Unfolding multi-modernity vis-a-vis a singular category of analysis
Perhaps it is no mystery that having lived in a particular era, around 1950s and -60s in the then East Pakistan to be exact, some artists of different equipments negotiating modernity in their own terms reached a similar conclusion about what modern art should look like. In the unpublished part of an interview with Depart, in 2011, veteran modernist Murtaja Baseer unhesitantly equated the 'modern' with the 'geometric'. His argument centered on Zainul Abedin's perceived inability to muster the valence necessary to aid the internalization of modernity, which would have been possible by way of inflecting his language with geometry. The attempt Zainul made to modernize his praxis, according to Baseer, can only be described as a cursory engagement evidenced in his geometric phase. Important to note that Zainul's so called geometricized modern idiom incorporated the rural motifs of traditional dolls and the linear method of execution of the rural artists. Additionally, the phase lasted couple of years or so following his return from London where he received training in Slade School of Art, between 1951 and 1953.
Some years before the above interview, along similar line of argument, late artist Aminul Islam was also insistent on geometry being the guiding principle of modern art. In an interview with Shawon Akand, Islam put in context 'the tendency to geometricize' in relation to Cezanne who, through his 'creative mind … unconsciously incorporated' the 'scientific developments' of his time. 1
Both of the above artists occupy a special niche at the pantheon of modern art in this clime courtesy of their definitive pioneering roles. However, what they were never conversant with was the 'primitivizing principle' through which Picasso, Braque, and even Matisse sought to overwrite the history of Western art, a brave collective move which, though invited mainstream scorn as many a pedant saw it as an arbitrary culmination of modern-day pathologies, later became known as the radical beginning of modernism in Europe.
With Novera Ahmed reappearing on the horizon, one has now a chance to rescan what the early outburst of modern idioms in 1950s Dhaka had in them of value which one may consider as 'cultural capital'. If the career paths of the two modernists mentioned above are a guide, alongside the rest who, by the 1960s, joined hands in the collective march towards abstraction, the works produced during their pre-abstract phases clearly testify to their mild obsession with the grid. The method of striking a geometric harmony orchestrated through the division of the visual field served as a point of departure for most of these artists who were educated in Dhaka's first modern art institution founded by Zainul and his colleagues, which included young Mohammad Kibria who completed his education in Kolkata but worked along the line of the Dhaka moderns. One should recall how Kibria's early works were subjected to intersecting lines and how Murtaja Baseer let his figures collapse into conspicuous geometric forms, while Aminul Islam plotted his visual field as if they were an assemblage made out of well thought-out blocks.
But geometry posited as 'an emblem of modernity' is nothing short of a plain vanilla – a simplification which arose out of one's inability to project the real picture. The unfolding of modern idioms which began to devalue all other strands of art in the region would also branch out into many types. Both in sequence, through which we are now able to trace its history, and in typology, the developing trajectories first saw the invasion of the grid in its mildest manifestation only to be dissolved into colour field paintings during the second phase of the new generation of male painters.
If by the 1960s Baseer and Islam along with a few more emerging talents turned to abstraction, they did so showing a strong loyalty to Abstract Expressionism of American origin or/and Informal art of Europe. Ironically, there were no carry-overs from the geometric phase. The influence of the grid on these artists in their formative/figurative phase served as a bridgehead into abstraction. No wonder the engagement with geometry had never driven these 'new moderns' in extreme directions – a smattering of the lingustic techne beholden to the post-cubist splintered picture plane considered a modern mode of expression served the purpose of divagation they sought to achieve.
Interestingly, with sculptor Novera Ahmed inserting the idea of the 'primitive' into the modern lexicon, the idea of geometry as a singular mode of driver simply nosedived.
If a diction sanctified with flatness achieved through geometric composition was the currency of the time, Novera alongside two painters from her previous generation, namely Quamrul Hassan and S M Sultan, was seeking to arrive at altogether different forms of expression. Motif-making and narrativization was Novera's forte. By surveying her works one come away with an awareness of the multiple possibilities entrenched in the 'new' which sprang out of the negotiation of the European avant-garde besides co-opting some of the salient features of the indigenous rural forms of art tied to religious rituals. In their respective ways Novera Ahmed, Quamrul Hassan and S M Sultan had set in motion a process of indigenization in which both modern and tradition were lent equal weight no matter how subjective and contemporaneous the frameworks were through which the aesthetic gambit was enacted.
As a category 'geometrical abstraction' is not non-existent, neither it is unworthy of analysis since there is a pool of Western innovators who had built their career out of such total reductionism which merited an absolute withdrawal from the reality. Mondrian's 'Neoplasticism' paved the way for others to extend their talent towards such an end. Before setting out to dislodge the notion of geometrical or nonobjective composition as the only method co-opted by the moderns in this region, one should take stock of the 'nonillusionistic space' inaugurated by Parisian avant-garde by which the traditional academic representational gambit was overturned.
To purge the canvases off the recognizable forms, the initial step taken by many was a severing of the linear connection between reality and art. And 'dehumanization' thus is an important category to fall back upon. It is clearly decipherable that under the analytical umbrella of this term Quamrul Hassan and Novera Ahmed appear as more in sync with the changing patterns of modern art. They can never be considered having ever consorted with the proponents given to geometry in Bangladesh even though some of Quamrul's early compositions were dictated by the logic of geometry.
