it occurred to me that the soldiers are all like toys in the hands of the manipulators – they are the helpless victims. That is why I have made them extremely dehumanized – their bodies are turned into guns. The thing that I woke up to is that you cannot ever annihilate an entire population in a premeditated bid. The flowers that are popping out of guns and tanks are all a reference to the fact: if you have an agenda to finish me off you will not be able to accomplish your goal… if there are only two people left of my community the race will emerge once again. This belief has led me to imagery where I have depicted that liberty is being killed in other lands and she is emerging again and again from the soil; you kill people only to discover that the mother goddess is reappearing from the soil, that too in many numbers.
Politics and aesthetics are often perceived as two poles – which I reject outright as I feel that any text is connected to reality and also to other texts. So these two categories cannot be separated, they commingle in the space of art. You have a unique position in this context – at first glance your work seem to thrive on the aesthetic qualities which prompt one to say these are beautiful works – at least if we consider the works of the last five years. Yet politics is very much part of it. Is womanhood a factor here? As we often consider in traditional thinking that women are closer to nature, and even some feminists unravel a concept of womanhood that situates her in a primordial link with nature – as does Luce Irigaray. This bit is not plain social construction. What is your take?
Before answering that I would like to clarify that I was primarily focused on the maltreatment meted out to women in any society. Misfortune suffered by women were my main concern; after I was back in Chittagong from Santiniketan where I completed an advance course in printmaking from 1989-91, the rape of a girl student of the Chittagong University while she was on an outing with her boyfriend to the hills also prompted me to respond. The solo exhibition that I had had at Alliance Française, Chittagong, in 2004, provided for the first time in my life a chance to survey my own works displayed under a single roof. It was an early morning visit to the gallery that made me question my own practice – why should I always be critical. I have no obligation to be such that only the negative aspect would be dredged by me. Interestingly, I felt discomfitted looking at them. I began to question myself – I realized that everything – be that good or bad – is always played out in nature and Santiniketan certainly presented a unique natural setting. Following my return, through this awakening, at my solo, I can say that I entered the domain of nature. And I also started to notice things with renewed enthusiasm – the idea of a seed carrying a future world just seemed awe inspiring. I like to travel around a lot, thus nature is a constant companion of mine. Since my childhood the hills were my favourite retreat. At present I feel that I am bound up with nature.
In both places – Chittagong and Santiniketan – nature has a strong presence. There has been a surge in renewing one's understating of one's reality in Asia today, it had begun decades back. And women artists had a role to play here. You have mentioned about Iranian artists such as Sherin Neshat or Saadi Ghadirian, like them there are other artists who have ceased to be inspired by Parisian avant-garde and started to mine the domestic space. The Hero Artist of modernism does not inspire them any more. So this new sentiment for new language of expression, for new materials and methods to find one's own voice in the context of one's own reality… I would like to conclude this conversation with your reflection on all this. There is this strange idea prevailing in our society that installation is a borrowed concept, but the ones who are against it, are still tied to modernism's formalist development in Paris. An architect who pathetically mimic European modernist structure also has this obsession with folk art. But is it possible to tackle the contemporary reality we regularly confront by way of using folk art? And has anyone been able to show the courage to handle the Jaum pat, for that matter?
The narrative, the drawing, and what is explored in Jaum pat in terms of colour, that too is an intrinsic part of that language which has a particular temperament. If one is unable to achieve five by adding two and two together, then that art will not work. In order to transmit a certain emotive quality you need to surpass your given reality to reach a place which is always beyond interpretation/comprehension.
So the question of transcendence is a very important factor in art.
One cannot explain away art. If you are able to throw light on it by reasoning, or by explaining, yet in the end the place you reach with your art remains unexplainable. As for women artists randomly picking their own subject matters, it is the demand of time, and there are audience who are willing to listen to them at present. You know the woman named Raj Shundary – one who wrote an autobiography, she has provided me with much stimulation. I am interested in her time, her circumstances and her aspirations. It doesn't matter whether her works are replete with spelling mistakes or incorrect syntax. What I am set out to do is extract the rash (rasa) from her work, so the structural aspect is not that important. The rash is vital for society and that is exactly what society is now accepting as one of their own. Moved by her tale, I want to achieve similar state of emotion where art goes beyond the structure. It is exactly due to this fact that variations are being expected and are being accepted. How long do you think academic, realistic drawing will be able to incite response from the public? And the state of emotion I am talking about, it cannot be achieved through that kind of exercise. This, I feel, many have come to realize. I will site an example – the work – this video on Tazreen fire.
What is the title of this work?
Tajreen-nama (the Saga of Tazreen) When I first started to think about an accompanying music I started thinking in an illustrative mode. I began to collect sound of trees burning in the woods and many other things. Then suddenly one important source was revealed, a friend of mine collected bilaap or cries of the relatives of the deceased from the very site of the disaster at Tazreen Garment Factory. I had only been exposed to a few news items of Tazreen disaster before embarking on the drawings on this subject. The friend from whom I sourced the sound of wailing relatives of the victims saw my works and thought I must have been to the actual site, which I was unable to as Mamoon's exhibition was on at that time. That friend thought I was following the news relay, which I wasn't and later insisted since my drawings had spontaneously captured the reality she was witness to I should carry on with the project. Then it dawned on me that I need to perform this, mere drawing will not suffice. Before this, Abrahamovic's performance at MoMA, New York, made me rethink my entire life's effort invested in art making.
Which one was that?
The one in which she sits through the day. She acted like a mirror – her performance prompted me to look deep into issues, whether I have been sincere in pursuing my artistic goals. This strange performance raised me to a level that it got me questioning the very basis of my praxis: how far am I determined to go to prove my belief in my own work… if one is to reach the desired end one needs so much sincerity, so much honesty and hard work… there are no shortcuts. What is important is that one has tried – this is the source of ultimate ananda (ecstasy). That I am able to pursue artistic activities with joy, this is no mean achievement.
I agree. This is where we must say goodbye to you for now.