Date: Saturday 12th December 2015 to Wednesday 20th January 2016, Time: 11am - 7pm (Closed on Sundays)
Painting does not necessarily have as a vocation to arousedelectation, or, as Matisse puts it, to be a “comfortable resting seat”. It is for some, a hand-to-hand struggle, even more so when it reflects a legitimate rebellion, speaking through a belligerent tongue that cautions the stages of a passionate adventure.Of this feverish quest,laced with the fibre of appearances, stems a parallel social gesture, more specifically, a testimony of events forever engraved in the artist’s heart.
This opening refers to Shahabuddin who has rooted his endeavour in his memory, and his memory in his history, which he shares with his people. Indeed, art is first and foremost a projection, the recipient of an awakening consciousness whose reflux points to what one holds most blazing. But this aspect would merely be an illustration or an observation, if the threads of painting picked in their original shudder, did not decline another version of the referent, inquisitional and outlined, through the singularity of a style and the specificity of a thought.
This is the case of Shahabuddin, who, before settling in Paris, experienced a threatened to identity, in Bangladesh, enslaved by the Pakistani occupier, that he vigorously liberated in 1971, as a “Platoon Commander”, side by side with Sheikh MujimurRahman, the charismatic rebel leader and founder of the Republic of Bangladesh, who was taken prematurely in 1974. This period of his life, both dramatic and full of hope, has undoubtedly affected his artistic his path and forged his character, insofar as it decolonised body and spirit. However, he did not turn into a militant painter, but simply a painter, a painter that always cared more for painting than for the subject of his painting. He underlines gladly: “The experience of war has guided my path, but contrary to what many believe, I don’t paint war and war is in no way my creed. What I want to depict is the human suffering in defiant postures, borderline situations, in which the individual has to reach his limits. Nor do I choose death as a subject, because deep down, the nature of my interest is rather optimistic. And in the cracked attires of my characters, that some consider to be the reflection of the “freedom fighter” or the athlete, is nothing more than the manifestation of the state of one’s suffering.” While he remains loyal to his former comrades, to a claimed ideal and the nostalgic flow of time, it is through the physical experience of embodiment, combined with the impulsive density of his affections, that he able to reach beyond the harshness of a tormented past.
Therefore, strengthened by his natural gifts, Shahabuddin has followed the path of his feelings and the slope of his natural energy, to unleash a painting of pure spurt, where reality violently engaged, is reduced to its main lines, albeit to its elementary outlines. The represented is not nullified, but the painting carries it away in a swell of suspended and fractured forms, never loosing touch with the resemblance. Indeed, the canvas reveals single or groups of anatomies, faces or portrays surprised in their instinctive lives, carved in the instability of the matter. So it is not in the imminence of the effort that ties up this allusive choreography, but in the very blast of its impact, in the light of a primitive feeling strengthened by the verticality of so many figures similar to the “homo erectus”.
Closest to the facts rather than the consequences, Shahabuddin’s writing, despite what he might say, turns out to be the displaced and revisited echo of his years of resistance and sacrifice, associated with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib by an ambitious general, 4 years only after reaching the head of his young state, an episode that has only increased Shahabuddin’s fervour for his prestigious elder. In that sense, his approach could only reverberate the epic of his fighter’s youth, of his audacious brothers in arms, and all the deployed forces transposed through his leaping athletes, raised by his irrepressible organic wrenching, in the deaf impetuosity of his bulls and horses, in stark contrast with the tranquillity of his portrays stemming from his personal mythology, such as Rabindranath Tagore, 1913 Nobel Prize winner of Literature, the illustrious Mahatma Gandhi, the revolutionary author Nosrul Islam, and of course, MujiburRahman. Never does one come across still life, but looking earlier in his curriculum, there are rural scenes, inhabited landscapes, stray dogs, couples, industrious women, and later, top to tail crowds mixed up in an organised disorder.
Whatever the period, it is the particular position of the bodies that defines the layout of the canvas, secreting new bodily dimensions, entrapping life in the instant. It is also the same passion that ignites the painter’s hand and that engages on the volley the cramped summonses yet balanced, from a discourse where the sedimentations are never relayed. And this discourse, whose violence is simultaneously confessed and contained, a discourse that does not follow the usual rules of realism, rules, which are meant rely on the plausibility of scale and of the mimetic truth of beings and objects, this discourse places Shahabuddin’s work on the timeless trail of expressionism. This art is a category of aesthetics, of the likes of the baroque, an art of excess and metamorphosis exempt of the polemical or moral functions, refers to the experience of sensation, otherwise formulated as life in the raw. “An art that hosts life, as Rodin said, does not reproduce it, it extends it”. Often better appreciated in northern of southern regions that under our latitudes, expressionism ploughs and disjoints layingsiege to the figure, without ever erecting this deformation into a system.It is mainly for Shahabuddin, the means to reach through a compulsive synthesis, the centre of beings and things. To put it shortly, a painting by Shahabuddin is the incarnation of the self through various forms, in other words, “the retrospective mirror that sends back to the past while conjuring the future”.