Both groups – one that developed a clear understanding of dehumanization and one who thrived on geometry alone – had a single goal – breaking ties with academic illusionistic methods. Even the moderns who considered geometry to be the sole guiding light (Novera Ahmed's contemporary male 'painter heroes') co-opted the geometrical pattern-making as a strategy to break away from illusionism. The stage was already set for such divagation. The first group exhibition showcased in the then Litton Hall, in 1951, where 200 works of students and teachers were assembled under the same roof, was nothing but a celebration of the academic realistic genres. Aminul Islam, Mohammad Kibria as well as Murtaja Baseer were all present with their memorable realistic entries.2 For most who would soon become known as Dhaka moderns, those who were restless for change, negotiating geometry was a move towards emancipation. They subsequently entered the Alter of Abstraction renouncing all ties with geometry which once had been a useful arsenal put into use during their semi-abstract figurative phase – a period most had to go through perhaps to reassure their alignment with the 'International Style'. Shahtab was the only exception. Considered a lesser artist by his contemporaries, who had a brief stint with art before his untimely death, his paintings accepted the grid as the basis of abstraction. Another pioneering modern who lent his imagery a geometric characteristic without renouncing the symbolic motifs that were recognizably indigenized was Shafiuddin Ahmed. One of the prominent artists of Novera's previous generation, nurtured in the fervent climate of the then Kolkata, Shafiuddin, in the late 1950s, begun to schematize his image by employing intersecting arcs but without giving up on the hope of referencing his locale in the form of humans, boats, fishes or landscape. So on the index of geometry one began to see many different aspects by the time the new generation was set to explore abstraction.
If the dehumanization of avant-garde origin is to be considered a viable way for the artists to distance themselves from the academic genres, one can say that Novera and Quamrul in their respective ways set the stage for further experimentations to be launched by the future generations from the ground in which the process had been localized by subjecting the modern to the vernacular.
‘Ingenious modernism' is a category linked to the discourse of alternative modernities. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, the progenitor of the concept of alternative modernities, posits that, '[M]odernity always unfolds within specific cultures or civilizations and that different starting points of the transition to modernity lead to different outcomes.’3 Thus it is futile to sound so deterministic in defining the modern by laying out a fixed location as well as setting a method and category before one starts to navigate what once transpired under the shadow of modernity.
If Quamrul was capable of investing the dehumanization technique borrowed from the European avant-garde (particularly of the stock of Picasso's precursorial schemes) into a form of art which clearly recalled some of the conspicuous features of the rural cultural inheritance, Novera was an artist given to primal urge displaying a sustained engagement with the idea of the primitive popularized by some of the most important exponents of the European modernity. In Novera, the linguistic principle of reductionism (of European avant-garde origin) and reality (rural inheritance, and local innovation) collapsed into rhetorical devices that communicate best on a subliminal level. As she famously aligned the pre-modern with the modern with various effects her works from the later period gave rise to an altogether different linguistic expression – one that resided between the modern and the totemic.
The divagation from the classical modern 'formalesque' deployed with consummate aesthetic result and exemplified by her works of the 1950s subsequently went through a series of changes finally to arrive at a 'liminal' stage by way of negotiating the bhutas (spirits) rather than tapping real experiences.
To elicit a non-fundamental version of modernity in which the geometrical grid is not considered as a catch-all category, one needs to look closely at how things unravelled in this region with Novera appearing as a major player working in opposition to geometric modernity emphasizing dehumanization/ primitivization. Novera's matrices of change reveal her different aspects – she appeared first as an ideal motif maker and later as a primordialist trying to shuttle her materials (both artistic and physical) into the realms that lie beyond the terra firma into the void of the terra nullius.
Since her death in 2015, she has generated a lot of noise in the forms of eulogy and reassessment. The former easily outweighs the latter as in the discursive space the arsenals at our disposal that ought to have been deployed to clear the veneer of rhetoric are being used to generate more of so. In this extra-fat issue Depart attempts to provide an all-round view of her talent by placing her growing, changing trajectory in the context of Western modern development in art and the thresholds of socially situated traditions and beliefs she once reached to the benefit of her artistic innovations.
As we navigate the historical moments in art as well as stage our concerted conscious efforts in unpacking some of the artistic languages that once dominated us and some that are only emerging, we mourn the death of one of the giants who set down the template of 'contextual modernity' in this clime, namely K G Subramanyan.
We also mourn the loss of artist cum cultural activist Khalid Mahmud Mithu whose life has summarily ended when struck by a falling tree that stood not far from his house. His tragic death cut short a life-long engagement with painting, photography and cinema.
Finally a few words on Seema Nusrat Amin, an important player in the Depart team who served as a senior feature writer for the last four years; she is now ready to pack her bags and fly to Vancouver to pursue further studies. Her crucial role as an interlocutor of contemporary theory cannot be overemphasized; with her archeological excavation into history and knowledge she plotted an authentic voice as a member of the Depart team, the engine responsible for driving us to regions of old as well as new strains of analysis on art and culture since inception. She would be sorely missed, especially during the sessions when we put our heads together to contemplate future issues.
- MUSTAFA ZAMAN
- An interview with the artist by Shawon Akand, Artspeak: Aminul Islam Unloaded, Depart, issue Vol 2, issue 3-4, p 19.
- Quamrul Hassan, Bangladesher Shilpa Andolon o Amar Kotha, ed Syed Azizul Haque, Prothoma, 2010, p 32.
- Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, On Alternative Modernities, Alternative Modernities, ed Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, Duke University Press, 2001, p 1.