Painted in authentic colors, their faces remind you of their innocence. The dots in their background symbolize a world gone wrong. They look at you unblinking—their eyes deeply melancholic. They are children shattered by war; they live in a world that has forgotten how to raise them with love and tenderness, how to treat them with dignity.
Mohammad Iqbal, a contemporary artist of considerable repute based simultaneously in Dhaka and Tokyo, presents his audience with Silent Revelations, his 42nd solo exhibition that has recently opened at Dhanmondi Edge Gallery in Dhaka. In what appears to be a series of 50 paintings on related themes, Iqbal invites his viewers to reassess the political realities around us.
The series can be described as well as narrative art that tells a complete story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Iqbal’s socio-political consciousness is very lucid and coherent but when it translates into art it becomes a distinct lens that one can identify as Iqbal’s. The paintings in this exhibition are politically oriented, no doubt, especially when they highlight how war shatters children, leaving them with nothing but blood, loss and pain. But a good look at the children’s faces reveals that Iqbal has done so fulfilling all the emotive and artistic appeals that they deserve.
Bangladesh has had a rich tradition of artists who never fail to respond to overwhelming political crises affecting a large number of people, no matter whether they are happening in a far-away foreign land or in our own country. Iqbal definitely belongs to this group. However, instead of depicting the victims of war in general terms, he has focused entirely on children and their range of plights and sufferings in times of war. He has lived long enough to know that war breeds intolerance and xenophobia, and it triggers cultural, racial and communal conflicts. War does not discriminate; it kills people, subjecting children to traumatic experiences that haunt and scar them for life. This destructive dimension of war explains why the paintings are called “Destruction of Civilization,” “Lost Civilization,” “Language,” “Unknown Faces,” “Original Space,” or “Distant Skies.” All of them foreground a child’s face but what ultimately overpowers is the look of shock, uncertainty and pain in their eyes. What better way to engage the world? What better way to throw a question to the rest of the world if they’re complicit in all of this.
Talking about these faces, Iqbal says: “Facial expression is my prime interest. I sought to express the universal emotions of human nature—sorrow, happiness, melancholy etc. My paintings do not show any particular child’s face. In fact, I have tried to make them as impersonal as possible.” He portrays children’s raw emotions to counter violence and hostility.
A good number of the paintings portrays the disappearing lives of bauls, a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal, who lead a simple life and follow a secular philosophy. Iqbal is soulfully drawn to their ways of living, as he always focuses on the marginalized in his work. However, his depiction of bauls reveals a sad tale—a losing battle of spirituality against commercialism that rules the roost in the current world.
Iqbal deftly builds up the ground of his canvas, featuring several layers of color before delving deeper into his subject. He creates various kinds of dots and abstract forms with tiny circular and oval-sized forms, dabbling them with different shades. Sometimes he applies color directly, which fades in places in a proportionate manner.
Dots define Iqbal’s signature style; he puts them on empty spaces in the canvas to denote the imaginary icon of the non-visual agents. Talking about his technique, he says: “Round and curvy dot-like shapes in almost all my paintings are my unique trait and style. These dot-like shapes symbolize the air and environmental pollution, and the imbalance in nature. This symbol is derived from my own imagination, which is my own psyche.”
Iqbal’s works seek a revolutionary change in a world that is too unkind to its children and peace-loving people.
(Organized by Edge, the Foundation, the exhibition ran its course from April 21 to May 5 simultaneously at Edge’s Gulshan and Dhanmondi galleries)
Mir Arif works with Arts & Letters. He is also a fiction writer.