Thursday, 19 September 2019

MIA sculptureatwork

The missus (Malaysian artist Honey Khor) and I were overjoyed to receive an invitation to attend the annual MIA (Malaysian Institute of Art) gathering, this time held at the creative hub of Sculptureatwork, Malaysia’s leading base for public sculptures.

We have been tinkering with the shell of our new three storey home. The basic structure of the house was there, but fixtures and fittings were, largely, absent. There were no kitchen units for either of our wet or dry kitchens, no light or fan fittings, with wires left where they and the aircon units should be - and in the most awkward of places too. So we had a lot to do.

With the aid of Bangladeshi workers (don’t ask) we have been getting familiar with making things out of concrete and experimenting with lighting, wall hanging and shifting electrical sockets (and plumbing) throughout the house, from where the builders put them to where we wanted them. It has been some great task, and has been going on for some months.

We wanted to input a sense of Walter Gropius’s ‘Modern’ or some sort of contemporary aspect into the house. Hence the concrete. Yes I know that concrete dates back to the Romans (200 BC) , and so is hardly new, but one Joseph Aspdin (1824) invented the regularised ‘Portland’ cement enabling widespread use of cement in home construction in England and France between 1850 and 1880, especially by Frenchman Francois Coignet. But, increasingly, raw concrete is being used in contemporary houses, as is the concept of raw bricks and  exposed pipes (or so I am led to believe from such magazines as Interior Design Yearbook 2019, and Living Etc. UK 2019).

It was a sheer delight then, to be ushered into the building (which is home to Sculptureatwork - yes, all one word) and were greeted by company CEO Soon Yee Ling. Soon Yee Ling, if you may remember was (back in 2008) responsible for mini sculptures of Penang businesses, at the time of its Unesco world heritage site listing, as well as ‘Voices From the People’ (George Town Penang - a collection of 52 flat, iron rod made caricatures placed on its historic streets). Sculptureatwork has made myriad public sculptures ever since, including the bright red ladies (The Past and Present) and silver leaping lady (Jump for Joy) at Puchong’s mini-mall Setia Walk.

Inside the studio and office complex at Sculptureatwork, the first items to grab our attention were the concrete walls, concrete floor and the exposed concrete beams/pillars. The seating varied from white painted ‘chicken’ cages (which were either left to resemble themselves, or re-constructed to resemble chairs) to seats made from wooden railway ‘sleepers’. Some of the walls were adorned by some small sculptures (Maquette?), others by some of the miniatures used for the George Town event. Upstairs, cut railway sleepers had been utilised as kitchen ‘breakfast bar’ stools in one wide area focusing upon a very lifelike hippopotamus (2009) statue, mounted by three metal black ‘cartoon’ birds.

There, inside that building, the serious business of contemporaneity in design rubbed shoulders with humour and humorous juxtaposition (such as the horse attempting to climb off the upstairs balcony, or the grossly enlarged star anise [Illicium verum] spice made of bronze casting, and topped with glass to form a coffee book table). Elsewhere, up concrete (yes more concrete) stairs which led to nowhere, a Chinese styled birdcage sat with its door open. Miniature figures were posed as if entering the cage, while others were already inside. Is this a comment on Marilyn Frye’s short essay on ‘Oppression” I wonder.

Outside, along a broad concrete patio, both wooden and concrete benches invited us to rest. To one side, what appeared to be a life-size, yet cartoon, bronze bear (maybe Kipling’s Baloo) seemed to be motionlessly hurrying toward a sculpture of a white stag (deer) with magnificent antlers. Around the corner, as if planted and growing, was a herd of other white deer, some seated while others stood lookout for the static bear, or stray visitors such as ourselves. Further along, artwork which had been designed by legendary Malaysian cartoonist Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid (Lat), and had been placed throughout Kuala Lumpur city centre, lounged as a tribute to the cartoonist and to the company which made the sculptural images.

It was a sheer delight to witness the contemporary overt plumbing in the washrooms, with joints and naked pipes on display in an ‘industrial’ look with bends and joints appearing less humble and more artistic, but not in any Melamid way (reference to the contemporary artist Alexander Melamid, painter of  The Art of Plumbing, including ‘Form-N-Fit 1-1/2 Flanged Tailpiece’, ‘Large Drain Cleansing Bladder’, and ‘The No Clog Drain, Permaflow’).

Ultimately we came away full of awe for the company Sculptureatwork, full of praise for Soon Yee Ling and his studio teams and with a multitude of ideas for the new house. Our visit had improved our thinking about contemporary interior design but, sadly, not the finances to put much of it into practice. 

Monday, 26 August 2019

Khmer sisters doing it for themselves

Sor Sophany and Sor Sophanin are twin Khmer (Cambodian) sisters (kaunophloh dauchaknea), born 1989, and are now thirty. They were born in, and live in, the northern town of Siem Reap, in Cambodia. Since a very early age the sisters have had an acute interest in creativity, sometimes it has spilled over to the kind of physical activity found in martial arts, in their case ‘Bokator’ - an ancient Khmer for of both offence and defence, or performing with traditional Khmer instruments, and frequently experimenting with painting.

On this day, in Siem Reap, it had rained. Small pools of water in the fields had been growing larger as we descended towards Siem Reap International Airport. The shudder of touch-down invigorated the usual clamour to disembark, the rush to obtain visas, clear immigration/customs and to finally greet various drivers, friend, relatives or representatives of various lodgings.

I was alone, at Ellen’s Cafe (Samdech Tep Vong Road Mondul 1 Village), and had just read, online, an article in the Phnom Penh Post revealing Phany and Phanin’s passionate interests in art, and martial arts. The article ‘The twins aspiring to empower kids, women through art, fighting’, by Pann Rethea, spoke of female empowerment, and aspects of confidence boosting in a male dominated Khmer society. The Khmer twins (Sor Sophany and Sor Sophanin) have chosen art and Khmer culture, as standpoints.

