Monirul Islam: The portrait of an experimentalist

Ershad Kamol | Published: 01:34, Sep 21,2018 | Updated: 12:17, Sep 21,2018


Novelty in form, texture and composition is what Monirul Islam always seeks in an art work and it is written all over the Dhanmondi studio of the seasoned artist.

Video by: Abdullah Apu

All the six cavernous rooms of the 2,600 sq feet apartment, to speak the truth, are full with various types of papers, isles, painting materials, mostly collected from different countries of the world, and even an etching press.
Countless incomplete paintings, like memoires of ungratified love, instead of giving the apartment a shabby look, add to its beauty. The finished works, also in large number, however, have been lodged in drawers of a huge wooden safe.
Even at the age of 75, the dynamic artist Monirul, who celebrated his 75th anniversary of birth on August 17, spends most of his time at the studio in quest of anything that will come new to his hand.
Monir has a much bigger studio in his Madrid residence in Spain.
The internationally acclaimed artist, who shares his time between Bangladesh and Spain, won state honours in the both countries. He received the Ekushey Padak in 1999 and The Cross of Officer of the Order of Queen Isabella in 2009 for his contributions to the development of art in Spain.
Earlier, he won the National Award of Spain in 1993.
Monir displayed his works at solo and group shows held in the USA, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, Korea and other countries and won awards participating in biennales and exhibitions held in Spain, former Yugoslavia, the USA and Norway.
His works have been included in collections of Bangladesh National Museum and several other museums in Spain, Jordan, Iraq, Taiwan and Norway.

photo by Abdullah Apu

In an interview with the New Age, Monirul at his studio talked about his multidimensional journey into the world of art for five decades, his nature of experimentations, his struggles and realisations on the contemporary art and several other issues.
‘This is for the longest period of time,’ Monirul starts, ‘that I’m staying in Bangladesh since 1969 when I left for Spain. In the past two and half years since 2016, I did not go to Spain for my works in Bangladesh and India. Here I’m doing a lot of paintings and also participated in biennales and exhibitions in India as a jury member and attended in workshops with the leading Indian artists.’
‘For these works, I have even refused to deliver lecture on art for the European artists and art professors though I get invitation each year to deliver lecture at leading institutes in Spain, including Madrid University of Fine Arts and Fonde Todes,’ Monir says.
The abstractionist spoke about how these days he was using the print techniques in his acrylic paintings to create some innovative textures.
‘A Jessore-based technician named Sadeq,’ he mentions, ‘made this printing machine for me, which is very handy for creating interesting images in paintings.’
‘Throughout my life I wholeheartedly tried to be after novelty as I believe that an artist is dead at the time when s/he cannot produce anything new. If the “art leaves an artist”, the person will go through “dejection” and it is very difficult to regain the blessings of the art,’ he notes.
‘And you see,’ Monirul elaborates, ‘all the master artists in the world tried to be innovative through their works and so continued experimenting on mediums and forms. It’s true not only for the artists but also for any person involved with any creative works.’
Talking about his nature of experimentations, Monir says he prefers to work more on non-conventional mediums as various as sweetmeat box, tally books used by the grocers to keep records and others.

