Sites re-formed, objects transmuted
Artist KAZI SALAHUDDIN AHMED speaks to MUSTAFA ZAMAN on the occasion of his recent solo,
(In)site, to reflect on his art of deconstruction andreconstruction of sites and Dhaka's
mutation into an unlivable cluster of indefinable spaces.
Mustafa Zaman: I am holding in my hand the catalogue from your 1993 exhibition – when we were at Dhaka Charukola, we had discovered a new artist – in whose language abstraction conflated with references to urban reality. It was something of a new experience for the viewers in Dhaka; I would like to know about the background of such newness in the context of your art practice spanning the last twenty or so years.
Salahuddin Ahmed: The exhibition through which I entered the mainstream art circle was entitled Times of Distress… and it had all the tell-tales of the dire straight our family was met with at that time. I had decided to tackle this in my work; but as I went about it, through an organic process, I started linking our plight with that of the cityscape. I remember how this place – Old Dhaka – was the first to take the onslaught of the Pakistan army in 1971. As a child in love with kite flying, I grew up in a place that had a character of its own. It was in 1971 that we witnessed the destruction of some of the structures by the Pakistan army. I remember one building that bore the name 'Mangal Abash' – an early Twentieth-century structure built in an European style. The only reason for the attack was that the inhabitants were Hindu and its façade had cupids and other French-style figurative sculptures as decorations. For me, this image of destruction served as the point of entry into landscape, or cityscape. As a child prone to kite flying, the panoramic view of the city has always stimulated me. I grew up in Dhaka and the city – its spaces are integral to my existence. It seems as if it would be hypocritical of me if I drew on rural landscape rather than my own surroundings.
This is an important point through which urban artists or art students usually prefer to align themselves with the nation. We develop a romantic notion of art often showing a sentimental attachment to it – which is unconnected to our reality, something imposed. What we sense in your art is a response from an inhabitant of Old Dhaka to the destruction of its physical fabric and the unremitting changes which are playing havoc with its existence. You have shown over the years two divergent ways to address the Old Dhaka situation – one is through references to fragments and the other is through the sheer presence of a panoramic view – a full-fledged landscape.
As I said earlier, I grew up in Old Dhaka, where it is impossible to get a view of the horizon – it has been a dense area since my childhood. Sky was an important locus to me as it served as an imaginary landscape. For me there were two different landscape motifs – sky is one and the other is the actual habitat, that is Old Dhaka – the built environment, where spaces are structured and are cramped with buildings. I try to align these two; hence my images attain an abstract quality. I draw my elements from the physical world, but I infuse them with an abstract quality as if these are games I devise to lead to the final aesthetic solution. I play around with the idea of sky and its representation, and I also play around with structures, landmasses. I often incorporate some elements that are part of this technique – a red triangular flag, or a broken building, and the compositions of such images are always asymmetrical. One important point to remember is that I never used photography as my reference to the cityscape – memory is prioritized over all other empirical evidences.
Real life experience is what you treasure most; and reality is the only springboard.
Reality is the only springboard. I used to roam around the city and once back to the studio, since I never brought back any actual evidence in the form of photography, I used to depict my mental images in a few quick sweeps of brush. There is this series entitled Walls of Memory, where I try to reminisce the act of painting on walls – the scratches we used make to render visible recognizable images. And there was a time when I used to detect landscapes in weathered walls. So, when I refer to landscape – I do so by way of aligning the God gifted spaces with that of the man-made.
Looking at your language I always wondered about one of its defining features – abstraction. How do you think abstraction has moulded your language? You have referred to the sky as something of an abstract realm, as far as I know Mark Rothko too has turned to abstraction through the concept of the sky and landscape is an important point of entry into his creation. For him, the sky represented the heavenly realm. Do you think, for you, the congested urban location has played a part; is it a way for you to transcend your immediate reality?
The abstract and the real – they are laterally situated. We notice the real but we fail to acknowledge the abstract most of the time. The city – the built environment and the sky both inspired me and we all live in their midst, but some may notice the presence of the sky, some may not. In my landscape-like works I have successfully aligned the two. And the reorganization that takes place in the space of the canvas or paper, it is arrived at through a natural process. I do not impose a condition, I feel that as we operate in the real world we become abstracted (from the real) at one point and one enters one's own world.
At one point, bird's- eye views are dealt with/deployed in your paintings; I would like to look at it as ascension to a new plane. You began with fragments – referring to Dhaka's urban realities, and then you gradually came to a point when you began representing a macro-level map of the location, or locations. You have first ventured into such panoramic vision in the exhibition entitled Deconstruction, and segmentation is also an important part of this schema. How did that come about?
Considering duration, the longest I worked on a series is during the City of Memory paintings. The moment I started doing landscapes from the bird's eye view, I felt like waking up from a slumber. I am drawing this analogy as I became aware of how human beings have this obnoxious capability of destroying nature. As we progress, we occupy more and more of nature… once Old Dhaka was the only habitable city; the rest of Dhaka mainly consisted of water bodies and green lands. The transformation of natural landscape into urban zones made me sad – this chapter of history really affected me on a deep emotional level. What followed is a series entitled Deconstruction which began around 2000 and addresses the problematics of the city. I wanted to challenge the current notion of the city and its wholesale transformation. The series can easily be considered the first step towards reconstruction – which entails a lot of destruction or deconstruction in order to re-organize everything in a planned manner – to make it livable as I feel, the city itself has turned into a space which is inhabitable. I remember, Dhaka has once been place where every house had a character of its own; even the entrance to a house was unique, different form the house right next to it. What we now experience is homogenization. So my ascent to the position from where I am able to get a bird's eye view is something that resulted from my grave concern about how flagrant we have become in destroying a city in the name of development. Red, orange and even dark hues became a way for me to symbolize this crisis.
