Firoz Mahmud, a New York-based Bangladeshi artist has chosen to narrate historical events and their social, political and economical impacts on the common people as a basis for his artistic practice.
He is recognised as one of the prominent contemporary artists from Bangladesh for his large-scale artworks and long running series of paintings.
Since 2006, Firoz embarked on a series of painting to project history, heritage and legacies of Bengal. According to the artist, ‘these paintings are interlinked with history.’
His long-term engagement with the study of history initially sent him across the country. He was looking for historical remnants — buildings and structures still standing as a testimony of Bengal’s golden age before the colonial takeover.
‘My father and grandfather were historians and they taught history in educational institutions in Khulna, my birthplace. I used to go to history books since my childhood. Apart from these, the genealogy of my families who, after migrating from Iran, Afghanistan and India and finally settled here in Bengal, inspires me to revisit history,’ Firoz says.
His works follows ancestral roots while containing traditional fables or narrations which he achieves employing a variegated painting techniques and materials. His current exhibition at Abinta Gallery of Fine Arts at Uttar Badda in the capital mounts mixed media works on paper. Entitled Reverberation (Ouponibeshik/Porouponibeshik), the show will fold off tomorrow.
A globetrotting artist who now divides his time between New York and Dhaka, Feroz’s works are regularly featured in art fairs and biennales across the world. His approach of representing the historical significance of Bangladesh by emphasising the transfer of power in Bengal to the colonial masters and its subsequent decline has already won him considerable renown.
As a good draughtsman, he resorts to an ensemble of techniques using stencil, hand, oil or watercolour, and even pencil and ball point pen to develop his imagery.
In particular, the current series dwells on the period of the 18th and 19th centuries after the colonial British East India Company and the British Empire had subsequently taken over the political and administrative power in the Indian subcontinent.
During research, when he was trying to amass documents on history, Firoz toured old and historical sites in Bangladesh and India and collected photographs and books.
Over the last decade, Feroz has created his own style employing a lyrical technique that thrives on multiple references — old palace, fort, mansion, monarchs, the equestrian Nawab of Bengal, colonial officers and soldiers, historic motifs, spice tree or herbaceous plant, tiger or skeleton of tiger, owl, seafaring trade ships and more — to give context to the political history of Bengal.
Most of his subject matters are meticulously drawn applying a linear technique. These represented figures and motifs share space with additional geometric patterns. In his work the overlap of realism with abstraction creates a certain tension between the elements, lending thereby a sense of disunity to his imageries. Still, the process also hints at the fact that history is layered and also often nonlinear.
Firoz draws tiger to allude to the power of Bengalis. In contrast, the skeleton of tiger represents politically and economically exploited Bengalis. The images of owl pervade many of his paintings since in the artist’s words, ‘it represents British supremacy and cunning, which lay at the basis of the colonial power.’
At the same time, owl symbolises ‘bad omen’. It haunts Bengal and its past, and even makes the power it once symbolised to disintegrate.
‘The plights of the poor Bengalis are also addressed by way of voicing concerns about the decline of Bengal,’ says the artist. In a particular work a skeleton of a tiger sheds blood-tears while the colonial elites conspire in front of a huge building — this is an intelligible way of visualizing the exploitation across political and social realms by the emerging capitalist predators.
The deconstructive strain he developed early on used ‘layapa-stencil’ technique, with which he emulated the age-old process of redoing or re-plastering of mud huts. Deconstruction also extended to the frame of the canvas, which he intentionally left deformed.
Firoz says that his style of deformity is connected to the age-old manuscripts, commonly found as broken or torn, with their frayed edges.
Firoz invented layapa-stencil painting, which he calls ‘layapa art’.
‘I first applied this technique during 2003-04 in my research programme at Rijksakademie Van Beeld Kunsten in Amsterdam under a two-year scholarship programme,’ he says. He got the scholarship after completing his graduation from the Fine Arts Institute, now Faculty of Fine Art of Dhaka University in 2001.
Layapa is a Bengali word that translates to — smear, or anoint.