Phany and Phanin, together, have grown into a profound love for art. Phany has risen too become manager of one art charity - Colors of Cambodia, where she and her sister studied, while her sister Phanin has been a manager at Artisans Angkor, a Cambodian social business reviving traditional Khmer craftsmanship, in Siem Reap.This love of art and culture has been facilitated by Khmer art teachers who, themselves, were taught in Cambodia’s northern town, Battambang, at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit Cambodian association improving the lives of children, young adults, and their families through art. In Siem Reap, aid towards Colors of Cambodia has materialised from as far afield as the US of A, with artists like Michigan born Julia Haw, also from Singapore with Foo Kwee Horng and Malaysia with Honey Khor enabling and empowering young Khmer artists.

Over time, the Cambodian twin sisters (Phany and Phanin) have become prominent in a freshly emerging Cambodian Surrealist art scene. The sisters blend their knowledge of Cambodian culture with Western painting techniques, including oil, acrylic and water colours as well as the use of coloured pencils, or pastels, to produce stunningly original works of art. The twins’ distinct artworks have spoken of an emerging Khmer feminism, of female empowerment and of their happy/sad lives as identical twin sisters in a Cambodia still reaching towards modernity, especially within the realms of gender relations.

‘A Storyscape in Dance’ is a predominately yellow and blue painting by Phany. In Cambodia, yellow is a symbol of happiness, of friendship, of enthusiasm, of luxury, of success, and of pride. Two figures, in yellow, dominate the picture. The two figures are standing amidst a washed out blue (the colour of royalty, of freedom) and are practically identical. Their hands are attached, left hand to right hand as they face inwards, into the painting, perhaps divining their futures. Similar to many other paintings created by either one of the twins, the concept of their togetherness, of the special pride they hold for their nature as twins, often dominates. Though fiercely proud of their Khmer heritage, the twins are equally proud of their uniqueness as twins. 

In her painting ‘Massive Dream Girls’, Phany has drawn from the energy of an organic Surrealism otherwise seen in the British Surrealist Desmond Morris and the Catalan Surrealist Juan Miro’s works. In that painting Phany has taken her dreamlike imagination to its limit. She metamorphoses herself and her sister into a quasi erotic synthesis of potent, yet unidentifiable, organic forms resembling a fluidity of droplets and globular forms.

Other paintings ease the more surreal elements into the background, while bringing reflections of Khmer culture to the fore. This can be witnessed in Phany’s painting ‘Kenor’*. In ‘Kenor’ the female figure is an ‘Apsara’** like being. Phany explains that Khmer Apsaras cannot fly, unlike Indian apsaras who are messengers of the gods. Phany’s Khmer Kenor is a demigod-like mythical being with an ornamental crown of gold. The Khmer people believe that the Kenor (Neang Kenor) are half-women, half-bird deities living in the heavens. In modernity, Kenor are frequently represented through Khmer dance, as are apsaras. A Kenor also features in her sister Phanin’s painting, where a Kenor is trying to help an angel who has been chained to a block. A radiant sun shines on the empathy the Kenor shares with the trapped angel. Angles, Apsara and Kenor are metaphorically ‘sisters’ within Khmer mythos, thus symbolically emphasising the closeness shared by the Khmer twins. Another image (by Phanin) has a Kenor embracing a naked Angel. They sit, the Angel is resigned to the comfort her ‘sister’ mystical being exudes. The Kenor smiles a peaceful smile.

In the upstairs art room of one Cambodian art charity, next to twin wall-mounted Khmer Trou Ou (musical instruments-often played by Phany and her sister) hangs another painting by Phany. This canvas features stone steps, a ladder in perspective and before it a representation of the twins, as apsaras. The twin on the right ((dressed in pink) faces the ladder, on her long black hair is an apsara crown. She has her arm entangled with her sister (in green) who faces the onlooker with a paper mask over her face. The female figures are framed in the foreground by large standing pillars. The two women, one looking forward, but masked, and the other looking towards the ladder, reveal a dichotomy besides their being identical twins, the individuality of their characters and the obverse and reverse nature of the painting’s figures. Two ladders are traditionally used to enter Khmer houses, for only the solidity of temples had stone steps. Houses were raised to be away from annual flood waters (May to November). Can the sisters climb the ladder while one is held in thrall by those who view. Can they disentangle themselves to lead separate lives. It is a dilemma. Phanin’s surreal painting of Cambodian flowers dominates the wall opposite.

In more recent paintings, Phany experiments with a change of style. Gone is the blended smoothness of the earlier surreal work. This is ejected in favour of a more textual approach to her painting. Phany’s background subject matter becomes reminiscent of the Italian proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, but with a more highly textured foreground, as if revealing the angst of her subject within the depth of the paint, as well as in the painting itself.

Gradually Phany moves towards a painterly magical realism. She maintains colours from previous paintings but, in places, interjects this with a stark expressionism. One such oil painting, her latest - ‘Endless hope’, is dominated by her surreal colouration in the mid and background, but the foreground features a highly textured, practically expressionistic, figure of a young man drinking from a bottle of water. He stands next to a school bench. Phany explains that this is a scene she witnessed when she was younger. The water-bottle is old, the water brackish. The young, poor, student is ashamed of his ageing water bottle and hides it from view when he can. He grows, remembering his poverty. It is a human reenactment of the story of the lotus. The lotus, revered in Cambodian Buddhism, emerges from its humble beginnings in a lake’s mud. It strives and reaches into the sunlight, then blossoms. Many varieties of lotus are both wild, and cultivated, across Cambodia.

One exuberant painting, titled ‘A Little Peace’ sees Phany furthering her new style. A jewell faceted head, in purple, sits on a body half blue and half pink, as if the notion of ‘twin’ becomes merged into one being. A Buddha -like figure demonstrates a ‘Mudah’ or significant Buddhist hand gesture. Perhaps a blessing or protection (Abhaya). In the painting elements of Expressionism meet fragments of Cubism and organic Surrealism in a canvas dedicated to peace, with intimations of former horrors. This is achieved, subtly, through her stylistic melange which surprises and delights at one and the same time.

Phany’s sister Phanin has also experimented with Expressionism and a fantasy based Surrealism. ‘The hurt want what want’ reflects all the angst of Norwegian Edvard Much’s ‘The scream’. Phanin’s tortured figure is in red, while the background is a moody blue.

