Rafiqun Nabi is credited as one of the artists who promoted the practice of contemporary art in the country. Known for his woodworks, his acrylic paintings, water colours and his cartoon character 'Tokai', Nabi is widely revered by Bangladeshis as a master artist largely responsible for taking Bangladeshi art to the international art scene. Fayza Huq spoke to the artist about his earlier exhibitions, his preferred art medium and much more.
Did you feel honoured when your artworks were displayed at the “Exhibition of 16 prominent artists” along with the works of Zainul Abedin , Safiuddin Ahmed and Mohammed , at the very beginning of your artistic career even before 1968?
It was the first big exhibition that I had participated in. I was just 22. I t was in the 1960s, and I was fortunate to participate at an exhibition with the stalwarts of the art arena. It gave a great fillip to my career and my life. I secretly felt that my painting were not up to the mark. My water colours made me feel a bit restricted.
How did you feel when you jointly exhibited with Hashem Khan in 1968?
It was the second big exhibition of my life, and Hashem Khan was three years senior to me. He was an expert at water colour paintings. After the “Exhibition of 16 Prominent Artists,” this was the second extravagant exhibition that I was part of. There were other joint exhibitions that were quite satisfactory for me as an artist. This exhibition led me to have a greater interest in my work.
You studied art in Athens under a scholarship from the Government of Greece from 1973 to 1976. Did you learn anything new in woodwork or did you observe a change in your approach towards water colours and oil paintings?
Not exactly. When I went to Greece, it was with the intention of continuing my education on painting. When I reached Greece, I found the arrangements for printmaking were excellent and the famed Prof. Gramatopulus was the head of the department of print making, and the dean of the faculty. I was greatly impressed by his work. It was beyond my comprehension that prints could be as large as they made them in Greece. Moreover, I found it amazing that artworks using woodblocks would turn out looking so fine. Earlier I had seen Chinese and Japanese prints and of course, I was acquainted with Safiuddin Ahmed's work who created magic and mystery with his wood carvings. However, after viewing Prof Gramatopulus' works first hand, I changed my mind and thought of switching to printmaking. Fortunately I was accepted to the programme, and what followed was a great learning experience, as I worked under the eminent professor.
How did you come up with your legendary comic character 'Tokai?' Was this cartoon series related to your woodworks and acrylic work? Also, how is 'Tokai' an observer of the ongoings of Dhaka?
Socio-political topics formed the subject of not only “Tokai” but other cartoons too. My cartoons always focused on news items and current affairs. I drew cartoons where spectators could see the funny aspects and comment on them. That was my plan, and that's how I worked. “Tokai” was a result of my observations of socio-political issues. The side of making paintings, except for drawing and composition, the essential elements were not in “Tokai”—they appeared much later in my recent compositions.
What do you value most, your woodcut works, acrylic paintings or your cartoons?
“Tokai,” I believe, has become a big name in reminding people about what they should do in certain circumstances. I am also simultaneously progressing with my paintings. I enjoy every art form that I work with.
What motivated you to paint murals at the Rangpur branch of Bangladesh Bank?
Bangladesh Bank always requests senior artists to paint murals and submit them to the bank as specimens. Thus, when they requested me for a work, I complied. I have also painted murals for BTV, and had one at the VIP Lounge at the Hajrat Shahjalal International Airport. I am not sure whether they still have that or whether they've demolished it. I have a mural even at Jallad Khana in Mirpur. I always try my hand at any art form that fascinates me.
How was your experience interacting with Indian artists Krishna Reddy, late Poritosh Sen , and professors like Siva Kumar and Soumik Nandy Mojumdar?
When I first went to the United States, I spent a lot of time with Krishna Reddy. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him. Shiva Kumar came to Bangladesh from Shantiniketan to teach art to students here. Paritosh Sen was originally from Dhaka, and I knew him from his memoirs on Zinda Bahar, where he lived. I found him to be quite humourous. We would meet whenever I visited Kolkata or he visited Bangladesh, so there was always a constant exchange of ideas and views with him. .
Which art medium do you prefer – sketches, acrylic or woodwork?
I indulge in all of these art mediums whenever I get the chance and the opportunity to do so.