His work restores to the observer the steps that brought him to the practice of painting, in a rather unusual context. Emancipation from family and from a country rebuilding itself amidst major economic turmoil, barely out of a war that reclaimed national dignity, and still, to become, through a fierce will and a claimed exile a recognized and admired painter, is nothing short of a prowess. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, in a large middle class family, Shahabuddin did not meet with his father’s expectations when the latter started to sense his desire to become a painter, as he envisaged a more gratifying future for his son, whereas his mother secretly encouraged him. As early as the age of 6, he handles crayons, colours, and he covers with drawings every surface available, an activity that stimulates him more than school although he remains a good student. Already, as a preadolescent, he admires the work of Abedin, a pioneer of modern art in Bangladesh, despite the fact that painting remains a secondary leisure in the eyes of the middle class. Accepted at the crested children’s school “Samsun Nahar”, he does not remain there long, put off by the sophistication of his fellow classmates, and he asks his father to pull him out. He carries on studying in another establishment; where an acquaintance suggests him to enrol and give a shot at a painting contest instigated by Pakistan. He satisfactorily wins the contest, at his father’s surprise, thus changing his father’s view on his ambitions. After obtaining his Baccalaureat at his hometown’s school of art, he diversifies his talent, starts selling a few painting, and becomes financially autonomous. Then, following his participation to the liberation movement in 1971, his art school diplomain hand, and the medal of best painter at a national level in 1973, fortune shines his way in 1974, in the form of a scholarship of the French government, allowing him to come to Paris and to confront his talent to the ones of his European peers. Upon arrival with his fellow students of science, sociology, physics, chemistry or political science... he adopts a marginal stance, despising attendance to French classes unlike his fellow students, he is monopolised by a single goal: devote all his time to his painting. Paris allows him to quench his thirst for discovery with its museums and galleries, but material obstacles, the language barrier, solitude, the nostalgia of his friends and his faraway homeland, sometimes damage his self-confidence. Nonetheless, his commitment to art is so imperious that it overshadows his precarious situations.
Nevertheless, once in a while, fate intervenes in his favour and helps with his integration, in the form of an old lady, looking for a painting teacher emancipated enough to support her in her pictorial trials. The feeling established between them, she behaves with him as a close relative, and in exchange for his advice, she lavishes an unexpected support onto him. It is a turning point in his life. From now on, he possesses stable bearings, and the image of his now departed protector, occupies a seat of honour in his inmost pantheon.
Progressively familiar with the uses of his adoptive country, with solid foundations in French, from 1975 to 1981, he attends the national school of art, in the Nallard workshop, a respected and surly painter, an excellent pedagogue, very concerned with following his students, his rugged work of beautiful materials, oriented towards the expressivity of form, has a part to play in Shahbuddin’s influences before figuring his own style. And this style is not derived from his education, neither is it a middle way, because it is indeed the style of a true temperament, wild and independent, without expressing a stark hyphen, but an awareness of each step taken. His culture is fuelled with masterpieces of the universal heritage, including old Masters, from Rembrandt to Goya, from Manet to Picasso, but given his ways, his taste leans more towards Soutine the tormented and especially towards Bacon’s crucified and scarified effigies, who rather paints the scream than the horror. However, if it may be tempting to identify him to the Irish painter, it is a dead end. The spirit may show some similitudes, but neither the brush, nor the sources, or the philosophy, or the movement ought to be compared. What they may have in common can be summed up in Beckett’s word: “the only possibility for renewal is in the action of opening the eyes; a disintegration that cannot be understood but that needs to be allowed to come because it is the truth”. This truth is what Shahabuddin has made an obsession of seeking, since his beginnings, in the analogical movements of his morphologies, in the vortex of the instincts that connote him, as the “dasein” or the being there of his models. With him, if you exceed the subject in itself, the human body has so many things and feelings to express, so much vicissitudes, tragedies and worries, by the composition of its very presence. But there is also a Dionysian flavour to be tasted, something bright and vital, despite the generally finite space and the climate of latent tenseness, in which his atmospheres are wrapped, as a stolen glimpse at the edge of their eruption. In that, he agrees with Montaigne who claimed to not paint the being, but the passing by of the being.
It is surprising to find so much pugnacity and determination in such a sociable being, smiling if not enthusiastic, falsely laid back when the debates become heated. Barely separated from his living space, in other words an entrenched camp, his workshop radiates of pictorial work and a pleasant easy-goingness that gives off the peculiar impression of being in an artist’s refuge, with its light, its smell, its clutter of sundry objects, of canvases, of works in progress or leaning on the wall, of exhibition posters, of aged pictures, old catalogues lying on the ground, of dust traps and secret corners. It is within this space that Shahabuddin likes to paint and meditate. Of medium stature, with wind-blown hair, an emaciated face, a penetrating glaze, of robust and agile build, brisk in his movements and thoughts, always with a gregarious demeanour, affectedly nonchalant, he does not avoid question but sidesteps them elegantly, as a wise and skilful Bengali. Thus deprived of any aggressiveness due to his natural authority, in love with family live, he is welcoming, curious, forthcoming, convivial, good listener regardless of the status of the speaker, he understands quickly because of his ability to read between the lines, to conjure up harmless humour and irony. Surrounded by his spouse and daughters, he keeps in close contact homeland, but they have long assimilated the Parisian lifestyle.