While we marvel at Cambodia’s painting twins Phany and Phanin, there are twin sisters painting in Britain too. The British Singh Twins (Amrit Kaur Singh and Rabindra Kaur Singh), who were born in London of Indian decent, use traditional techniques seen in Indian miniature painting, but in a contemporary way. Their vibrant works have been seen in galleries across the world, and one can only hope that the same fate awaits the Khmer twins Phany and Phanin.

A Kenor is a mythical female dancer with a body half-human and half-bird.

**According to the Oxford Dictionary - An Apsara is a type of female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist culture. They figure prominently in the sculpture, dance, literature and painting of many South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Kanak Champa Chakma: reinvigorating Bangladesh Modernism

Art transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested ; we are lifted above the stream of life.” Clive Bell, p25, in The Aesthetic Hypothesis, Art, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914.

I was fortunate. During my short sojourn in Dhaka between February and March 2019, I was fated to meet with Kanak Champa Chakma on a number of occasions. This eventuated in me being invited to her studio, for a delicious homemade lunch and to see her stunning artworks in varying stages of growth. This gave me a slight glimpse into the life and art of this accomplished Bangladesh artist.

While heeding the advice from a renown Dhaka writer not to reference outside of the culture, in this instance there is no denying the need to mention the influence of Paul Gauguin’s powerful, original, colouration and simplicity of line on the works of Kanak Champa Chakma. The artist, herself, would be the first to admit to her fascination with what Roger Fry had determined as the ‘Post Impressionism’ of Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), as had Syed Manzoorul Islam, writing for Kanak Champa (The Sights and Sounds of Kanak Chanpa’s World), in Kanak Chanpa Chakma, published by Duncan Brothers, in Dhaka, 2005.

In the last years of the 19th Century Gauguin, and others, had been seeking fresh ways to look at art, painting especially. In ‘Ivory Apes and Peacocks’ (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), James Huneker, writing about Paul Gauguin, mentioned that ‘He was weary of a Paris where everything had been painted, described, modelled, so he sailed for Tahiti, landing at Papeete.” In 1891 Gauguin, travelled to Tahiti, then to the Marquises archipelago, to satisfy his curiosity for ‘the primitive’, a life unspoiled by its brush with European ‘civilisation’. He was disappointed. Modern life had reached there first. In 1901 he had to travel deeper into those, and adjacent isles, to find a fresh way of looking at this art.

Before his return to the Pacific isles, Gauguin had written “Think also of the musical role colour will henceforth play in modern painting. Colour, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force.” (Paul Gauguin, Letter to Fontainas, 1899).

Gauguin’s ‘inner force’ of colour has echoed through the ages, influencing other artists such as Wassilly Kandinsky (1866 - 1944), renown for his own colour theories. Before his untimely death (in Atuona, Hiva Oa, the Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia, 8th of May 1903), in 1897 Gauguin had painted a large canvas, ‘D'où Venons Nous  Que Sommes Nous  Où Allons Nous’ (‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’)  spanning some 139 cm × 375 cm (or 55 in × 148 in). That large painting has been highly influential on the works of other artists, and one can image how influential this might have been for Kanak Champa Chakma with her use of dynamic colours et al. Her work can be seen to reinvigorate the idea of a Bangladesh ‘Modernism’, while looking back to Gauguin and examining her ethnic Chakma roots through pictorial forms.

Kanak Champa is no outsider looking in, no middle class European filled with romantically poetic notions of the ‘Primitive’, as was Gauguin, but an artist who concerns herself with the plight, history and culture of her people - the Chakma ethnic tribe, who represent the largest of the 45 ethnic minority communities in Bangladesh.

Kanak Champa (Chakma), however, is not the first female artist to have brought touches of School of Paris to the Indian subcontinent. The briefly lived Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 - 41), wallowing in Parisian bohemia, responded to Gauguin’s paintings of the women in Tahiti by painting ‘Self-Portrait as a Tahitian’ (1934), in which the artist sensually appears with a hint of wildness and ‘primitiveness’, in her self-portrait. It is claimed that the half Indian, half Hungarian Amrita Sher-Gil had introduced Modern Art, and thus also knowledge of Paul Gauguin and his style, into India where she returned in 1935 settling, for a while, in Saraya, a village in India’s Gorakhpur district. She died in Lahore, now part of Pakistan.

Kanak Champa’s own response to Gauguin was not that of Sher-Gil. Kanak Champa has not adopted an adversarial position towards Gauguin nor, necessarily, has attempted to subvert the male ‘gaze’, supplanting that with another, an opposing a ‘feminist’ one. Instead Kanak Champa imbues her artworks (of tribes people) with the sort of honestly only one uniquely familiar with their culture can portray. Kanak Champa, in her choice to channel Gauguin, differs from that of Sher-Gil.  Kanak Champa uses Gauguin to reveal the indigene while presenting, and representing, a mystic ‘otherness’ in her choice of neo-Symbolist imagery. Thus Kanak Champa demonstrates her unique intimacy with her subject, her mastery over the mediums she chooses and her acuteness in presenting both to a beguiled audience.

K.G.Subramanyan (in his talk for the 4th Ravishanker Rawal Memorial lecture, on Art & The Matter of Identity, 2007) suggested that….

…visual art today functions in an indefinite location. Although an artist puts a lot of planning and effort into making an art object, the viewer is relatively a stranger to its message. Even the qualities of its image, in the absence of a common cultural background or the instabilities within the one that is. So in today's world art is becoming more of a commodity and less of a communication, for all the fan-fare and publicity that accompanies the launch or the opening of an exhibition.

Observing Kanak Champa’s early paintings, such as ‘Way of Peace’ (1998), you may be forgiven for assuming there might be a fondness for a symbolism closer to home - that of  India’s Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951). He was a pioneer of the ‘Bengal School of Art’ and that ‘renaissance’ Indian Rabindranath Tagor’s nephew. Abanindranath Tagore’s evocative Symbolist paintings such as the ‘Untitled’ watercolour (Maiden) created in the 1920s, or his ‘pastel on board with oil’ portrait of his grandson, ‘Mohanlal Ganguly’ (1926), resonate with the more ‘romantic’ aspects of European Symbolism woven into aspects of ‘traditional’ Indian painting. If you consider Abanindranath Tagore’s work to have some influence over Kanak Champa’s own, you would be incorrect.

