Of sacred signs and places: Shadi Ahmed's itinerary of faith
Whoever ascribes qualities and qualifications to God cannot actually believe in His Unity.
–Hazrat Ali (R), Sermon 191, Nahj-ul-Balagha (peaks of eloquence), translated by Seyyid Muhammad Askari Jaferi.
Pilgrim's Journey' is how Professor Manzoorul Islam describes the exhibition which the artist framed as an homage to the presence of Sufi Islam in Bangladesh. With some obvious correspondence to piety, this exhibition by Shah Syed Khwaja Mukaddas Shadi Ahmed Mokadesur, a name that links him to Sufi bloodline, cuts a swathe across the cultural landscape where the constants of Bengalihood and the belief in linear progression of history weigh heavily upon the discursive domain. Thus the images developed using mostly etching on paper can be seen as rearticulation of 'faith' in a purported age of 'faithlessness'.
Since Ahmed is disinclined to address the ontological truths, or the phenomenological correspondence of the body (with regards to the particular) to the transcendental truths (concerning the eternal), apparently it is the 'seduction' of faith which he mediates in the series of etchings which he so deftly brings into alignment with Dhaka's contemporary trend in printmaking. Signs and epistemographies (images fraught with knowledge) of religious significance serve as the basis of Ahmed's leitmotif(s). The exhibition entitled Reflection of Spirit, therefore, can be perceived as a cultural acknowledgement of the presence of Islam in this region made accessible/readable through the sacred semiosis where the holy Ka'aba, the crescent moon, the most popular name of the creator and the name of the prophet as well as that of the four religious 'leading lights' recur. Instead of resigning to allegories and stories Ahmed tasks himself with remembering the sites of history and religiosity. The holy Ka'aba, the Karbala, alongside the dargahs or shrines of the Sufi dervishes as well as the holy diagrams of talismanic significance become his sites of demonstrating his faith in Islam. In fact a greater part of his images take their cue from the talismanic diagrams.
In the Bengali construction of nationhood, Islam appears more like an ungainly invader on the cultural horizon. In the rabid nationalist zeal some even devalue the historical background of actual absorption of Islam into the social fabric at a time when excesses of Brahmanism was unleashed on the majority of the population aiming to establish an immutable caste system. Though there were other extensive moments of interruptions – some predating the arrival of Islam (Jainism and Buddhism) and others that ran parallel to it (Chaitanya Vaishnavism), the dervishes of mostly Turko-Afghan origin played an important role in the weakening, if not total dissolution, of the Brahmanic hegemony. These were the mediators responsible for bringing the Sufi exegesis to the then Eastern part of Bengal. Though the entry of the Sufis into the Eastern zone of India in the post-Bakhtyar Khilji mayhem sufficiently attest to the civilizing spirit 'political Islam' had once set in motion, Sufis, by and large, proved to be an inclusive coterie who regularly played host to the holy men of different stripes. This bit of historical fact has been lost in this era of confusions about religion: as faithfuls we confuse external signs and formalism as the only means to religiosity, and as unfaithfuls we readily entrap ourselves in a fixed notion of non-exegetic or nondevotional Islam. Ahmed, in this uneasy context, attempts to insert his inheritance of faith by way of inviting a set of sacred signs into his imagery. The 'self-remembering' which Rajneesh once suggested to be the most important mission of the Sufis, in his seminal book The Perfect Master: Talks on Sufi Stories, seemed to have no place in Mukaddas' realm. He is young, and it will not be an understatement to assert that he has managed to come to know the world of religion by traversing the 'easily readable' signs and symbols.
As an artist he is heir to Rokeya Sultana, who mentored him during his student years while he was completing his Master's. Through the process of layering of images, the artist achieves the nuances which are clearly medium-specific, which makes him beholden to his teacher. Chine-collé – the technique of placing a fine colour paper on the original backing sheet to be transferred to the final print to achieve variations in background colour, applied to many of his images, also recalls his mentor. Yet, Ahmed has managed to bring his own brio into his works through the techniques he has so far been able to master, and through which his personal journey into the religious imaginary is dispatched into the realm of the arts. One stands witness to a man in a heavy robe – a devotee – whose figure appears like an apparition in many an etching. This figure is most discernible in the work Holy Mecca and Me, where the reference to the 'self' becomes obvious through the title. In another work entitled Allah Te Jar Purna Iman Kotha She Musalman (where art thou, Muslims who are devoted wholly to Allah), the same figure dissolves into a phantom. The latter etching makes visible layers of areas treated with lines and aquatint taking the forms of multiple gates which appear to cast the world in near-geometrical composition, perhaps to suggestively tackle the mystery associated with the world of the lone 'devotee'.
Layering of imagery and linearity in execution are the twin conduits through which Ahmed's works achieve their aesthetic individuality. As he sets out on an itinerary punctuated by the holy places and symbols, the nuances that appear are visual rather than narrative in essence. The images are heavily dependent upon the established metonymic signs and are enjoyable for the subtlety of their treatment. While some are linked to martyrdom, as is Shahdat-e-Karbaala, others are about the places of reorientation – as is evident in the work, Dargha Sharif of Hazrat Shahjalal (RA). Ahmed's two separate itinerary – one of the medium and the other of his faith – thus come together to rest on the idea of image as a vehicle for religious passion released in relation to established epistemographies.
‘Reflection on Spirit’, Ahmed's second solo exhibition of prints was presented at the now defunct Dhaka Art Center, from November 9 to November 13, 2014.