But it is the work and its environment that we are interested in. Based in the French capital in the early seventies, Shahbuddin is at a crossroads. On the one hand, cold or warm abstract is expectedly declining, before its deeper rebirth with Hartung, Soulages, Mathieu, Schneider, on its lyric side, on the other hand, new realism, from César to Villeglé, from Hains to Arman, poor art, with Merz or Penone, are still in vogue, along with minimalism, while under the aegis of GassiotTalabot, the new figuration, born on 1964, are also centre staged. Its protagonists, Rancillac, Télémaque, Klasen, Monory or Erro, are practicing a fragmented figuration shifted into arépertoire with social notes, that slays the excesses of consumerist society, in contrast with Pop Art, far more neutral.
Given his personality, Shahbuddin does not need advice to stay clear of contextual infatuations. At the art school, in contact with the rising stars of his time, he is aware of the fashionable trends, and he befriends those he will exhibit with, but he knows where he is coming from and does not wish to be trapped in suited shackles: he cherishes his difference, and that difference is the inner meaning of his existence. He paints what he feels and what he is. Some twenty years ago, I briefly wrote this analysis about his process: “All along his path, the same particulars are displayed: an organisation both free and structured, an ability for quick chain of events, a bold conception of movement, a perception of space cemented by emptiness, a mastered gesture, a confirmed use of colours placed on the canvas in bursts, a “sui generis” quality of the matter, a concerted spirituality, finally, an attachment for the individual and collective tragedy of man, whose scared intensity perpetuates the expressionist tradition.”
To this day, my opinion remains unchanged, but I would add a few constants: obstinacy for centred subjects rather than unframed, surrounded by large spaces, a preference for frontal perspectives and individualised figures, without repudiating group scenography, a supple hand always guided to the right place, a sensual and vibrant touch, a taste for floating bodies and verses of the same narrative, a resort to the tragic laced with the wonderful but on the side of a dreamlike drift, inclination for uncovered bodies and synthetic powers, finally, a symbolic where the spatial dimension is condensed in the action.
Obviously, Shahabuddin regularly revisits same themes because he knows that will never exhaust them. However, with the help of years of experience, he has grown in the field of austerity and has narrowed his signalling around the theme of renouncement. Altogether, his works manifest his plurality of his orientations that the titles help to bring to light “run-up II” displays a sideways headless body on a monochrome background, the left leg up in acceleration, the followed by the right all muscles contracted. “Warrior 90” highlights another body in fury, belligerent and withdrawn into himself, the two legs lifted by irresistible forces, and “Rip” shows a figure in quasi levitation, forced by a sort of telluric thrust. As for the athlete of “Jump”, of whom only the tense and massive torsocatapulted into space we can see, he appears to be get over the obstacle, herby confirming that the bare minimum is sufficient in laying down maximum efficiency and truth to these images.
These thematic variations keep on stamping their seal all along the 2000 decade, sometimes bearing other titles, on a tat more elaborate tone, but just as virulent and forceful in the fusing articulation of forms, whereas “Tsunami” is represented by a squatting woman on a mound of rubbish, with scrambled features, lonesome, abandoned to her fate. Another woman kneeling, her arms up, seems to be dressing up or washing herself, revealing her buxom rump to lecherous eyes. Not far, two new women, arched and naked under a strange light, shamelessly display their lust. Elsewhere, other bodies crippled with energy in “Arrival”, in “determined”, “Dynamism II”, or “Departure”, claim their right to freedom and exhibit their proud fighting spirit. Inserted there are also crowds with their flesh imbricated upside down, galloping horses or raging bulls.... They complete this short inventory of works stretching to the universal with local roots.
To conduct his journey, Shahabuddin does not burden himself with theoretical precepts, psychoanalytical slips, and he engages the canvas with oil straightaway, urgently, in order not to squander the potential of his iconic gesture, and to immediately materialise, according to the idea he has of his project and of his final meaning. His lively and conquering hand confers its measure on the transhumance of the act that sums up the tropism of the body reacting to its environment. This ordering requirement does not elude a share of unknown, it welcomes reinforcements of chromatic waves, whose stakes raise the surge ofform. Kneaded, manipulated, submitted to various pressures, crimped in thin sharp or appeased sweeps, colour marks out the contours and the coating of his morphologies, fitting into the volubility of rhythms often deliberately played offbeat, but is rhythm not delay, as stated by Pablo Casals? The painter does not hesitate to rework his canvases when unfulfilled and he deems them liable to favourable arrangements, but he usually prefers to destroy them and to start over. And if he favours a certain smoothness of the matter, for the contrasts, the visual and tactile pleasure it conveys, he very much likes the practice of the stroke, fruit of the rough outline, that requires accuracy and a swift execution.
In this itinerary of unbeatable logic between trace and recollection, that goes way beyond fictitious vehemence, Shahabuddin does nothing more than exhale what he holds buried deepest. After multiple exhibitions across the world, that have endowed him with international prominence, his powerful and rare work takes us away in the existential maelstrom of his continuous vertigos.