Stepping Out of the Self

Syed Manzoorul Islam

Syed Hasan Mahmud graduated from the department of Drawing and Painting of the Institute of Art (now the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka) in 1982, and after a gap of few years doing freelance work, decided to dedicate himself to teaching art. He opened an art school in his mother’s name, ‘Jhapi School of Art’ in his spacious Dhanmondi house, and has been running the school with devotion and dedication ever since. The mention of the school is important in the context of Hasan’s art as working with young learners has both honed his ability to innovate and given him a new understanding of styles and techniques. By observing the way children use the brush, he has learnt how to allow the brush to control him, and not the other way around. His latest solo exhibition, only his 4th in more than three decade(s), shows works that grow out of a sense of abandonment. Hasan now refuses to be dictated by his head which, he feels, lends a rigidity and monotony to his canvas; rather he indulges the free spirited artist in him who likes to play along with the whims of the brush. Hasan prepares his own drawing implements – he doubles the length of the handle of the brush, for example, or rolls a wad of cotton half the length of his brush and ties it to it, giving the brush more power to manipulate. But the latest solo exhibition also sees him turn another page in innovation: in most of the paintings he has kept his distance from the canvas, not using a brush or spatula to apply colour. He does so by using his own technique or ‘throwing’. Colour is thus thrown at the canvas with great concentration and effort. The result is a variegated canvas where form and texture depends as much on chance as ingenuity or method.

Before discussing his 2014 exhibition, titled Abstract Serenity, it is important to have an idea of Hasan’s evolution as an artist. His first solo exhibition in 1992 at the gallery of L’Alliance Francaise in Dhaka showed a collection of work done in pastel. Hasan never did much work in pastel, but his Jhapi School experience taught him that pastel was a medium that could be ingenuously used to bring out subtle nuances of meaning, mood and feeling. The works were a combination of abstract and figurative, mostly showing the strains and angst that mark contemporary moods (one painting shows the angry face of Saddam Hossain who had invaded Kuwait the previous year). Our struggle for liberation in 1971 was also a concern for some of the paintings which showed, in suggestive details, and in a larger context, mankind’s desire for freedom.

After the exhibition, and before the next one in 1995 at La Galerie in Dhaka, Hasan’s energy was largely taken up by family problems, and a protracted process of litigation. He had hardly enough time to give to himself. But the school too needed him. So he shifted to Watercolour, which lent itself wonderfully to speed. He painted hundreds of Watercolours where his own feelings, his anguished subjectivity were in the fore. But painting was also something akin to meditation for the Artist, and he was able to rise over conflicts and negativities. The exhibition was a success, as his formal innovations, and the paintings’ emotional content blended seamlessly. Hasan had at that time given predominantly to experimentations with form. He was in search of pure forms and the magic of geometry. As a result his canvas took an abstract look, and forms and shapes appeared to float in space. His spatial aesthetics complemented the poetic mood that his paintings often evoked. His colour also became bright – his emphasis on primary colours meant that the canvas wouldn’t seem gloomy. They never did.

The following year, a third solo exhibition took place in Gifu Ken, Japan. Organized by the Women’s

Federation of Ikeda, the exhibition was, in fact, a continuation of his La Galerie one, with the same emphasis on abstraction and geometry. One of his most distinguishable and reassuring form was square because it did not exert as much speed or force on the eyes as triangle or other basic shapes did , which made him search and think rather than to get lost in a rush to fill up the canvas with shapes and lines and squiggles. Hasan’s latest exhibition has a significant time jump from his last. If he had retreated from view, it wasn’t because he wasn’t working – it was because other preoccupations claimed his time. His art school, for example, was getting bigger; its student body also contained professionals, such as architects, artists. Besides, Hasan had joined architect Rafiq Azam’s Shatotto – a firm devoted to green architecture, and it needed the help of an artist. The years he has spent with Azam has given him a better understanding of structure and composition and the aesthetics of colour. It has been a profitable association, to say the least.

