Artists and urban setting

They love to get a new feel of the same old places…

Mustafa Zaman

If there was a choice between chaos and serenity, most artists would opt for the latter. It is common knowledge that solitude is what most of them thrive in. It is an artist whose heart aches for wilderness while living in the heart of the city. As living is about comfort of certain amenities and services as well as practical social networking that are only made possible in the urban maelstrom, working artists seldom chose to live anywhere other than a city.

SM Sultan was an exception. He was a mythic character, one who needed a mythic backdrop for his artistic actions. Therefore, Narail, his birth-place, was the best setting where he had felt at ease for the whole length of his life. Sultan worked and died in Narail. And he is the only Bangladeshi artist who turned the table on the connoisseurs and art lovers. They went to meet him in Narail to bring his works back to Dhaka to be shown in exhibitions.

However, not all artists are lucky to have created a hub of their own in a far-flung corner of Bangladesh which people would visit as part of a pilgrimage. As city is the place where the connoisseurs are and as mounting a show in a gallery too is an urban culture, most artists cannot afford to live in the laidback bucolic setting even if they wanted to. For them all actions -- from mounting an exhibition to sale of artworks -- are centred on the city. But rarely have the artists depicted the urban chaos or aspects of urban life in their artwork. Artists are inclined to provide the glimpses of either the so called “inner life” or the wilderness they imagine they are a part of. In Bangladesh most artists are driven by a romantic thirst for things of transcendental nature, in other words they disregard their immediate reality.

But cities do have their sympathizers. California has Wayne Thiebaud, Dhaka has Kazi Salahuddin Ahmed. However, Kolkata

Urbanisation-8, oil on canvas by Kazi Salahuddin Ahmed

seems to be the luckiest; several artists produced works that bring the city or a particular aspect of city life to the fore. In the Kolkatan creative coterie the most inspiring works had been produced by Bikash Vattacharya, the realist who once made realism look uncharacteristically alive in a series on the city back in the 1980s. As for Thiebaud and Salahuddin, both the artists draw from their immediate surroundings and juggle the real elements to their heart's content to get a new feel of the same old places. Although their art speaks volumes of where they live and how they look at the cities that provide them shelter, they seldom depict a certain place in a certain time. In short they are not plain realists. Even as city painters they follow a map of their own, only trying to address the chaos or the character of the city that they are a part of in a roundabout fashion, what the true art lover would call the revitalising of the representational world. Perhaps this is the only way truly meaningful art is made possible.

Why are not there more artists who would want to give expression to the urban spirit? In Bangladesh the answer lies in the very ethos that governs the mainstream art. The major exponents of art are inclined to express themselves by mimicking the American Abstract Expressionism, where representation is shunned to make way for colour gestures. In Bangladesh Abstract Expressionism has become a template of sorts for most artists to follow. There is little awareness that even gesture paintings sometimes can give the hint of reality. There are plenty of examples of this in the European early twentieth century paintings. In our home front, Mohammad Fokhrul Islam's early efforts can be bracketed within the same category. He started out as a gesture heavy landscape artist. His transformation into a pure abstractionist was gradual; it was expedited by his tendency to not represent the real. From the very beginning, his landscapes were un-peopled and seemed more akin to a wilderness that exists only in the mind.

Why do artists look for their inspiration in places far from where they live? It is a question which may cross the minds of many a gallery goer, as they often feel out of place in front of the gesture heavy, colour-field abstraction where there is no recognisable element to rejoice about. Life is one thing that is hardly ever been celebrated in the works of the artists whom we habitually refer to as modern artists. And there are not many alternatives that one may come across. Because traditional artists like patuas have failed to keep up with the changing time. Though, at some point of time, their art did celebrate life in all its numerous facets and colours. Therefore, the question why are not there more artists who would bring into view aspects of urban or even rural life remains unresolved.

There is no option but to turn to the artists themselves with the query. Rokeya Sultana who once became known for depicting a Madonna with her child in the urban setting feels that her sojourns outside Dhaka has changed her into an artist who is more inclined to represent nature. “The formalities that bind all of us while living in the city work against an artist. Imagine Michael Angelo being disturbed by worldly tasks while working on the Cistine Chapel; artists needs oblivion, a space of their own, perhaps this is what makes them look beyond their immediate realities,” says Sultana. “I myself have gone through a phase when I used to place my “Madonna” in the heart of the hustle and bustle of the city, now that I am constantly in touch with nature through frequent trips outside Dhaka, I no longer draw my inspiration from the city,” testifies Sultana. She, at present, is an artist who wants to address the eternal womanhood through her paintings, where nature and women become one and inseparable.

Artist and writer Ronni Ahmed has his own theory about why Bangladeshi artists explore the world of which they are not a part of. He feels that the Bangladeshi artists paint neither the city nor rural beauty. “The first generation artist who paved the way for others came from a half-feudal background, and this identity crisis they retain while living in the city. As such their works avoid ideal subject matter. You would not find a painter who does nude figures. They went for a certain kind of picture making that neither represents the village nor the city,” says Ahmed. As for his own artistic ventures he adds that his work, “though abstracted from reality as they explores completely imaginary subject matter, deals with the urban experiences”. The absurdity and the oblique commentary aiming at the power structure do make Ronni Ahmed's works urban in its characteristic, though the expression is so bizarre that it throws one off before one even starts to realise the content.

In the end one may feel that making art for most of the Bangladeshi artists is one way of disowning a whole array of experiences that contradict our notion of wholesome existence. If reality seems unbearable, if the immediate surroundings seem unsavoury or too tied up with corporeal obligations, an escape route is mapped by the people with paint-brush in hand. If we look at it as a way of rescuing the masses from the mire of everyday reality only than the question of why artists do not depict their immediate surroundings is resolved, otherwise, it hangs like an eternal shadow at the back of our mind.


The author is senior feature writer of The Daily Star.

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