Kanak Champa’s pictorial ‘task’, as it were, is to wrestle with Subramanyan’s negative imaginings concerning ‘Modernism’ by bringing alive the naturalness of the Chakma (and other) tribal indigenes, without resorting to overdue romanticism, which European Symbolism has a leaning towards, while preserving all the indigenous mystique of her subject matter. It is to her credit that Kanak Champa does this successfully, allowing her audience to see what she sees, at least at one remove, with all the beauty and intrinsic spiritualism of the tribal peoples. This is achieved through her astute choices of colour, form, composition and a textuality which adds physical and psychological depths to her canvases.

Though still in tune with a revitalised Gauguin, Kanak Champa has moved on to use impasto and scraping techniques for her canvas’ physical depth, alluring and beguiling her audience(s). She frequently exhibits heightened colour choices, more in tune with ‘The Fauves’ (‘les fauves’ or the wild beasts, 1905 to 1910) who came after Gauguin, with distinct suggestions of a dynamic use of ‘Expressionism’. In her home studio I had seen works which varied from a predominantly duo-tone canvas (roseate and blue) to another where a green had been pushed back so as not to challenge the power of the blue and the female figure before it. I also witnessed a long canvas, worked with yellow which edged towards the golden, where five figures dominated the foreground, and yet another two figures shared the mid and background. Delicate introductions of red and white, dour tones of grey-brown only sought to emphasise that gold/yellow, demonstrating the artist’s familiarity with colour theory. But there again, and naturally as an artist, her work is unique.

When I look at my attempts to ‘situate’ Kanak Champa within the framework of Modernist painting, I inevitably fail. I fail because all such attempts must remain futile. No such direct comparisons could possibly exit. I may cite Gauguin, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism and Expressionism only to eventuate in realising that any such combination of styles and forms only highlights the originality of Kanak Champa's work. I use Abanindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil to ‘localise’ possible stylistic influences, demonstrating that the Indian subcontinent too has produced artists of note in similar vein. Ones who had worked towards an Asian Modernism.

Kanak Champa, I have to confess, is an original. In her approach to her art, in her approach to her subject matter and in her choices of revelation, or obturation, she excels in rendering her own narrative and the stories of those frequently marginalised by a mainstream society.

Tan Puay Tee - Woodcuts

In making woodcuts, Tan Puay Tee continues an age old Chinese tradition. Evidence suggests that ‘woodcuts’ or ‘woodblocks’ (that is carved blocks of wood initially used for silk design printing), had began in China during the 4th or 5th centuries. A century later, and China had invented paper. Woodblock printing, in black, was used for Buddhist religious texts, calendars, and calligraphy, but soon bright red (vermillion, or Cinnabar as it was known) was added to produce two-colour prints, mostly of text. Between 960 and 1279 woodblock printing was used to make decorated books in China, and was at its most popular their between 1368 and 1644, such as the ‘Northern Story of the Western Chamber,’ corrected by Zhang Shenzhi, 1639. Zhang Daojun compiler and editor, Chen Hongshou artist, Xiang Nanzhou carver. Woodblock-printed book, ink on paper.

Western styles of art production had been encouraged by the Chinese government since 1902. This increased with the May Fourth Movement (1919), and spread during the early years of the twentieth century. The 1920s and 1930s saw a revival of woodblock printing in China, this time the avant garde used ‘Expressionist’ black and white style, led by artist and educator Li Shutong, who advocated creative woodblock printing and, later, by writer and activist Lu Xun who was interested in woodblock prints as a political tool.

Since the 1880s, Singaporean newspapers (under British Malaya) had already being using woodcut technology to add images to text - cartoons and advertising. In I. Proudfoot’s  ‘Early Malay Printed Books’ (1993), an early Bible, in Singapore, published by the London Missionary Society (1825) had typeset Jawi along with woodcut illustrations. Another, mentioned in ‘Proudfoot’, and published by the British & Foreign Bible Society (1868), also featured woodcut illustrations alongside Jawi typeset text.

According to Art Historian Foo Kwee Horng (in his MA dissertation for the National Institute of Education, Singapore), towards the end of the 1930s interest in woodcut printing was on the wane in Singapore, but was given a new lease of life by the Sunday art supplement in the ‘Nanyang Siang Pau', which heralded in the Creative Woodblock Movement.  Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (established in 1938) had educators practising in Western Art, sculpture, arts Education and applied fine arts, as well as one teacher (Chen Puzhi aka Lan Jia) who specialised in woodcuts. Chen, from China’s Canton, was a pioneer of Chinese political woodcuts, and a communist who had fled to Singapore while being pursued by the Chinese Guomingtang government. The heyday for Singaporean woodcut printing was the 1950s and 1960s, sparked by the social unrest of the time. Like in 1930s China, the starkness and power of woodcut imagery were used (in Singapore) as a political tool.

Tan’s woodcut’s are not the delicate antiquarian illustrations of ancient China, nor are they those political wood gougings depicting workers’ struggles, or the bondage of the working classes (proletariat) to the rich (bourgeoise) of China in the 1920s and 30s, nor yet again the harsh social/political narratives depicting life under colonialism of Singapore’s 1950s. Tan’s work does deal with the harsh realities of life, but not in such an overt fashion, despite woodcuts being entirely suitable to that purpose, and that medium’s tendency for angst ridden, fiery, narratives.

I will mention two very different woodcuts by Tan Puay Tee; one carefully executed woodcut depicts a landscape in multiple shades of grey (Peep 1988). This landscape is populated by three trees, their branches stripped bare of leaves. In the distance are hills, or mountains, while above them all drifts a human figure printed in black. All we see of the figure is his hands, which droop, and the figure’s head cocked to one side, perhaps sleeping. His body appears to be a light brown cloud (possibly originally white, but the wood pulp paper has aged). to one side is another, smaller, cloud.

