Straddling the line between war and peace
Murtaja Baseer, one of the moderns who veered towards abstraction in the 1960s, and, in retrospect, can now also be considered an artist who revised his scheme of operation many a times, had a modest showcasing at Gallery Kaya of his acrylic works and paper collages from the last two decades. With drawing as his mainstay, often providing the basis for his language throughout his career, his practice often forked into two divergent tendencies. In this exhibition, Murtaja chooses to withdraw from the world to settle for an idealized representation of women in some of the works, and in others, especially with the collages, he gladly unleashes some volley of considerable political weight by pointing a finger at the human scourge in the twenty-first century – the colonization that continues in the post-colonial era.
Baseer, who chooses not to draw a single line without a logical explanation, also ventures out into an irrational territory. He constructs composite pictures where a woman's body is subjected to strange mutation, indicating the asymmetrical treatment meted out to women who, in a violent world, constantly struggle to eke out an existence.
Needless to say, he has often been a politically and socially motivated painter as were so many of his compatriots, who, like him, once formed the 'left' legion within the aesthetic domain trying to bring the political closer to the aesthetical in their early lives. Their paintings and political activities were a way for them to decisively breach the borders between the artistic and the political. Though the political zeal gradually wore thin over the years, it is a historical fact that they were responsible for an artistic life where activism and politically loaded artistic languages sat easy with aesthetic concerns.
In contrast to his political pieces, Baseer's female visages and full figures, which now emerge as his main theme, are a reminder of his poetic figuration of the early years, when he began his career in the late 1950s. In this exhibition, figures are treated as portraitures having been assertively invested with the distinctiveness of personality of each sitter in the series of acrylic on canvas works. Like Picasso, Baseer is 'conscious of the need to depict the difference in each portrait'. With some, he simply takes the liberty to apply hues and lines, remaining focused on their formal qualities, such as accentuated lines and simplicity of expression, so much so that the reference to the human presence is almost effaced, as in She 2, where the contour line almost jumps off the canvas and becomes a defining element in the composition independent of the face it outlines.
Baseer's urban, semi-urban, upper class and upper middle class sitters now occupy smaller canvases since his collapse into a coma last year, from which his return was uncertain. Now that he has managed to pick up his brush again, one sees a measured attempt at producing works that bespeak his engagement with portraitures perceived as a means to determine a linguistic valance rather than attempt good likenesses.
The artist was greatly influenced by the paintings of the Byzantine and early Renaissance period, alongside that of Picasso, where the painterly conceit revolved around formal rigour – either through the geometrical divisions introduced to the painted space or the architectonic quality forcefully given salience. The works on canvas put on display on the occasion of his solo consist of a series done in oil pastel. After a long hiatus, he has again engrossed himself with this particular medium, because the physician advised him not to use acrylic and oil, which are considered harmful. Murtaja first worked in the medium in 1954, when he took a class in the Teachers Training Certificate Course (Art Appreciation Course), in Asutosh Museum, Calcutta (now Kolkata). He delved into self-portraits and it is only later that he took up other subject matters to be explored in the same medium.
However, during 1992 and 1993, Baseer worked on a series of portraitures of the women representing the upper crust, often bringing to the fore the sensuousness associated with how they wore saris and other traditional attires displaying a curiosity for hair colouring, smoky eye or mascara-laden eyes, sleeveless blouse and semi-visible bra stripes. In 2003, he returned to his female figures where the sensual was replaced with the sophisticated and refined look, often exuding a personality associated with erudition or middle class propriety without resorting to veils.
In this exhibition, with collages, Baseer demonstrates a willingness to tackle human travails from entirely new loci to decisively address the disquietitude that descended in the wake of successive imperialist interventions across the globe.
The artist shakes off the formal vocabularies he has been known for, which he employed throughout his career. He now seeks to explore the potentialities of the sensory impact of image on the psyche constructing compositions using scraps and cutouts scavenged from popular magazines. Though he first took a stab at collage in 1973, while residing in France, his second stint only began as late as in the early 1990s. Having settled in Chittagong, where he taught, it was by accident that he embarked on a series of collage. He discovered at one point that his stock of oil paints was exhausted and in the market the tubes he was habituated to buy were in short supply. Having nurtured himself in the spirit of the Parisian avant-garde of the last century, he soon planned to make a series of works to pay homage to four of his favourite iconic painters: Sandro Botticelli, Vincent van Gogh, Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. He wanted to revisit some works with the intention of providing modern interpretations of historical paintings. At first, he did a collage titled Birth of Venus: Homage to Botticelli, and that was the beginning of an interesting hiatus from his canvases.
The political idiom that unfolded in the same venue can be described as the polar opposite of the series of portraits that was rigidly cast around a template where contour lines stood accentuated to produce formal beauty. While collage itself follows a method where overlapping components converge into a composite image constituting a striated language, Baseer's preoccupation with the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, which quickly dissolved into disaster zones in the face of raging conflicts imperilling all and sundry, seems to have struck a chord with the viewers. The most poignantly framed critical image was a collage where the lady Liberty (Statue of Liberty) is seen squatting. An array of collages on paper from Liberty Now (based on the statue) to No More War seemed to have been forwarded both as a biting political commentary on the unending globalized wars and a strategy, however ad-hoc, to saturate the psyche with empathy.
If the radicalism of the collages is to be taken as an indication of the artist's ability to address man-made disasters, Baseer comes full circle with some of them, effectively recoding the narrative of conflicts that rage around the globe with Dadaist-Expressionist diction to express angst. He is also most unpredictable, even unsavoury to an extent, with this series. Isn't true art supposed to be interrogative rather than placid, as is evident in this exhibition.
The exhibition ran its course from September 12 to 25, 2014, at Galleri Kaya.