Segmentations become an important strategy for you. It is not only plain bird's eye view that you wanted to create as you veered towards this new direction. I believe, your concerns about the composition echoes the emotional response to your habitat.
From bird' eye view I veered towards the collages I started to make. If Dhaka is a destroyed site, it also has its magic. So, I always felt that the companies have no qualms about turning this city into a concrete jungle; especially the multinational companies that are marketing humans, making profit at the cost of humans. Notice how advertisements are taking over the newspapers – the same transgression is seen in real sites. Newspapers are a reflection of society at large – be that rural society or urban society. In the series that I created using newspaper as backdrop, even the main scheme of the segmented imagery is newspaper. Newspaper and bird's eye view are united in this series. There are texts – stories for one to gorge on – in these paintings. It's a collage of stories that are the basis for each painting – the news items on people's plights, their contentment, and things that dominate our lives, etc, etc,–confronted with these images, most viewers take to reading the collage materials sourced from the print media. Waste materials are important to me, in my recent works I use cardboard. I piece together the fragments and rebuild the city from scratch. The processes are important – as through them I challenge myself and surprise myself. Like a nomad, I always wait for surprises. I got tired of City of Memory and then I began to do bird's-eye view paintings, after that, Deconstruction provided a way for me to experiment with broken-down structures, and from that I swerved towards works that are grounded in newspaper collages, and now I am resorting to cardboard cartons. I keep changing my medium and methods to see what is achieved through these changes.
Take for example, cartons- these are cheap and widely available in Dhaka. What seems interesting to me is that, you collect materials from your habitat. In Bangladesh, there are abstractions which are simply forgetful of the habitat. Poet Al Mahmud once said in an interview to the Daily Star: There is a good bit of difference between my poetic strategy and that of the poets of the 1930s (Kollol era poets), I have a village where I belong, which they either had to renounce due to Partition, or did not care to return to. The signs of the habitat are an important point of departure for you. Conceptually you frame your works from within your habitat, and additionally you seek materials that are from your location.
Found objects – which are of no particular value – like newspapers that we discard on daily basis... from cardboard to bamboo chatai – I have tried them all as my surface. There is a carton factory near my house, and I saw how the pieces were amassed and how they expressed a certain materiality which inspired me to use them. I feel that painting and image making is not a big deal – if one is able to transform one material into another, that is art. The sensibility one develops is invested in attaining another object through coordination. Material is not a huge factor – what is important is how one is applying the material to achieve one's goal. Every artist should have a unique way of making art.
The process is important…
Yes. The process is important. Carton has been used by many an artist, and newspaper too has been used by some artists in Bangladesh. If one's own process is prioritized, one reaches a unique end. I have imposed the scheme of the cityscape onto the collages I prepare.
You were talking about the difference between logic and emotion, in reference to your early works, where the emotive force helped create an atmosphere to the objects represented – dilapidated buildings, and the fluid rendition of the sky. We can divide the sky from the two objects – one is the fluid sky and the other is the tangible structures on the ground. The forms in use have shape, dimensions, and they give off a sense of solidity.
As memory was an important conduit through which I used to bring forth the landscapes I used to paint at an early stage, they were expressive. Emotion is my starting point, and as work progresses I try to control my emotion and exert logic to arrive at a final imagery. When emotion and logic simultaneously guide one, a good piece is the outcome. My later series are based on a logical consideration of space and compositions. And symbolism become a way to deemphasize emotion as is demonstrated in my references to the urban design seen from above and the extraneous elements such as, a news item, a picture from the magazine. And the surfaces such as, bamboo chatai and the cardboard pieces cut into geometric forms, they too served as symbols.
To me the cityscapes from your earlier phase also seem like a symbolic reflection on Dhaka's reality. Every image becomes a symbol – a way to form a sign that articulates a discourse. Image value equals their symbolic value. What I feel is that, the process has gone through a change and the earlier symbolic gestures have matured into a schematic articulation of such symbolism. It is a transformation of an emotional process into a logical one – where splintering of the space became an important conceptual element. Also, I want to allude to that Jibananandian word – bodh – You were saying that bodh is the most important element – how would you define 'bodh'?
Bodh is hugely important – the way one reforms a given material –the way a subject or an object is transmuted into an artwork – without the ability to interiorize it all and the ability to reform it all – one cannot become an artist. One's bodh or sensibility is of prime importance as we try to reform each and every form; in our everyday existence the very same principle applies. It is a way to rescue oneself from stagnation to achieve dynamism. If I am only able to look at cardboard as plain cardboard – we will end up with nothing superior to this material in the form of an idea or concept that we have to generate. So bodh is the driving force through which art is made. The artist must be aware of one thing – that he or she is in possession of the capability to manipulate an object/material, it is never the other way around.