In search of a homeland
All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way. – Vijay Mishra
An intense yet subtle play of different shades of red and black in the horizon dotted with twinkling stars evoke the tones and texture of a city. Slowly, the city assumes an identity and soon the expressive lines suggest that we are looking at Brooklyn Bridge, and, yes, its iconic steel-wires and towers confirm we are, indeed, being offered a view of New York. The bridge that spans over the East River and connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn becomes thus a recurrent symbol of the plight of artist Azmeer Hossain as he was striving futilely to settle down in New York.
Impulsive and introverted, Azmeer Hossain had enrolled himself in the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme at the University of Dhaka in 1996. However, he left Dhaka abruptly for Montreal, Canada after a year. The trauma of a breakup with his beloved city had proved to be unbearable for him! Finding himself out of sorts in Montreal, Azmeer quickly decided to move to New York, the art capital of the world, hoping to find in it the perfect niche for his artistic endeavours.
The work that Azmeer has done during his thirteen years sojourn in NY is a classic example of first generation South Asain diapora art production. A major feature of such art is the obsession with loss of identity and the hunger for connectedness. The initial crisis of identity eventually gives way to a yearning for a home, and in the process a valid and active sense of self evolves from a journey that had begun in dislocation.
After all, art such as that of Azmeer results from the attempt to negotiate between the polarities of exile and homeland. The exiled/immigrant artist undertakes two moves, one temporal and the other spatial. Like diaspora literature, which according to Menna Alexander is 'writing in search of a homeland', diasporic art is painting in search of a sense of belonging to a new world.
The temporal move involves looking back on the past and this entails reexcavating one's past, reexamining one's roots, and reconnecting with one's traditions and customs, even as one tries to put new roots down. On one hand, one is dealing with nostalgia, memory, and reclamation as themes of art production and on the other is the future, beckoning one to immerse in the world one has adopted.
The spatial move involves deterritorialization and a reterritorialization, acts connected to travel/travail. De-territorialization is the loss of territory. It is both geographical and cultural. Diasporic literature and art are concerned mainly with spaces, landscapes, and journeys. Dealings with space in diasporic art production, as a result, involve movement between home and a foreign country, between the familiar and the strange, the old and the new. No wonder that contrasts and comparisons between the two spaces are frequent in the creative works of immigrant postcolonial authors and artists.
Caught between alienation and acculturation, Azmeer's life and work in New York was that of an outsider in an adopted land, one not completely able to adapt to the country that he had moved to but impelled by the desire to do so. The preoccupation of his painting of his NY years, to borrow a phrase from the South Asian Diaspora writer Bharati Mukherjee, was with 'the aloofness of expatriation' but he also had to venture beyond that mental space.
Exile and displacement, themes in some of Azmeer's work, give rise to a sense of disquiet and nostalgia but there is also a need to belong in them. The lonely bridge in the distant horiozon of Mindscape-17 is a symbol of his aloofness and at the same time an expression of his desire to bridge the new home with the original one. The span of the bridge is captured as reflected in the water, fragile and flickering. The sense of homelessness in the painting is accentuated by the recognition that he has not found a new home in the adopted country. The recurrence of Brooklyn bridge and seascape of Coney Island suggests his desire to connect to his original home now lost due to exile but he seems to seek solace in the breaking waves of the Atlantic on Coney Island.
Azmeer's colour palette varies from murky red to mud purple, to sad blue evoking a sense of melancholia and aloofness. But there is also a tranquil, mystical quality to his painting, of the kind often found in Abstract Expressionist work.
Trained as a printmaker, Azmeer's water colour paintings display the unmistakable rigour and draughtsmanship of the graphic medium. His ingenuity with watercolour has transformed the fluidity and wetness of the medium into the geometric discipline of the graphic print. Not surprisingly, then, his watercolour paintings can be mistaken for graphic prints. He wanted his raw desire to overcome feelings of aloofness, trauma and loss incurred in exile and a longing for reconciliation of what was left behind with what is possible in the new found land materialize through the restraint of a graphic medium. His message is his medium, to borrow a phrase from the Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan. Certainly, at one level Azmeer is trying to come to terms with raw emotions of displacement and at the other, is translating his sense of dislocation and nostalgia into the language of art.
Mindscape-28 is a reflection on the Atlantic seen from Coney Island. He divides his experience of the sea into six panels in trying to capture different moods and atmosphere. His canvas appears like a window through which he perceives the world outside. The Atlantic for him remains a distant reality, an experience to be perceived through the window.
Azmeer Hossain returned to Bangladesh, his homeland last year, ending his life in exile. The current exhibition showcases his works done in New York, but most importantly this show reflects the truth that identity is formed in motion across time and space and not in stasis.
What Azmeer's canvas explores can be summed up in the words of Susan Stanford Friedman: 'Home is created in the act of writing about what has been lost in leaving and what has been gained from moving from place to place'(Bodies on the Move: A Poetics of Home and Diaspora).
The exhibition was held on May 3 to 20, 2013, at Bengal Gallery.
ZIAUL KARIM is a curator and art critic based in Dhaka.