Firoz Mahmud's instrumentalization of shifting metaphors
It is very difficult to stay in one place meditating on the issue of travel. To talk about travel is inevitably to engage in it, to mime through the movement of one's words that which one is trying to designate with those words…(The voyage) has a powerful ability to dislodge the framework in which it is placed or understood, to subject it to critical displacement – although that displacement is not always to where one expects, nor is its criticism necessarily what one expects to find. The voyage, in other words, always takes us somewhere.
– Georges Van Den Abbeele, Travel as Metaphor
The paradigms of the 'Global Contemporary' present a dominant narrative that has looked to the post cold war era of artistic production situated in the framework of a 'flat' world. In this context dramatic geopolitical transformations have taken place which changed the very basis and meanings of cultural and artistic production. Thereby the new global contemporary artist is almost taken for granted these days as one who speaks to the 'Universal' while still being situated socio-politically and culturally within the 'Local'. The problem this poses however, is that the movement from very singular identities to the idea of 'oneness' has often led to the inevitable erasure of already invisible histories. The weight of that in itself is tremendous. The argument, we find, then falls into the rhetoric of a binary that the very essence of the 'Global Contemporary' seeks to counter: a binary that is fatigued, be it West and East, East and East, colonial and the other, colonial and the postcolonial, capital and labour, war and peace.
We are at a point in contemporary cultural practice where the 'Global Contemporary' needs to be re-imagined. And one would argue that this starts with rethinking artistic practice and the artist as an individual. The framework to begin this lies in a singular and ubiquitous idea – travel, and more importantly, 'travel as metaphor', to borrow the title of a book by Georges Van Den Abbeele.
Abbeele presents a series of readings that examines the figure of travel in the writings of Montaigne, Descartes, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. He argues that 'each writer's discourse allows for the elaboration of a metadiscourse opening onto the deconstruction of the writers claims to a certain property (of his home, of his body, of his text, of his name)' 1. Now, travel as metaphor exists within two very distinct art histories – one being stagnant, visible, dominant, gender-defined and white, as embodied for example in Gauguin's 'Primitivism'. The second strain is invisible, in exile, transient, genderless and the 'Other', seen through artistic practices like that of Ana Mendieta.
It is within the latter that one would situate the work of Firoz Mahmud. From that point on his practice, along with an increasing number of artists and cultural producers who are not weary of geographic privilege or the lack thereof, moves in an entirely new direction. They use their transitory states of being as the only constant. In Mahmud's case there is a particular use of material, colour and scale to de-construct and re-construct what Van Den Abbeele refers to as 'property' – of home, body, text, nation and name.
As is often seen with a transitory practice the metaphors also lie in the medium and Mahmud uses many – from installation, Layapa Art (a stencil technique), text, video and photographs. His subject matter is based on Bangladeshi socio-political scenarios, myth, tradition and pop culture.
In Mahmud's work he moves effortlessly within a much layered practice. His roles shift and conspire between artist as activist engaging within the politics of a nation in flux, to bringing his ideologies to the forefront through a distinct voice that is somewhere within the spectrum of 'learned humour'. In Mahmud's work there is no urgent need to differentiate between an art conceived as plain propaganda and an art that avoids any such instrumentalization.
A good place to start an explorative analysis would be Mahmud's large-scale project Sucker-wfp21, exhibited at the Aichi Triennale in 2010. It consists of an aircraft-shaped sculpture, modelled after the F/A-18 Super Hornet, a ﬁfth-generation ﬁghter jet typically used by the US Navy. The surface of this sculpture was made using ﬁbreglass-reinforced plastic, cloth jackets, metal and was covered entirely in grains, cereals and beans that make up the typical Bangladeshi diet. This monumental 26 foot fighter aircraft considered the interplay of militarism and war produced through public tax and revenue. The work involved the use of pasting the 'Deshi' bean to the surface of the craft. Volunteers helped fix these beans onto the aircraft, over the course of 12 months. The craft in itself, resembled something that was less intimidating because of the material and the process – almost as if offering a space of meditation to think through these socio-political inequalities for all involved. Movement here was embedded in this interactive ritual between body, history and time.
This spirit of movement as metaphor is also embodied in Mahmud's practice as it shifts between grander political engagement and its intersections with personal hopes and aspirations. In the personal, there is poetry. 'If poetry disappeared it would mean that the possibility of dream is over...If you do not dream, you cannot survive.’2 Chilean poet Zurita's words echo a sentiment that reminds us of forms of expression which still remain raw and unabashed and therefore provide a seething commentary of the world today. A mirroring of this is seen in Soaked Dream, an ongoing project that began in 2009. In it, Mahmud constructs eye-glasses out of personal objects that belong to families. The 'family' then wears the glasses, painted a green, which is particular in its significance within socio-political contexts of Bangladesh, as they 'perform' their version of the ubiquitous aspirational middle class vision. Perception of the self and of its rhizomatic relations to history, geography and social functioning locates itself within the Dream. Dream locates itself within imagination as a mode of existence. Mahmud speaks to this.
