Dhali Al Mamoon turned time into a portal to gaze back or gauge a blind side of history of the subcontinent—the colonial legacy—which is laden with grief and shame at the loss of the capacity for articulation that Dhali feels has resulted in forfeiting an authentic artistic language in favour of one that alienates a person from one's self.
The part of history that synchronically becomes Dhali's locus is marked with an act of dehumanising exploitation that dislocated people from their own land, culture and tradition to engage in a trade or production mode that by its very premise deprived them of any right to ownership or of any claims to the change they were bringing afoot in the making of history (in terms of autonomous narratives).
It is the cultivation of indigo and tea and a smattering of other iconic-symbolic representations that became the metonym for a process of subjugation that went down deep enough to infuse insidiously into the psyche of the people. Might we call it the colonial atrophy or erosion of the self/mind that caused them to lose their voice or dissociated them from their own system of knowledge, an incapacity that still continues to mar their progress (if one may take it in its 'common' sense) as a people, which Dhali so poignantly points out to be at the root of all evil?
Dhali places great store in a body of knowledge received and internalised by a people by way of collectively sharing in the existential reality of the onto-genealogical matrix that forms one's relation with a space in time. But once trapped in the 'ecology of colonialism', the people of the subcontinent were brutally dislodged from the shared bedrock conducive to self-determination, as they became mere “objects trouvés (foundlings) of the colonial discourse—the (virtual) part-objects of presence” (Homi Bhabha in The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse) who cannot be represented without taking recourse to the “axis of metonymy” only to be “displayed in part”.This is made manifest in the visual imagery of cowering, emaciated bodies, bodies obscured by towering tea leaves and a coterie of 'signs' of colonial might. It is a display of indigeneity being diminished under the crushing blows of an extraneous, hegemonic force. And hence, a profound lament wafts from the images engraved in no faltering lines from across swathes of paper as if in imitation of the colonial scar that lacerates our soul and robs us of our essence.
Our acute awareness of a schism dominates our mind like an unshakable predisposition, a tendency towards the validation of 'Us vs Them'. In a finance capital driven neo-Imperialist order, we still feel marginalised as the stakes are manipulated by the powers in the West. Dhali locates this daemon which seems to be a people's sense of inadequacy within a timeline that ran across two hundred years of 'servitude'. If we turn to millennia-old migration history, we find it is wrought with stories of symbiosis of cultures, be they marked by clash or peace. As cultures come in contact and meld, the fault-lines transcend into grounds for proliferation of knowledge and then a hierarchisation of systems of knowledge as soon as these come under the marauding wheels of an Imperialist project, as we know it.
Dhali eyes the West (suspiciously), as the centre of power who/which disseminates 'knowledge' to the lesser lump of humanity (or its denial thereof), coercing them into the tactic of sheer mimicry. And we surely cannot bury our face in the sand feigning ignorance of the fact that a system or procedure of thoughts assumes the adage of knowledge only when aligned with the seat of power. Knowledge is irrefutably power—and by association is prescriptive and at the same time a tool to use in negotiating one's accession to a position to participate in the game of power, so you are lucky if you are on the right side of the history of power;not so much if not. This pretty much surmises the essence of the message sent out by Drawing and Thinking, Thinking and Drawing – 1 by Dhali Al Mamoon—cut and dry and un-confounding.
Dhali admits to having to deal with a duality that is innate to and consequent on his proclivity as an academician. He is constantly confronted by the tension between an academic disciple that trains the mind to comply with the encoded fundamentals of form, composition, balance and so forth whilst his calling as an artist propels him towards the Dionysian will to move beyond the bounds of the known and especially the learnt, beyond the borrowed, prejudiced and purist knowledge that the schools of fine arts across the country unerringly propagate. Dhali has reached a crucial juncture in his career—five years away from retirement he finds his canvases are straining, seething at the frames, and the inner landscape markedly reorienting itself to the discords of a rogue impulse threatening to un-make the meanings of its visual language. Even in his earlier works he has shown signs/impulses of resorting to a childlike idiom in the manner of somewhat laboured 'unlearning'.This once again found itself a nesting ground in the current exhibition, and owing to a ginger nurturing only fizzles away in the wistfulness of a harano shur, an elusive tune. To Foucault, by galvanising into 'thinking the unthought' man ends his alienation by reconciling with his essence (Bhabha). Dhali while studiedly refraining from anointing the present with a longing for the return of the glories of the past, however, picks holes in a stillborn present that carries the past's wounds—a sterile, stultified present burdened with a knowledge of a denuded self. And hence he continues his tireless probing into the fissures of our knowledge to unearth the missing links, to fill in the lacunae in our thoughts, which is more than corroborated by the conceptually intensive installation works by Dhali.