There is a hint of Marc Chagall’s oil colour ‘Over the Town’ (1918), or perhaps Chagall’s lithograph from 1966 depicting a flying mermaid. Like Chagall, there is a dream element to Tan’s grey woodcut, created in 1990, but why, you might wonder, are the trees bare. In Malaysia, this green, fecund land, leafless trees are seldom seen unless they are dead. We might wonder, is this the soul’s journey, not across the River Styx but over some barren landscape where life refuses to exist? Or, some echo of distance Greek myths where, as the poet John Gilbert Cooper relates in his epic poem ‘The Power of Harmony’ (1745) …

Now change the scene, Nor less admire those things, which view’d apart
Uncouth appear, or horrid; ridges black
Of shagged rocks, which hang tremendous o’er
Some barren heath; the congregated clouds
Which spread their sable skirts, aud wait the wind
To burst th’ embosom’d storm; a leafless wood….

The other artwork (Rest 1982), contrary to the above woodcut, is in pale blue and black, leaving the white of the paper as a third colour for the background. In this print, we are presented with two figures framed by a tentative border, black at the bottom, blue above. Both figures are male, inked black with white details in the woodcut fashion. Both are seated, wearing sarongs and singlets, one black the other white. Both smoke. In the mid ground is the prow of a fishing boat, behind, and in the background, sit another two fishing vessels.

The print is a thoughtful piece. The two figures present as if in thought. Is this a rest after a hard day’s fishing, a moment grabbed to smoke in, a brief respite from a hard working life? There seems no joy in the faces of the two smokers, but they sit, in contemplation perhaps of what they have done, or what they need to do, theirs lives similar enough to not warrant conversation. The boldness of the print is typical of woodcut, stark, but in a gentle, harmonious sense. The lines of the chequered sarongs are clearly evident, as is the drooping cloth of the fishermen’s singlets, paired with the fishermen’s shoulders, fallen, laden with the weight of their rural existence.

The Principal Girl -Feminist Tales from Asia: a short review

The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales from Asia is an anthology of short stories from Malaysia and Singapore, edited by Sharifah Aishah Osman and Tutu Dutta. It is a collection of eighteen stories, in two hundred and twenty two pages, revealed by authors from Malaysia, Singapore and diaspora.

In pantomime, as in life, young females have been frequently required to dress as males to be recognised for their abilities, chiefly as the ‘Principal Boy’ or ‘breeches parts’. In a more enlightened age it may have been ‘The Principal Girl’. Sadly the ‘Principal Girl’ has often existed only as the love interest for the Principal Boy/hero/rogue. Famous girls as boys have included the likes of Marie Lloyd, the Queen of the Music Halls, and Dorothy Ward, for pantomime is a topsy turvy world of gender reversal with women as men and men as women (including ‘Pantomime Dames’ such as Dan Leno’s Widow Twankey). The 18th century began the tradition of women dressing as men on stage. Before which most roles, be they male or female, were performed by men. A century later and Madam Vestris (Lucia Elizabeth Vestris) was making her name in gender swapping roles and rose to become a theatre producer/manager.

I confess that it was the striking blue, practically Gauguinesque, cover by Farisya Faizal which initially caught my attention. A puzzled, or was that surprised, female face, her hair adorned with flowers, shone from a background of tropical leaves from either Gauguin’s Marquesas Islands, or Penang. Next, the text - ‘Feminist Tales from Asia’ had my curiosity well and truly piqued,. Those words encapsulated promises of short stories viewed from a very different perspective.

I noticed the name Preeta Samarasan, and then, like a puzzling pantun, everything clicked into place. Samarasan (author of ‘Evening Is The Whole Day’) has been the public face of Malaysian feminism for some time; quietly setting writing and feminist discourse standards for the region. Tutu Dutta (coeditor of this anthology, along with Sharifah Aishah Osman) remains a leading figure in Malaysia children’s and young adult books, and has produced myriad mythic tales for our delight and delectation. Both women are fine examples of strong, dare I say intrepid, females and are ‘Principal Girls’ themselves. Not in any secondary sense, you understand, of being reliant on a love interest, but prime (of first importance), able, resilient and tenacious enough to forge their own heroic paths. And thus, as it turned out, were many of the characters in the eighteen stories.

Heroic females are not at all unfamiliar. In the West. Author Maureen Murdock has countered many male myths with her ‘The Heroine’s Journey’, including that of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ within his ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and concept of a ‘monomyth’. Contemporary writers like Margaret Atwood, (The Penelopiad), Judith Butler (Antigone’s Claim) and the great female philosopher Helene Cixous (The Laugh of the Medusa) have all delved into what had previously been male myths. However, coming from the East, the stories in ‘The Principal Girl’, (situated in a frequently misunderstood and oft times overlooked South East Asia and its diaspora), enhance our understanding from this newer perspective of storytelling, within a fresher understanding of equatorial gender relations.
Just as an anthology such as ‘The Principal Girl’ cannot contain all short stories currently written, so this review is selective too. Joyce Ch’ng’s ‘Reborn’ aptly begins this fascinating anthology. It is a carefully crafted tale combining myths from the East (Feng Huang), West (Phoenix) and from Egypt (Bennu), with a soupçon of Ancient Greek philosophy. I’ll not give the plot away, but say that it is a beautiful narrative deserving of a greater word count. The story drips with poetic depth, is captivating and over a greater distance may even prove to be charming, literally.

Then, on page twelve, the reader wakes up to the shock of Preeta Samarasan’s pointed, and maybe poignant, words in ‘The Girl on the Mountain’. It is as if Angela Carter, that doyen of adult fairy stories is reborn for, to quote Samarasan’s own words back to her, she is  ‘a girl who dares to say what she thinks’. Like Carter, Samarasan infuses new spirit into what could have otherwise been just another strong-willed princess (male) fantasy.

For a third story, I have chosen Golda Mowe’s ‘Under the Bridge’. Mowe is Sarawakian of both Iban and Melanau descent, and has written much of Iban legends and superstitions. Her story in this anthology is no disappointment. It is a cautionary tale of identity and ego, best read to find out more.

Shalini Nadaswaran’s romantically moral tale of ‘An Epic Misunderstanding’  completes my quartet. It is also the final story in the book. I have to confess that I did find it irksome, and disruptive, to have to rush to the glossary at the story’s end to find translations for Tamil in the text. How to be authentic with your narration while not alienating your reader, is a delicate juggling act. Perhaps footnotes, or simply adding the translation in brackets might help with the reader’s flow. That said, it was an interesting, though saddening, story.

