Mohammad Iqbal spent eleven years in Japan, doing higher studies in art, and received his Ph.D. degree from the Tokyo University of the Arts in 2010. A chapter of his Ph.D. dissertation titled “Civilization and Destruction” where he shows how children have to pay a heavy price for the wars the elders wage in different flash-points of the world. As the children lose their innocence, the world turns into a wasteland. Iqbal has tried to understand why these periodic outbursts of madness occur, and how these have led to a crisis of civilization. The crisis has become all the more intractable with newer catastrophes like ecological degradation and economic disasters that put children’s lives in jeopardy. While working on his dissertation, Iqbal planned and proceeded with a series of paintings depicting the clash between innocence and experience. For an authentic representation of the sense of loss caused by such a clash, Iqbal went back to his own personal experiences during the Bangladesh war of liberation in 1971 when he was only 4, and extrapolate those for projecting a grim picture not only of our time but also of the future. He finished the series in Bangladesh, where he moved back on completion of his Ph.D. and joined the Institute of Art of Dhaka University as a Lecturer.
Civilization themes have always interested Iqbal: earlier, he was interested in people consigned to the fringes of civilization, such as sanyashis or mendicants and sadhus or holy men whose lifestyle seems so remote from the one pursued by most citizens. They are outcast of sorts, but live a nomadic life in sync with nature. Iqbal painted their daily uncomplicated existence which is without want, but which is full of profound love and respect for man, animal and nature. Iqbal sought to show how this life constituted a superior existence compared to the rat race of city life. For Innocence and Experience, Iqbal has gone back to another segment of humanity that is ignored and overlooked in discourses of society and power – the children. Although science, economy and education have progressed, the capacity of man to do good seems to have diminished. Life takes an increasingly mechanical turn as technology begins to dominate our everyday transactions. But along the way, people seem to have lost the power to enjoy simple things – to laugh, to dream and appreciate nature, such as, to Iqbal, the worst victims of such a soulless, cheerless world are the children whose world lies at a distance from the world of the adults.
Most of his paintings are placed in a rural setting, where trees, rivers, fields, animals and birds still support a holistic relationship with each other. It is a setting natural for children where they are at ease with themselves and with their surroundings. The setting however, does not exude a pastoral charm, as overriding it is a concern for loss. As Iqbal looks at the world through the eyes of a four-year child, it appears stark and threatening. However, it also exists in a balance with a child’s innate sense of wonder, which ultimately leaves a way out for humanity. In a clash between innocence and experience, it is experience which is the obvious victor; but, as Iqbal would like to posit, innocence can never be completely eliminated. The very fact that children exist, even if in a lost world, leaves the world with a possibility of renewal. Iqbal’s paintings do point at such a possibility.
Iqbal likes to work with oil. At a time when most artists have switched to acrylic for its easy applicability and maneuverability, he steadfastly maintains his allegiance to oil. In Japan he researched in material technique, learning the science and art of materials and how to master them. In the process, he learned how to prepare oils that would not allow fungus to form even in humid weather. The oil he uses has the clarity and transparency which are not usually seen in traditional oil paints. He also uses handmade paper, particularly the Japanese washi which allows him to prepare his ground well, and create textured surfaces to particular specification.
Iqbal’s preferred mode is neither abstract, nor figurative, but a combination of both. Figures are important for him, but his work is not representational of a particular aspect of life or reality. He rather concentrates on moods, moments, ideas, situations and possibilities, which can be best suggested, explicated or explored through abstraction. In Innocence and Experience, children’s faces stare from the depth of the canvas, their eyes suggesting wonder, pain, bewilderment and fear. If one looks closely though, one notices that Iqbal is painting the same child again and again. It is undoubtedly a Bangladeshi child who however represents all the children of the world. The child’s eyes are prominent, since in a world where children’s voices are muted, the eyes are the means of expressing the truth of their experience. The children all look the same, since they are a character in the unfolding drama of existence dominated by the powerful patriarchy.
Innocence and Experience shows Iqbal taking a new turn, both in his technique and in his art of visualization. He now gives space more prominence and has toned down his colors. His colors were once quite bold, with red and black dominating his canvas. He has still retained his fascination for red, but overall, the colors are more subdued, which seem to point to a world increasingly losing its color and attraction. Iqbal never was the one to work from a layout plan. Here, too, he has directly applied his paint on a canvas which he now prepares more meticulously. He doesn’t shape his canvas according to his composition, but works on his composition according to the character of the canvas. One important aspect of his work now is a sharp but sure line that he draws with brush to underpin his carefully constructed form. The line also contrasts with the fullness of painted areas and helps in isolating a mood. Another addition is an engraving like quality of parts of his canvas. Iqbal scratches his canvas with a sharp instrument before the paint dries up to create heavily worked out areas where lines cut across each other. The crowded look helps evoke a rhythmic relationship with lines and surrounding forms. He picked up the idea of sharp lines from Japanese calligraphy where artists create lines of different thickness with the same brush to create a balance in the composition. Iqbal also uses a special grounding medium that he has perfected, and puts several layers of it– up to 8 or 9 – before starting to work on his canvas. For Innocence and Experience Iqbal has also superimposed faces of children on one another – as is done in photography – to create a feeling of transparency and movement. The children’s faces, if one looks for some time, seem animated. There are small, roundish dots on his canvas that also suggest movement and life. And to add to the ambiance of life which he believes will ultimately annul the horror of war, Iqbal paints animals – horses, cows, cocks and other living organisms. Man’s peaceful coexistence with nature, he believes, will eventually bring back life, which will once again be friendly to children.
Iqbal is a sensitive artist with an eye on contemporary history. He is a close watcher of the human scene and a believer in life. Above all, he is a talented artist with a mastery of materials and technique. The combination has once again proved helpful as Innocence and Experience overall amply demonstrates.
S. Manzoorul Islam Dhaka University