Artist Monirul Islam looks at his painting. — Abdullah Apu

‘Through my experimentations,’ he goes on, ‘I acquired the techniques of making my papers even with boxes used for carrying sweetmeats or on published magazines. I feel intimacy with papers and can create my painting materials from any kind of papers.’
‘I also paint on boards, shopping bags and other materials for my mixed media works. I don’t even use conventional colours. Rather, I create my own colours through natural pigments and various other materials, including sand and brick. Besides brushes, sometimes I use needles and other non-conventional materials for tinting and creating textures. That does not mean that I never use conventional colours. Yes of course, I use conventional watercolours, acrylic and oil when the composition demands,’ Monirul narrates.
Despite doing a lot of experimentations in terms of forms and compositions, artist Monirul Islam’s works are easily distinguishable for his unique style which is referred to as ‘Monir’s School’ in Spain.
His abstract works with geometric motifs, subtle use of lyrical lines and a harmonious colour balance between space and composition narrates human emotions, joy, sufferings, memorable memories and others.
‘I prefer to depict human emotions and nature through non-objective way through thin layers and minimal expressions in my abstract paintings. I prefer abstraction considering it the ultimate style to depict human emotions and nature symbolically with little doodles, geometric shapes, lyrical lines, dots and tiny motifs and colours. And I deliberately keep some empty spaces in my paintings for provoking thoughts on the vastness of nature and space.
‘Though people say they find very balanced compositions in my works, I actually love to play a lot with colours and materials in my paintings and sometimes wait for some miracles to happen and really enjoy a lot when it happens,’ he says, a glint of happiness flashing across his face.
‘I never paint,’ he assures, ‘only with the intention of selling. I work for my own pleasure and feel good when people like my works. I never confined myself to a structure and always suggest others not to follow any structured life that kills your creativity. If you become the slave of your habit, you are dead,’ Monirul points out, suggesting that most people do not believe that miracle does happen positively in life.
‘Say, for example,’ he mentions, ‘I obtained a scholarship awarded by the Spanish foreign ministry in 1969. Before applying for it, I had no idea that I would go to Spain and I didn’t even fill out the application form accordingly. But, I got the scholarship, which changed my life a lot,’ Monirul recalls.
The artist made a mention of the way he had been experimenting with themes and mediums from his student life in the late 1960s at the then Government College of Art and Crafts [now Dhaka University’s faculty of fine arts].
‘In my student life, I used to do four or five paintings daily going near the nature, usually at Rayer Bazar, Kawran Bazar and other places. My teacher Mustafa Monwar also helped me doing the nature study in watercolours paintings,’ Monirul brought to mind.
And his vast experiences of over five decades while studying and teaching at different institutes in Europe and watching original works of the master painters like Picasso, Dali, Rembrandt, Rafael, Michal Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee and others at the different galleries encouraged him doing experimentations in art.
He admits that like the majority of various other artists, symbols and dices by master and contemporary artists have influenced his works.
Born on August 17, 1943 in Islampur, Jamalpur, Monirul Islam spent his juvenile days in the midst of natural flora and fauna in Sherpur and then in Kishorganj. After retirement of his father, their family settled at their home district in Chandpur.
His artistic journey started while he was a student of grade seven. ‘Nature inspired me a lot and I could respond to its vibes. I spent hours watching changes of hues in nature with the advancement of day from different angles. I enjoyed spending time in low-lying areas in Kishorganj and then the vastness of the Meghna in Chandpur,’ he says.
‘I used to paint those natural beauties and also painted figures from cinema posters. The vastness of the River Meghna and different activities regarding it still appear unconsciously in my abstract paintings. Whatever technique you follow, you have to return to the nature as your source for any creative pursuit. The nature is the ultimate mentor to any creative person,’ Monir believes.
He passed matriculation at his third attempt at the age of 22 and decided to enrol at East Pakistan College of Arts and Crafts 1961. After graduation, he joined as a teacher of the art college in 1966. In 1969 he got the scholarship for nine months to study at Madrid Academy of Fine Arts.
‘Though the scholarship was just for nine months, I did not return to Dhaka when the political situation deteriorated that time. I rather continued my study on fresco [an experimental technique popularised by Picasso] at Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando,’ he says.
‘I also developed my skill in printmaking, especially in etching and aquatint, and got involved in printmaking circuits in Europe. Though I was thousands of miles away from the motherland, I created the “series of agony” in etching medium paying tribute to the war of independence of Bangladesh in 1971. I was inspired by the legendary artist Goya’s paintings on the French Revolution. I also held a solo show. In 1972, I held a solo show titled “Homage to Bangladesh” at the Gallery Daniel, Madrid, Spain,’ Monir depicts his journey.
The painter had to struggle a lot to earn fame as a printmaker in the early 1970s in Spain.
Subsequently, he established a distinct abstract language maintaining a perfect balance by remaining rooted in the local art scene of Bangladesh as well as by being exposed to the trends in European art.
‘After a decade,’ he recounts, ‘I returned to Dhaka in 1979 and conducted a workshop at Shilpakala Academy on printmaking in which leading artists of the country had participated. And then I returned to Spain again,’ Monir says, adding that he held a similar workshop in 1985 at the same place.
The artist married a Spanish lady in 1985 and his only son Arman Islam Ferrer now lives at his residence in Madrid.
From his vast experiences of over five decades in different countries in the world, Monir observes that the art language in the past 50 years has significantly changed.
‘People these days work more in experimental mediums like performance art, conceptual, electronic art and others. Back in those days, we did not hear of such mediums. We used to work mostly with oil medium but now 90 per cent artists work with acrylic medium considering the latter less time consuming,’ Monir mentions.
Monirul Islam thinks artists of these days in Bangladesh are privileged as they enjoy better opportunities for experimenting with the latest mediums, get chances to sell their works and participate in exhibitions and festivals abroad.
‘There are many talented artists here in Bangladesh. But, the problem is that most of them have no urge to develop their distinct style. They need to work with devotion and passionately. Without working with passion and dedication, they won’t be able to earn names,’ Monir notes.
The artist also finds some positive changes in the art market in Bangladesh as many individual buyers have emerged with the economic development of the country.
Asian Art Biennale and Dhaka Art Summit are also playing significant roles for promoting art and artists in Bangladesh, he mentions.

Cover photo by Abdullah Apu

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