The anthology, as a whole, hangs together well. I eagerly await the next volume, and hope that it too may contain all female voices, for that really, apart from the actual writing, is the strength of this anthology.

Well done the writers, and well done to Sharifah Aishah Osman and Tutu Dutta.

Shahabuddin Ahmed - Sbādhīnatā (Freedom)

Freedom from fear is the freedom
I claim for you my motherland!
Freedom from the burden of the ages, bending your head,
breaking your back, blinding your eyes to the beckoning
call of the future;
Freedom from the shackles of slumber wherewith
you fasten yourself in night's stillness,
mistrusting the star that speaks of truth's adventurous paths;
freedom from the anarchy of destiny
whole sails are weakly yielded to the blind uncertain winds,
and the helm to a hand ever rigid and cold as death.
Freedom from the insult of dwelling in a puppet's world,
where movements are started through brainless wires,
repeated through mindless habits,
where figures wait with patience and obedience for the
master of show,
to be stirred into a mimicry of life.

Rabindranath Tagore

Born September 11th, 1950, in the Narsingdi District of Bangladesh, Shahabuddin Ahmed had already exhibited his great strength of character, and zeal for freedom when taking time out from art school to fight as a platoon commander, in Bangladesh’s guerrilla resistance movement (Mukti Bahini), during the Liberation War (1971). Shahabuddin fought for his country’s eventual freedom from Pakistan and, at the age of 21, raised the Bangladesh flag (after a nine month struggle for freedom), on the roof of ‘Pakistan Radio’, December 16, 1971, at the culmination of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war. For this, in 2000, he received the ‘Shadhinota Padak’ (Independence Award - the highest civilian honour in Bangladesh).

In 1973, Shahabuddin finally graduated from the Dhaka Art College (now Fine Arts School of Dhaka). The then Prime Minister of Bangladesh (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), encouraged Shahabuddin to go to Paris, France. Rahman (Bangabandhu, or ‘Friend of Bengal’) had suggested ‘…you must go, beat Picasso.

Rahman’s suggestion, that Shahabuddin should become greater than Picasso, spoke not only of Picasso’s greatness as an artist, but also of Picasso’s ceaseless desire for peace. Picasso had spent many years painting of war and of peace. He had, after all, created one of the most memorable war paintings ever - Guernica, in 1937. Guernica, a painting which depicts the graphic horror of the bombing of a Spanish town, is as impressive in its size as it is in its content. Overall it stands at 25.6 feet wide and 11 feet tall, and its full impact can be seen in Museo Reina Sofia, in Madrid. Picasso’s ‘Dove of Peace’, his symbol for the First International Peace Conference, in Paris 1949, became ‘the international emblem of the Peace Movement and a symbol of hope in the Cold War period’ (it mentions in the Tate Liverpool exhibition ‘Picasso: Peace and Freedom’, 2010). It was in Paris, that Shahabuddin finally saw the works of Pablo Picasso, up close and personal.

Armed with that scholarship from the French government, Shahabuddin Ahmed arrived in Paris to study painting at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. Coincidently, it was in the autumn of 1974, that Francis Bacon arrived back in Paris, and settled into a studio apartment, at 14 rue de Birague, in the Marais district near the Place des Vosges. Paris was a city beloved of Francis Bacon, and one he spent much time visiting, discovering his own love for Picasso’s work, in Pierre Rosenberg’s gallery (1927).

In 1977, while still in Paris, Shahabuddin suffered the fate of all displaced persons and, ironically (as Paris was seen as the centre of post-war French Existentialism), had an existential crisis. Shahabuddin was, like Jean-Paul Sartre’s character Antoine Roquentin (La Nausée, or Nausea, published in 1938) thrown into worry about his existence, his worth and the worth of his painting. Sartre, of course, is renown for commenting ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning’ An obvious nod to Friedrich Nietzche’s ‘Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves’. Shahabuddin’s crisis dissipated upon experiencing the power of Francis Bacon’s exhibits at Galerie Claud Bernard, 5,7,9, rue des Beaux-Arts, Paris 6, galvanising Shahabuddin, once again, into action, but this time with a paintbrush.

In those traumatised images and the free strokes comprising Bacon’s imagery, Shahabuddin had found his meaning. He was encouraged to continue, to wrestle his freedom to paint, and Shahabuddin had recognised in Bacon’s imagery, a kinship. Shahabuddin was adapt Bacon’s style, style, discarding the obvious horrors and the inherent violence of Bacon’s paintings, as Shahabuddin had had enough violence during the war, as his 2018 exhibition ‘Shanti’ (Peace, May - April 2018)) attends.

Shahabuddin had found his expression, the freedom and the will to energise his will onto canvas.
Thomas McEvilley, in his book ‘Capacity: The History, the World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism’ (1997), when talking about the Dakar Festival for the Revival of African Arts, made this comment - ‘Bangladeshi Ahmed Shahabuddin’s expertly executed canvases seemed derived in part from Francis Bacon.’ Life has repeatedly brought Shahabuddin within the periphery of Bacon, and his work.

In time, due to the similarities in his work to that of France Bacon, Shahabuddin had earned the dubious title of ‘Little Bacon’ (according to an interview the artist had with Snehangshu Adhikari, in The Sunday Indian (April 3, 2011). It was a title Shahabuddin spent a lifetime dispelling, which he has by the sheer dint of his hard work and diligent concentration on moving forward with his style.
As Shahabuddin’s works matured, he too became exhibited in the very same gallery, in Paris, in which Francis Bacon's works had been exhibited. Bacon and Picasso had loomed large in Shahabuddin’s early life as a painter, but they were not the only Modernist’ painters who had shaped that borrowed style.

There is little doubt that Shahabuddin, this vital giant of Bangladesh painting imparts his the full force of his passion into his art, brimming with visual intensity and puissance, just as he had once flung himself into the fray to create freedom for his country. He and his work have also commonalities with Bangladesh artist Shilpacharya (great teacher) Zainul Abedin. As we witness in Zainul Abedin’s drawings and paintings, we have his sense of great movement, as that in Shahabuddin’s works too. This is shown in works such as  Zainul Abedin’s Rebel Cows’ (1975), ’Sangram’ (Struggle, 1976) and one untitled piece which was executed in 1967. It is an ink and pastel, on paper, depicting a group of figures in furious movement.