He says, layapa is the term used for anointing or plastering on clay hut in rural Bangladesh by women.’ Traditionally, women apply many layers of thick-liquid mud mixed with cow dung on the walls and floors.
His stencil technique stemmed from narrative stencil painting found on doorways of those clay huts and Japanese technique of woodblock printing Ukiyo-e.
Nowadays, Feroz uses multiple layers of colours in the Layapa paintings and also put them on display alongside installation objects in, initially raw green dominated his projects of Layapa paintings.
‘Foreign audience show curiosity about the Layapa technique and I feel proud to represent the rural Bangladesh while describing to them about its context,’ he explains.
Firoz loves to draw animals and present them as central characters in his theatre of history that is his painting.
‘I came from greater Khulna, which is of crucial importance to me due to the fact that it is situated near the Sunderbans where wild animals live. I was a bird watcher. Besides, childhood memories of my uncles’ sport hunting and fear of intruding tigers influenced me to draw animals,’ he says.
Firoz got admission in the Dhaka University in 1990. He feels blessed since some prominent artists and professors Rafiqun Nabi, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Nisar Hossain, Kazi Abdul Baset and the likes were his teachers.
During his student life in DU, he primarily practised pencil sketch and watercolour. In phases he showed his skills on other forms of paintings also. He achieved best prizes consecutively in almost all the media at the annual exhibition.
‘I have been exposed in the rest of the world for my paintings due to the inspirations I got from the Fine Art Institute awards,’ Firoz says.
His study at the Rijksakademie Van Beeld Kunsten in Amsterdam was his turning point as it created the scopes for painting large-scale and expensive projects as well as participation in many world-class art biennales.
In 2005, he received Japanese government-funded Monbukagakusho Scholarship and achieved PhD on interdisciplinary fine arts from the Tokyo University of Arts and Music. His PhD thesis was on Asian contemporary art.
He attended artist in research and residency program at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, SU-CASA artist at Queens Council on the Arts, Flux Factory, International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York, OZU Culture Center, Rome, Italy, Tama Art University in Tokyo.
Firoz taught and lectured in many institutions including Salisbury University, Cornell University, ULAB, Davidson College and DePaul University.
His artworks have been exhibited at several international art biennales and triennials including 1st Bangkok Art Biennale, 1st Lahore Biennial, Dhaka Art Summit, Setouchi Triennial (BDP), 1st Aichi Triennial, Sharjah Biennale, Busan Biennale, Asian Art Biennale, Cairo Biennale and Echigo-Tsumari Triennial in Japan.
Firoz’s art projects were exhibited at the Office of Contemporary Art in Norway; MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome; India, Bangladesh and Pakistan Contemporary Art at Asia House London; Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art; University Art Museum; Setagaya Art Museum Tokyo; Metropolitan Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and Geidai PS1; Fuchu Art Museum, Kyu-Iwasaki Tei Museum; Dynamo Art Project at Echigo Tsumari ArtTriennale; Mori Art Museum , Tokyo; Sovereign Art Foundation in Hong Kong; Shanghai Exhibition Center; Art Dubai; Metropolitan Mostings Hus in Copenhagen; Massacheusets Museum of Contemporary Art; Hammond Museum in New York; Arthur Berger Art Gallery; Skoto Gallery in New York; Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo and Singapore.
In Bangladesh, his artworks were also exhibited in the now defunct Dhaka Art Center, Alliance Française Gallery, National Museum and Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in Dhaka.
Some of his art promoters include Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai and, additionally, Exhibit 320 in New Delhi represents him as an artist. Also, Durjoy Rahman Joy is among the promoters of Firoz’s Tk 15-lakh art exhibition in the ongoing Bangkok Art biennale.
Firoz has future plans to work on large canvases. He was commissioned to complete a 30-feet painting project for a scheduled exhibition in USA in June 2019.
Firoz believes that every person should have a predetermined vision and they also should show dedication for art.
‘Ups and downs are an integral part of life. Hence, failure is not the end of the story, rather it is a new beginning,’ he says for the young artists.
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