He mixes the intangible narrative of history and contemporary issues with the tangible materiality of traditional techniques, materials and colour - green in particular - to construct a lexicon for the 'aesthetics of the political.' As Mahmud explains, 'I think both strategies of art-making and the technical aspect are important for making art. I believe that technique and skill are necessary for creation. Primarily personal touches and intellectual nuances should be relevant to create work and it is dependent on content that influences the work.' Mahmud therefore builds through a deliberate process of de-construction and re-construction.
In The Urgency of Proximate Drawing (Ninki:UoPD) Art Project, Mahmud focuses on celebrities in excited, playful, sporty and happy moments. The series has had multiple iterations including the Sharjah Biennale 2009(UAE), Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA Hiroshima), Asbestos Art Space & City Billboards, Bandung (Indonesia), Yuga Gallery by B.A.D. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (Japan). 'Ninki' is a Japanese word which means popular. The works are a set of drawings on photographs that consist of numerous archetypal images of popular celebrities including Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Zinedine Zidan, Diego Maradona, Shoaib Akhtarand Asashoryu Akinori. They are all popular icons in the fields of entertainment and sports, who have been plagued by controversy for one reason or another. He is literally creating building blocks of the imperceptible kind for these figures. Here movement is literal. In a way Mahmud is thinking through both, the architecture of the Body, as well as the architecture of the Self in relation to constructed spaces. Architecture at a fundamental level creates a space for formulating meaning for what is otherwise just 'empty' or 'nothing'. The literal act of making four walls encloses this nothingness and in it we create 'meaning'. These spaces that were otherwise voids become familiar to our own physicality: the intimacy of a bedroom, the solitude of a study or the communal vibe of a landscaped backyard. These hold value and give our otherwise wandering souls a sense of belonging. It also reinforces the relationship between one human body and another. Within these constructed spaces the relationships between one person and another are constantly (re)defined, and most importantly they are remembered by the trace of memories in the making or by nostalgia.
In Mahmud's hands these spaces and relationships offer a further narrative that is post sentimentality. There is a sense of an unending cycle – the invisible that was made visible is being made invisible again. What we 'see' in Mahmud's Ninkipop images is essentially the unseen. He is constructing a trace or a memory through the absurdity of the physical movement, all of which is essentially nothing but the void. Mahmud gives us a visual iconography rooted in humor and satire.
In his mixed media drawings Distance of the Past, this seemingly disparate use of forms and materials is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mahmud's practice. What it does is relate his ideologies to that of artists like Naeem Mohaiemen where remaining less 'repetitive', or not adhering too strictly to a 'series', allows for a certain autonomy of practice that cannot be co-opted by dominant narratives of art history. This autonomy of the narrative is further employed as a process when Mahmud places it squarely within the annals of history, subverting the dominant narrative we consume without questioning. One particular series of Lapaya stencil paintings looks at the Battle of Plassey, considered to be an important juncture in the history of the Sub-continent and Bengal. In presenting his protagonists, who are recognizable historical figures, in states of lamentation and loss Mahmud re-imagines it through his own transience within the contemporary. This delibrate displacement of story, place and body encompases the grander aspects of process, practice and the hand of the 'artist'. For artists such as Mahmud, being geographically situated within a very complex network of social, cultural and political contexts that are in a tenacious state of flux, it becomes imperative to not be part of any one history. Travel is not just metaphor but a literal state of being as well. Born in Bangladesh, living and working in Japan and moving between countries, cities, borders and nations allows for the artist to be a 'producer' of many histories and not just someone speaking to, or reflecting a particular story. As Mahmud articulates, 'Art is a media to explore, to traverse with mind and material and compassion for everyday life. Aside from these, I make work that involves a time frame for longer sessions to make large scale installations and sculpture which involves society, locals and ardent supporters.' Mami Kataoka in her essay Strata of Conflict, writes about the artist stating, 'The practices of these artists, who are forced to confront the uncertainty and ﬂuidity of both the political and natural environment that lies before them, can perhaps also be seen as a series of instinctive actions that question the very nature of what it means to exist.’3 While Kataoka speaks to 'a singular and distinct outlook on the world [that] emerges’4 from this, I would argue, that Mahmud's practice is representative of a shift in contemporary practice set forth by many who find power and autonomy to be an integral part of art-making, and they achieve this by remaining in a state of mutability.
- Georges Van Den Abbeele, Travel as Metaphor, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p.38.
- Raul Zurita, Interview, Accessed Dec 22nd 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/The-relentless-fundamentalist/articleshow/50242903.cms
- Mami Kataoka, Strata of Conflict, Firoz Mahmud, artworks 2003-2011, ed. Barbara, James Jack, Aryan Snowball (USA: Fact Publishing, 2011), pp. 10-11.
- Ibid., p. 10.
MEENAKSHI THIRUKODE is a writer, researcher and curator currently based in New Delhi, working at Exhibit 320 and its non-profit space 1After320. Meenakshi graduated from the masters program at Christies Education in New York. Her writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Art Asia Pacific, Art India, Whitewall Magazine, The Hindu Newspaper and TAKE Magazine amongst other national and international publications.