Shahabuddin Ahmed’s art frequently echoes the untamed organic landscapes imagined by British Graham Sutherland’s ‘organic’ surrealisms, such as ‘Green Tree Form’ (1940), ‘Twisted Tree Form’ (1944) and ’Sleeping Woman’ (1953). Bacon and Sutherland had been friends during the 1940s, with Sutherland advancing Bacon’s career, and with much painterly cross-fertilisation occurring. This becomes evident in paintings such as Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on Sea Wall’ (1939). It is no wonder then, that those ‘echoes’ occur, passed, as they had been, from Sutherland to Bacon, and to Shahabuddin. It is that metamorphosis, that evolving which is the product of freedom of the artist’s mind, freedom to experiment, for the artist to create without fear.

It is an arts tradition. ‘Apprentice’ (student) becomes a ’Journeyman’ at the completion of his/her apprenticeship and, eventually, a ‘Master’ in their own right. Although those antediluvian practices have evolved into studentship and teacher/lecturer/artist the relationship and its value remains. The Louvre in Paris (1793) and the Victoria & Albert Museum (1852) were created for the purpose of students gaining inspiration from past artists, who were considered masters of their trade and exemplars for students to learn from.

In 2017, Mexico’s Fine Arts Palace held the exhibition ‘Picasso & Rivera. Conversaciones a través del tiempo’ (Conversations Across Time). It charted a cross-fertilisation between two great artists, Pablo Picasso from Spain and Diego Rivera from Mexico, their similarities, their friendship and their ultimate falling out. Separately, they had both studied at the San Fernando Royal Academy, Madrid, and separately moved to Paris, finally meeting in 1914. Rivera had ‘sampled’ Picasso’s ‘Cubism’, while Picasso had ‘sampled’ Rivera’s ‘Muralism’.

Another great Spaniard, Salvador Dalí, countryman to and admirer of Picasso’s works, engineered a mutual friend (the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca) to obtain an introduction to Picasso. This occurred in Paris, in 1926. The influence of Picasso’s work, over Dalí, was chartered in the exhibition Picasso Dalí/Dalí Picasso at Museu Picasso, Barcelona, in 2015. Like Picasso’s relationship with Rivera, Picasso had a strained relationship with Dalí also. Picasso was to go on to influence many painters, including those from the Indian sub-continent, with artists such as F N Souza, Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain and, of course, Shahabuddin Ahmed admiring his freedom to create.

Shahabuddin’s paintings are about freedom. But not only the freedom from the act of war, or the ravages of war and the imprinting of such on the mind of a survivor, but a freedom of the spirit, of the soul (if we deign to use such language) and a freedom to experiment with creativity. Shahabuddin’s struggle has not been just to wrestle with the after effects of war, or to represent the horrors or war in a new fashion, but to present his work as his own, freed from the strictures of being a ‘Little Bacon’, or bound to another artist’s vision of the world.

It would be a mistake to consider Shahabuddin’s work to be simply a ‘working out’, in his psyche, of the traumas and dislocations of war, as some have intimated in the Indian press (Daily Sun). Even with his last exhibition (in Kolkata’s Ganges Art Gallery) ‘Shanti’, there was an underlining murmur of his days at war, Bangladesh’s liberation, the struggle etc. While this is undeniably true, and Shahabuddin has never denied the impact of the ‘Liberation’ war on him and his work, nor the fact that he had been galvanised into action by the repressions inherent with the rule of Pakistan over his country. However, this should not be allowed to define the past four decades of this artist’s work. Shahabuddin’s vitality, seen in his paintings, has moved him on from war to peace (‘Shanti’, or Peace is the name of his exhibition).

Of course, it is difficult to talk of peace (Shanti), without talking first of war. One dictionary definition tells us that ‘Peace’ is ‘a state or period in which there is no war, or a war has ended'. Another speaks of ‘no violence’. It is perfectly understandable why so much emphasis has been laid on Shahabuddin’s connection to a series of events which culminated with Bangladesh being created, freed from oppression, yet that is not the entire story.

As Shahabuddin (in an interview with Zahangir Alom, in The Daily Star, December 16, 2016) reminds us, artistic freedom is ‘….a difficult thing in the world. It is protected (by law) only in France.’ the French had that liberty, that freedom, enshrined in law from July 2016. While in other (South Asian) countries (according to The State of Artistic Expression) ‘Artists practice a degree of self-censorship for fear of losing state patronage’. Srirak Plipat Executive Director of Freemuse (an independent international organisation advocating for and defending freedom of artistic expression) recently stated…

Freedom of artistic freedom and creativity does matter. It is recognised as a human right in key international human rights laws. But what makes artistic freedom matter is that it makes us who we are as a human being in society.

Artists, or in common parlance ‘creatives’, may be identified as human agents having autonomy, or free-will, to decide (what to do), and the ability to act upon that free-will without repercussions. To be truly free, to be liberated in the mind to paint, free from the pettiness of social strictures, politics etcetera is, sadly, becoming rarer across the globe. Countries which once embraced the idea of equality and freedom, change, and revert to old ways. France is the exception, hence Shahabuddin’s oscillation between his newly found home in Paris and the home that he fought for in Dhaka. Freedom has its own price.

Maksuda Iqbal Nipa

Art lover Nuruzzaman Kaiser had been in contact with me for a while, expressing his joy for art, more espeically by Bangladeshi artists. We agreed to meet on an unexceptionally hot day in Kuala Lumpur, to talk about art from Bangladesh, while Kaiser was still in Malaysia on business. The venue was IOI Mall Starbucks, convenient for us both.

Before he was due to leave Malaysia, Kaiser had wanted to pass a book to me. It had the intriguing title of ‘Maksuda Iqbal Nipa: Episodes of her Gaze’, and was a retrospective collection of images by the non-figurative Bangladeshi artist Maksuda Iqbal Nipa. The book had been published, with much acclaim, in Dhaka, the year before last (2016). That volume was replete with testimonies from fellow artists and well wishers, as well as featuring a concise background on the artist. On seeing such amazing images, I promptly agreed to execute the following write up for The Blue Lotus magazine, and was deeply honoured to discover that the book was signed by the artist herself.