He instrumentalised tea leaves, indigo pigment and cloves to resume a dialogue with a colonial past, and at another level, academic learning that exposed him predominantly to Western pedagogy; both of which have cast a gloom over questions of creative freedom to come up with an expressive art-lexicon of one's own steeped in a sensibility beholden to the spatio-temporal context one inhabits.
“The project underlying postcolonial pedagogy… needs to be understood in the context of social processes and institutional practices which frame (and are shaping) the production of knowledge both inside and outside the academy,”(Ajay Hebe in Re-criticising the Classroom) inviolably echoes Dhali's beliefs on this issue. His approach to art is explicitly ethico-political, a (cultural) protest against imperial hegemony, his frame of references drawing on the cache of anti-colonial imagery found in the fields of literature, arts and photo-reportage.
This comes as no surprise as the artist belonged to the Somoy group whose preoccupation was to break away from the language of abstraction that permeated the art arena they entered as actors, considered a Western inflection traceable to an education which is but an unbroken continuation of the colonial schema. In search of an authentic idiom they turned to rickshaw art, contemporary political iconography and merged these with images from the traditions of folklore. Dhali zealously turned to this reservoir of signifiers to create his brand of avant-garde art.
Dhali Al Mamoon, true to form, is acutely conscious of not disrupting the veracity of historical facts. Maintaining his own standards, in this exhibition, he transplants, namely, characters from pictorial depictions of the Bengal famine, horses from Mughal miniature paintings onto his canvases, not to mention botanically precise drawings of tea leaves and all of these coalescing on tableaux stained with colours of tea and indigo. The colonial industry of (lopsided) commerce caught in frame after frame, stilled, unshifting, staring back unblinking at the spectator… a dark premonition hangs in the air, like a mist, a painful recollection, a foreboding, a mild warning to stop and take stock, as if to say, “this is where we have come thus far.” Or simply mouth it silently, as one knows not what language can carry the anguish of dislocation, while blue and brown transform into metaphors of melancholia—or so says the artist. Ancient bones clustered into forms of prehistoric birds stand as a vehicle for a language we have lost, allegorising the epistemological rupture that tears one apart from the umbilical link to the Mother…and we recede farther and farther away from our ancestors' primordial tools before we find ourselves garbed in Imperial subjecthood, with a concessional agency being our only catharsis.
The artist talk presented by Dhali Al Mamoon makes it obvious that tracing the trajectory of an artistic career is germane in comprehending the cognitive process lending itself to its visual translation captured in the body of works of any artist as it grows over the years in tandem with the turns and twists and shifts in the events around him, which are contiguous with events long past that flowed into his 'here and now'. That renders the course he traversed quite distinct in terms of all the variables, namely the form and content of the dialogue with his reality, that which has shaped it. The seeds of the process are buried within the conception of the work which makes itself visible in the end product. However, it is quite impossible to strategise and control the production of art strictly objectively, as the moment the process of making art is set underway it takes on a life of its own, a will of its own, and the unexpectedness, the impish impulse that comes into play is what animates the 'art in the making'.
The impetus for this exhibition was to allow the audience a peek into the process of art making. Hence, curator Wakilur Rahman homed in on the drawings and lay-outs by Dhali, which in Dhali's words are but “mappings of thoughts”. But what burst forth were works of art. As drawings freewheel at a tangent to transfigure into a language, Dhali begins playfully to dabble in images that projects the past onto the present or vice versa and in the process brings to light how blurry the lines are between the two.
The exhibition “Drawing and Thinking, Thinking and Drawing – 1'' by Dhali Al Mamoon ran its course through 10 – 31 March, 2018 at Kalakendra.
Sharmillie Rahman is primarily a short fiction writer who occasionally writes on art and is the co-founder of Duaree Art Café.