As Hasan worked at his paintings, he also began to ask questions: Am I repeating myself? Is my formal pursuit becoming too rigid? In answering the questions, he also made a significant shift in his perspective. He had been mostly an artist confined within his studio. He had painted nature but sitting within his studio. But a change came into his style and method of painting during an Art Camp organized by Bengal Gallery. Artists in the camp were given the freedom to work in a studio or outside, and Hasan chose the latter. As he painted, he felt the rejuvenating touch of nature, and felt his spirit lift. His old love for nature revived and he began to explore the forms, the texture and colour that nature invokes. He also picked up Acrylic as his medium as it gave him both the versatility of Watercolour and the texture of Oil. Acrylic also allowed him to play with its properties. After the camp, Hasan settled on his theme, which was now nature and the world around him – his country. In 2011, he mounted an exhibition together with Rafiq Azam titled ‘Jugalbondi’, in the house of a client which was a major residential project for the team of Shatotto. Art & Architecture came together in one plane as Hasan’s paintings from 1992 till 2010 (which have been personally collected by the client) where exhibited at this open house exhibition.

Hasan was once fascinated by Mondrian and his use of primary colours. Primary colours played a large role in his Oil Paintings that he did side by side with Watercolour during the 90s.That fascination has now been replaced by an awareness of other colours, and their strengths. For a time he worked devotedly with brush, which he used to create delicate textures and spray-like effects. Many indeed were deceived to believe he had used the technique of spray painting. But working with brush also made him uneasy – as a question repeated itself: Am I becoming too rigid? He decided to move away from canvas altogether. Now he uses the technique of throwing with spectacular success. Sure, throwing is more a play than design, more a chance than meticulous execution, but Hasan is content. Even though his brushes do not touch his canvas anymore, his paintings are becoming more resonant, more articulate and innovative. When a work is finished, lines and forms stand out, the intricate textures stare at the viewer, but in the end, there is a symphony, a harmony of colours (mostly black and white), forms, suggestive details and space.

Today Hasan is a mature artist with a sense of purpose. He knows things are under control but he also wants to allow the medium and his artistic implements to exert their control too. He has fine tuned a process which involves three stages of work. In the first stage he applies wash of colours on his canvas. In the second, he applies darker shades which subsume the colours, so that the canvas looks dark. In the third stage the canvas is painted black. Then he takes the help of gesso white so that the canvas appears an intricate play of black and white. But as he throws his paints, gaps still remain, through which, sometimes, colours make an appearance. The canvas however, persists with the characteristics of monochrome. The Artist knows that a painting becomes a painting through a process which sometimes needs luck, and luck doesn’t always favour an artist. But likes to persist until he feels the painterly quality he desires has been achieved. He doesn’t make compromises, doesn’t like to leave things at the level of spectacle. He takes photographs of every stage of a work, which gives him a surer feel about his work, and its evolutionary journey.

For Abstract Serenity, Hasan has chosen a number of works that are exquisite in their composition and evocative in terms of meaning. Nature is a dominant subject, as is the great outdoors. The mysteries of life, the life the people live, the changing seasons and feelings that move people are explored in painting after painting. There are groups of 2, 4 or 6 paintings that explore the same compositional aesthetics, the same structures of feeling and look strikingly similar. Yet, there are variations. In many, colour plays subtly with the predominant monochromatic foreground. There are lines that run parallel from top or centre of the composition down below; sometimes lines also move upwards. There are Watercolour works as well from some years back, but this time his abstraction takes on a poetic form: it not only makes us think but feel as well. The end result is a combination of thought and feeling, with memory or a momentary uneasiness or happiness working as bonds. Abstract Serenity brings together the two stages of Hasan’s work – inside the studio and outside, but also suggests the dual aspects of his works. They explore the mind, the intricacies of thought, and the control the mind exercises on artists, as well as freedom from restriction, the abandonment and so on. The list can be extended, but the important thing the exhibition brings home to the audience is – step outside yourself, and you’ll discover yourself.

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