Maksuda Iqbal Nipa: Episodes of her Gaze, is an imposing book which captures something of the artist’s thought provoking image making. It is a hard bound book and runs to over 250 pages. It is replete with a colourful dust jacket which features this artist’s exciting painting ‘Sounds of Austere Perceptions (2013), on the front cover, and is published by Enyetullah Khan’s Cosmos Foundation’s Cosmos Books, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is Maksuda Iqbal Nipa's first publication.

Before enquiring too far into Maksuda Iqbal Nipa's work, there are some salient details a reader, fresh to Bangladeshi art, might want to be apprised of. As you might recall, after independence from British rule (1947) several Muslim art teachers (from the Calcutta Art School, founded by the British in 1854) had moved into what eventually became known as Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal and East Pakistan).

Zainul Abedin, Safiuddin Ahmed and the student Quamrul Hassan (all previously from the Calcutta Art School) moved to Dhaka. This eventuated in the creation of an art institute called the Dhaka Art School, in Dhaka, 1948. It was run along similar lines to that of the Calcutta Art School, and underwent several name changes over the years until, finally, in 2008, it became the Charukola, Faculty of Fine Art, which until today continues its emphasis on the mastery of naturalism.

Since those early days, the art of Bangladesh has moved from the pioneering ‘Modern’ figurative work of Zainul Abedin, characterised in paintings such as ‘Harvest’ (1934) and ‘Santal Couple’ (1951) to those exquisite socially conscious and earthy figurative works of Sheikh Mohammed Sultan (S.M.Sultan). Quamrul Hassan’s ‘Three Women 1’ (1955) leaned heavily towards the social figurative, but incorporated aspects of both Western ‘fauve’ and a latter day ‘Cubism’.

In more recent times, Maksuda Iqbal Nipa followed in the esteemed footsteps of Tahera Khanam, Rowshan Ara, Hasina Ali, Jubaida Akter Khatun and Syeda Moyeena Ahsan, the first women to be admitted to the Dhaka Art School, in1954. Following her heart, and seeking a more spiritual way of painting, Maksuda Iqbal Nipa has created an art not required to be dominated by either socially conscious figurative painting, nor to be held by conventions of subject and object, contrary to the teaching at the Dhaka Faculty of Fine Art.

You might remember that in ‘Dialogue on the New Plastic’ (‘Dialoog over de Nieuwe Beelding’), published over two issues of De Stijl magazine (1919), the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian argued that his new direction of painting’s aim was ‘To express relationships plastically through oppositions of colour and line.’ and ‘To be expressed plastically in a determinate way, relationships must be represented only through colour and line.’ Mondrian favoured the interaction of line and colour over the need for a definitive figurative subject and object. Maksuda Iqbal Nipa, in her post Japan works, demonstrates this most effectively and is shown in her collected acclaimed works, within the pages of that book ‘Maksuda Iqbal Nipa: Episodes of her Gaze’.

Maksuda Iqbal Nipa, or more commonly ‘Nipa’, as she is known, was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. In 1996 she completed her BFA (Drawing and Painting), at the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and in 2002 she undertook a Post-Graduate Research Course (Oil Painting), at the Aichi University of Education, Japan. In 2004, Nipa achieved her M.Ed. in Fine Arts (Painting), also at the Aichi University of Education. During her sojourn in Japan, Nipa’s artistic direction changed radically from the figurative to her own way of abstraction, like many Asian artists before her.

Japan, you might remember, was the prime motivator of Western ‘Modernism’ in Asia. It began with the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, and has influenced Asian countries such as China and, later, South East Asia with concepts of ‘Modern Art’ drawn from the West.

In Japan, Nipa’s move towards a chromic abstraction freed her to experiment with line and colour in much the way that those giants from the Bauhaus, Kandinsky and Mondrian, had advocated. Her colours spring, dance and vibrate, sometimes on very large canvases, weaving their own spiritual magic from cosmoses of colour (Pigmented Dream of Hard-edged Clarity, 2004), to ever flowing fields (Pondering Search, 2016). Nipa’s works are themselves transcendent, moving beyond mere paint on substrate, skilfully providing visual portals inciting observers to move to other planes. Nipa’s works are a triumph, a resounding crescendo of colour and line. 

Nipa’s chromatic compositions bring to mind the essence of Wassily Kandinsky’s philosophy of art. Kandinsky (in his 1910 essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual In Art’) spoke about an artist’s ‘inner life’ being expressed, its awakening and a transcendence through the medium of art. These self same spiritual expressions are evident in many of Nipa’s works, with titles eluding to their visual construct such as ‘Cerulean Wonder’, ‘Colour Haze’, ‘Traces from the Orange Botanic’, which subsequently bring to mind Kandinsky’s ‘Yellow, Red, Blue (1926), ‘White Line’ (1920) and his ‘Dreamy Improvisation’ (1913).

Though some have likened Maksuda Iqbal Nipa's works to those of the late Bangladeshi artist Mohammad Kibria (1929-2011), it is an unfair comparison. The only similarity is that both artists had inclined towards the abstract, which in itself is a large category. There are, seemingly, no other points of reference between the two artists to draw the conclusion of their similarity.

Collections of Nipa’s work may be discovered at the National Art Gallery of Bangladesh, Shilpakala Academy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, at the Bangladesh Bank, at the Bengal Foundation, also at the Embassy of Bangladesh in Vietnam. There are  her works at the Bangladesh National Museum, and many private collections at home and abroad.

Nipa has held numerous solo and group shows in Bangladesh, and outside, especially the National Museum of Bangladesh, UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, the Toyota Municipal Art Museum in Toyota, Japan, and at the Las Vegas Art Museum, USA, as well as the Youngone Corporation in Seoul, Korea. Nipa has been honoured by Bangladesh Mohila Porishod (Bangladesh Women’s Association) and has received numerous awards and grants from Japan, China, and Bangladesh.