The work that Azmeer Hossain has done during his 13 years sojourn in NY is a classic example of first generation South Asian Diaspora art production. A major feature of such art is the obsession with loss of identity and the hunger for connectedness. The initial crisis of identity eventually gives way to a yearning for location, and in the process a valid and active sense of self evolves from a journey that had begun in dislocation.
His solo exhibition titled “Emotion: Recollected in Tranquility” is now on at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Dhanmondi.
In “Mindscape-17”, an intense yet subtle play of different shades of red and black and twinkling stars evoke the tones and atmosphere of a city. Slowly, the city assumes an identity and soon the expressive lines suggest that we are looking at Brooklyn Bridge, and, yes, its iconic steel-wires and towers confirm we are, indeed, being offered a view of New York. The bridge that spans East River and connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn becomes thus a recurrent symbol of the plight of artist Hossain, as he was striving futilely to settle down in New York.
Exile and displacement give rise to a sense of disquiet and nostalgia but there is also a need to belong in them. The lonely bridge in the distant horizon of “Mindscape-17” is also a symbol of Hossain’s aloofness and at the same time an expression of his desire to bridge the new home with the old one. The span of the bridge is captured as reflected in the water, fragile and flickering. The sense of homelessness in the painting is accentuated by the recognition that he has not found a new home in the adopted country. The recurrence of Brooklyn Bridge and seascape of Coney Island suggests that his desire to connect his original home as now lost due to exile, but he seems to seek solace in the breaking waves of the Atlantic on Coney Island.
Art such as that of Hossain results from the attempt to negotiate between the polarities of exile and homeland. The exiled/immigrant artist undertakes two moves, one temporal and the other spatial.
Hossain’s colour palette varies from murky red to mud purple, to sad blue evoking a sense of melancholia and aloofness. But there is also a tranquil, mystical quality to his painting, of the kind often found in Abstract Expressionist work.
Trained as a printmaker, Hossain’s watercolour paintings display the unmistakable rigour and draughtsmanship of the graphic medium. His ingenuity with watercolour has transformed the fluidity and wetness of the medium into the geometric discipline of the graphic print. Not surprisingly, then, his watercolour paintings can be mistaken for graphic prints. He wanted his raw desire to overcome feelings of aloofness, trauma and loss incurred in exile and a longing for reconciliation of what was left behind with what is possible in the newfound land through the restraint of a graphic medium.
“Mindscape-28” is a reflection on the Atlantic seen from Coney Island. The artist divides his experience of the sea into six panels in trying to capture different moods and atmosphere. His canvas appears like a window through which he perceives the world outside. The Atlantic for him remains a distant reality, an experience to be perceived through the window.
Hossain returned to Bangladesh, his homeland, last year, ending his life in exile. The current exhibition showcases his work done in NY, but most importantly this show gives expression of a vision that sees the end of a phase of alienation and the beginning of another that attempts a reunion with his homeland.
The exhibition ends on May 16.
Ziaul Karim is an art critic