Acclaimed artist Shahid Kabir left for Spain in 1980, after attaining fame in Bangladesh for his series on the mystic Lalon Shah and being deprived of a well-deserved Japanese scholarship for a master's degree in art. I recently found and acquired a set of eight exquisitely embossed aquatint etchings by Kabir made in Spain in the mid 1980's, which intrigued me to research and discuss the inspirations behind them with the artist himself and his long-time art dealer and friend Peter De Munnich from Profile Art Gallery in Canada.
Kabir chose Spain as a fertile ground for further learning and honing his artistic talents. Spain has a long and rich history of producing some of the greatest renaissance, baroque, impressionist, modern and contemporary artists of the world.
Kabir immersed himself fully into the Spanish culture and way of life, observing and experiencing the art world of the 1980s. He received guidance and support from Monirul Islam, a fellow senior artist from Bangladesh who came to Madrid in 1969, and settled down.
Kabir adopted Spain as his new home and initially struggled to find his footing, but never looked back. He integrated at a fast pace with the locals, learned to speak fluent Spanish and cook gourmet Spanish food. Within a short span of time, he established himself as one of the leading printmakers in Madrid. His artistic expressions are ingrained in surrealistic and abstract impressionism.
In 1980, the same year that he arrived in Madrid, Kabir joined the Galleria Estampa as an assistant printmaker. He learned the difficult process of creating embossed aquatint etchings on paper. Meticulous as he was in his painting, he quickly gained the trust of the director of the print studio, who assigned him to print limited editions of portfolios for well-known Spanish and French artists. He also experimented and produced miniature size prints of his own with varying subjects from still life to self-portraits.
Wine and I (1980) and Still Life (1980) are great examples of his early etchings, where attention to detail and treatment of space to create a third dimension are clearly present that speak to the creative genius of Kabir.
Soon after mastering the art of embossing aquatint etchings, Kabir started creating his own works, and by 1985, he was producing large sized multi-colour prints. Humans, friends and neighbours, living spaces, objects and experiences merge and serve as points of reference for the artist. For example, in his Mi Reino (My Kingdom, 1985) series, Kabir draws and paints what he sees around him – Seniora Maria, his friend and neighbour, a couple kissing in the neighbouring house as seen from the window of his house and his surroundings, his kitchen, dining room and living room.
The same year, Kabir produced a series of etchings, titled Musica y Vida (Music & Life, 1985), which was a tribute to life and music. He brilliantly composes the etchings, as if creating a melody, with geometric figures, objects of love, desire and nature. Kabir's deep love for music, be it Bengali Baul music or songs of Lalon Shah, the mystic poet and philosopher from the 18th century, is evident in his work. In Spain, he was introduced to the traditional Spanish Flamenco music and dance, which has its roots in South Asia. It is believed that the Roma peoples, who migrated from Rajasthan to Spain between the 9th and 14th centuries, brought with them musical instruments, such as tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets, and an extensive repertoire of songs and dances. Kabir is also fond of Reggae music and the Blues, and in particular, loves the sounds of the electric guitar and the saxophone.
His Circo (Circus, 1987) series is a vivid depiction of his experience of enjoying a circus by himself, and also later, with his daughter Biba in Madrid. In this etching, Kabir playfully brings out the entertainers and performers, whether they are animals or human beings, showing their mastery in acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, taming or clowning.
Kabir's prints of the 1990s show great finesse and celebrate a bohemian lifestyle. During this period, Kabir was prolific and popular, as he exhibited his works widely across Europe and North America. Nature played a significant role in his evocative Feuilles n Fleurs (Leaves and Flowers, 1997) series.
Peter De Munnich recollected that he had quite a few etchings by Kabir and his fellow printers from Madrid. "The print studio Galleria Estampa in Madrid was fairly unique in producing a large number of etching, aquatint and carborundum editions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It is through this studio that I first got to meet Kabir and made a trip to Madrid to visit him in the early 1990s," he said. "The prints produced at the studio were all of very fine quality and I really enjoyed working with them. It's sad that the market for hand-pulled prints has been diminished over in the last 20 years, as digital printing took over the market to a large degree." I feel lucky to have some of Kabir's best works in my collection. He is an authentic artist, and a compassionate human being.
Ali Adil Khan is the founder and director of SAGA Foundation and South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) in Toronto, Canada.