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     Volume 6 Issue 31 | August 10, 2007 |

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Sketching the Wings of Paradise

Aasha Mehreen Amin

The Owl- a symbol of wisdom.

Bird-watching may seem to be the whimsical preoccupation of a handful of individuals who have the time to go into the forest and spend hours trying to spot a particular species. But what the cynical urbanite does not want to admit is that nothing can be more rewarding than observing the sheer perfection of these heavenly creatures that seem to have been so painstakingly and indulgently painted by the Greatest Artist of all. Malcolm Arnold, an Australian naturalist artist and far from being a jaded urbanite, has been passionate about birdlife for the last thirty years and a bird sighting continues to be something that he just cannot get enough of. Which is why he has studied, photographed and finally sketched or drawn thousands of birds in an attempt to capture those wondrous moments of pure beauty that only birds can evoke. What is most exciting for Bangladeshi art and bird lovers is that Arnold has been doing a lot of sketching in Bangladesh, creating pictures of birds, nature and people with photographic precision. His exhibition of drawings and sketches organised by Alliance Francaise de Dacca and displayed at Drik Gallery is an enchanting collection of mainly the birds of Bangladesh, resplendent in their true colours and expression.

Malcolm Arnold- a passionate nature artist.

An Asian Paradise Fly-catcher, showing off its long white tail sits serenely in its nest; which the artist describes in a caption, as if indicating new life about to begin. Mysterious owls perch on branches with their typical wise expressions and common Kingfishers in their uncommon finery of brilliant blue and red, simple bee-eaters penciled with gorgeous green and blue, even the ubiquitous Bulbul cannot dull the excitement of this grand display. Diverging from the general tranquility of most of the drawings is one of a kestrel hovering just above the ground, its elegant wings spread out, its talons flared out for the right moment to pounce on its prey. Arnold's works done in minute detail indicates the meticulous labour he puts into each picture. It is the end product of hours of waiting among the birds' habitats, sometimes photographing them and taking back the real images to recreate the natural splendour with artificial colour.

“Every work is its own challenge and is unique as it has never been done before or can be repeated” explains the artist, “I have done works that can be completed in one day and I have done works that take up to 18 months to complete. The only work I actually timed was a large work 48 inches high X 36 inches wide. It was of an Australian Eagle at its nest sight feeding its two young. I spent three days for five hours a day up the tree, sitting very close to the nest. In fact I could reach out and touch the very large nest. In it were two chicks. The parent birds would come and go. The only time they would not come back to the nest is when they had food. They would land some distance away. I would have to get down from the very high tree branch and allow the parents to come and feed their young. It was an amazing, intimate look at the life of the eagles. I sketched and photographed for these three days and then took this information back to my studio. The actual time spent on the painting was five hundred hours”.

Born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1947 Arnold can remember the exact moment he decided to be an artist. He was seven and his teacher had shown the class a photograph of a famous Australian artist which he took back home and stated to his mother that he wanted to be an artist like this man.

“From that time on I wanted to do nothing else as far as a 'job' goes” says Arnold who left a secure government job in 1976 and has been earning his living at art ever since. He admits that at times it has been a struggle financially but his belief in his dream was too strong to deter him in this artistic passion.

Arnold has received many national and state awards for his work. His work has been purchased by Museum of Fine Arts in Australian Northern Territory and he has produced two identification booklets on birds of the Australian Northern Territory which collectively sold nearly 40,000 copies.

It was a chance meeting with Saber Hossain Chowdhury, the then Bangladeshi President of the BCB and AL leader who had come to Australia in May 2000 to try to get the Australian board to support Bangladesh in obtaining test cricket status that. Chowdhury changed the course of his life persuaded him to come to Bangladesh and do a book on the country.

Arnold first came to Bangladesh in February 2001 and again in October 2001 to do photography and sketches and research for the book. He brought along two other photographers and another friend to help in the organisation of their travels.

“I fell in love with the culture, the people and their lifestyle” says Arnold.


A page from 'The Spirit of Bangladesh', Arnold's forthcoming book.

But there was one more compelling reason for his attachment to this country, his present wife Halima whom he met in 2001 in a remote village. “We chatted for twenty minutes or so and after many letters I returned in 2004 and we were married” he says simply. He has chosen Khulna to be his home because of its slow pace of life and proximity to the Sundarbans, which he loves as a naturalist. It is however, not always easy as a foreigner to do the work he does, that is sketch nature in all its unadulterated glory.

“Back in Australia I could sketch outside and on location without interruption but as a foreigner here in Bangladesh it is impossible to do this so I have to take a series of photographs to help me out. I do my work back in my studio at home. I take photos and samples of habitats home to assist in the backgrounds of work.”

The technique he uses demands almost instant drying of the paint and so he does not use oil as a medium. Drawing with pencil is his favourite technique, something he says is like meditation for him.

The 48 inch high 36 inch wide work of an Australian Eagle that took 500 hours to complete.

“The Divine has given me a gift and drawing to me is as intimate as breathing” the artist explains. “Of course I do have favourite artists. Sir Hans Heysen, the late Australian artist has been an inspiration to me all my life . It is one of his paintings that I saw way back when I was seven. Living artists whose work I now enjoy are in order, the famous Canadian , number one wildlife artist in the world In fact Robert has agreed to allow me to use some of his work in my upcoming book on the Sundarbans. This is a real thrill for me and will guarantee international exposure for this book. Raymond Harris Ching, a New Zealand wildlife artist of international recognition and Andrew Wyeth the amazing American artist. These three men are truly inspirational, talented painters”.

Arnold's is at present putting the finishing design touches to his book and looking for a publisher. He hopes the publication can be sold around the world and show off Bangladesh in a positive way.

The book “THE SPIRIT OF BANGLADESH” Our Journey of Discovery is a coffee table style book and is about Arnold and his team's journey around the country.

“Obviously, to a foreigner all is new and I never have trouble with getting enough subject matter. I particularly find the village life very interesting. The book is made up of photographs by me, Toni Wythes and my best mate in the world Tony

Moritz. These two people journeyed with me back in late 2001. Also many of my drawings and paintings help in filling the content of the book”.

Arnold unashamedly admits his passion for this country and is particularly charmed by the generosity and love of especially poor, village people.

“You are invited into their houses and made to feel like a member of their family. I am treated like royalty” says Arnold. “Being a foreigner has opened many homes and hearts and I feel privileged to call many of these lovely people friends”.

“My choice is to stay here, “ adds the artist, “and I have no plans to return in the near future to my motherland. Of course I miss family and friends but hopefully they understand my decision”.

Malcolm Arnold's Exhibition at Drik Gallery will go on until August 15.


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