Sympathy for the othered in Shahid Kabir's recent works
With the tendency to see the sublime in the mundane, Shahid Kabir brings to the canvas glimpses of the peripheral and the marginal – namely, artists' models, shadhus and floating people – the othered individuals whose voices are never heard in the aestheticized environment of the elite society. Not that he attempts to lend them a voice they deserve to have, or subverts high with the low; what he accomplishes is a detour by depicting his chosen locus and its inhabitants in portraitures or by capturing an unassuming moment in the lives of his models. By doing so the artist acknowledges their existence, thereby elevating both space and inhabitants, through aesthetic reconnaissance, onto the level of 'being'.
Kabir paints passionately, keeping in mind the entire gamut of sensibilities he has developed an attachment to – summed up in what we may call the essence of life and the erotics of living. By achieving a nostalgic patina through application of mild impasto and a painterly fluidity the artist captures his subject matters that also include objects as references to the lives of his models.
Both humans and objects serve as a point of departure for the artist to celebrate and mediate the low-brow setting aside the highbrow, not in line with what preceded in the form of European avant-gardism (recognizable in Picasso's portrayal of prostitutes with a vengeance), but in tune with A Pair Shoes and Potato Eater a la van Gogh. The Moderns of the Shantiniketan school who chose to lend primacy to Santal existence or rudimentary life, can also be mentioned in passing, only to travel further into Anselm Kiefer's realm where landscape assumes a symbolic gesture. Kabir sticks to the simple diction based on the vastness of a near-sensorium schema a la Kiefer, yet this only serves as a springboard to enter the alter-space which is laid out in landscape format; and the dematerialization which helps this fifty-plus artist to set his personal tone of expression, can only be seen as an extension of that schema.
The European Moderns, whose narrative was soaked in declassed individualism during the times of the avant garde, which was later subjected to huge perceptual and strategic overhaul, courtesy of the artists of the post-avant period in Germany (Kiefer, Beuys), Paris and Spain (members of the Arte Povera), one may deduce that Kabir chooses to avoid all such complexity to opt for a linear, noncritical imagery. As he develops an aesthetic attitude towards the low-brow existence of his models and objects, he does so by abstracting them from the web of social reality. Their travails of destitution and the struggles for survival are set aside to lend them a 'humanity' they otherwise lack when looked at through the lens of development narrative. Therefore, the sufferings and the miseries are replaced with an erotic awareness of their presence – where the essence of life is sensed in the simplest of things, as one discovers in Shelter, where a tiny red shoe is placed beside a huge boot, or in Drying Her Only Saree, where poverty is hinted at, but the representational technique is rather nuanced with painterly gestures. Thus, his world lies at the convergence of gestural abstraction and expressionistic figuration and he avoids the brutality of the real while celebrating the 'difference', compelled most of the time, by a painter's gaze.
Kabir achieves the painterly gestures by building up layers of paint. He never starts with a plan, because it is simply more interesting to him to not know what is going to happen before it's actually happens. He works on many layouts before arriving at the final visual scheme . Thus, it is with landscape that he works his magic upon the viewers. Way to My Root, Bnaripara, Barisal, or Burning Sky, testifies to his ability to augment the pleasure of viewing, which is his prime goal.
Kabir had attained fame for his series on Lalon and Baul as early as in the 1980s. He left for Spain in 1981, only to resurface in the Dhaka art scene in 1997 after a gap of 17 years. And as he came back home, he did so with gusto introducing a simple idiom that thrives on depiction, or rather, on creating an impression of every-day reality and objects. Water vessels, teapots, flower vase and rotten fruits thus serve as metonymic reference to a world where one roams with empathy as guide. Brick fields, riverscapes and working women also appear in his paintings. The overall look is faded and unembellished, evoking a sense of pathos. His solo exhibition was held at Shilpangan Gallery where the artist departed from his pet theme of mysticism or the life of the Bauls.