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March '07

art gallery
New Delhi

Curated by
Johny ML


  • Zakkirhussain4
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Screams from Mutant Fantasies

Jacoby visits the studio of Zakkir Hussain in Mattanchery, Kochi and comes out with an interesting feature where the artist’s life and works are reflected clearly and beautifully.

Zakkir Hussain

The transfiguration is beguilingly metaphoric. A stark, banal object suddenly transmuted into a sweeping phantasmagoria, like a mystical allegory. Stiffened by rigor mortis, a tiny bird’s beak sprouts into a splendidly red-veined leaf-like membranous wing; a slender woman’s hands branch out in twigged symmetry; a bizarre coitus coalesces into an overwhelming rut of structured urban habitat. Disrupting the illusion of reality with a ravishingly surreal, metaphysically dense expressionist imagery, Zakkir Hussain composes exquisite rhapsodies of muted anguish with his painterly brush.

“When I conjoin commonplace images like trees, birds, male and female body parts, and houses, what happens is not really a metamorphosis of those images. Instead, I work with the visual chemistry effected by this grafting together of familiar objects or some other conflicting images. The conjoined imageries are used deliberately to indicate certain hidden aspects of reality,” says the 36-year-old Zakkir Hussain, keenly watched among the A-listed young generation contemporary artists in India.

Subverting idyllic representations or destabilising images is perhaps an unremittingly obsessive idiom redolent with life’s contradictions and some of those felicitous flourishes of “poetic realism.” For Hussain, who blazed into an emergent major league with his first solo show in Kochi, Fragments from the Devastated Land, held in 1998, a year after he took his masters in fine arts from the prestigious Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, the romantic matrix of the so-called “visual beauty” has always been inherently secondary to a larger existential posit.

“The complexity of human life cannot be reduced to any singular aspect,” says Hussain, who unabashedly rejoins a disclaimer whenever someone tries to read an “ecological” meaning into his recurring imageries of tree stumps and birds. “Ecological issues are related to the totality of life. The problems that are reflected in the environment are part of the complexities in the social and inner aspects of man that he has to face. I use such images to mark the violence that man unleashes against man.”

With a latent leitmotif of violence, devastation, chaos, alienation, and an occasional spurt of overt sexuality as seen in some of his earlier watercolours like Feed the Bird and Don’t Sit on the Cooking Rice Pot, or Unbearable Pleasures of Eternity, Hussain’s audacious subtexts defy conventional notions of sublimation. True, he may not sound profoundly apocalyptic, but some of his evocative works are soul-stirring in their eerie intensity, vaguely reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’

Kathleen Wyma, from the University of British Colombia, Canada, who came to Kerala with a research project on the Radical Movement and got so fascinated with Hussain’s paintings that she offered to curate his 2004 solo show at Draavidia Gallery in Fort Kochi, saw in Hussain’s early works like Exiled Homes, charcoal and conte on paper, that was conceived during the Godhra riots in Gujarat, certain parallels to heartrending genocide narratives from the West.

She went deeper, borrowing French writer Guy Ernest Debord’s analysis of alienation as the result of the invasive forces of the “spectacle,” i.e. the seductive nature of capitalism (Society of the Spectacle), and his romanticising of the Marxist rhetoric on the fetishism of the commodity, to bestow a refreshing perspective on Hussain’s dialectical moorings.
“Kathleen was truly a godsend. She did everything for the show, even paying for the catalogue. It dramatically changed my profile,” says Hussain. A large contingent of high-flying Mumbai artists, led by Bose Krishnamachari, had descended on Kochi for another landmark exhibition, Bombay x 17, at the nearby Kashi Art Café Gallery. “The timing was perfect. All of them came by to see my show. It was a tremendous boost.”

Hussain, who grew up in a coastal village, Chandiroor, near Kochi, Kerala, loves to recount such providential encounters and life-defining influences. He fondly remembers two schoolteachers – Bhasi and Ramachandran – who set aside the prescribed syllabus for History and Drawing and took him on a delightful voyage of discovery, introducing him to Malayalam writers and poets. Likewise, a band of firebrand youth activists who drew him into an alternative cultural centre, Samskara, in his village and besides holding regular discourses on varied subjects like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Latin American literature or Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre concept, held street demonstrations for social causes and led a memorable struggle for freedom of expression, aligning with a persecuted theatre director who dared to stage a Malayalam version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ.’

“I was a very lonely child until ten,” says Hussain, the elder of two brothers, who wistfully wandered around a rather vast compound of an isolated Muslim family surrounded by a large community of Hindus. Absolutely no artistic legacy in the family, “yet the milieu was liberal.” Joining the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, was another turning point. College mates, like Sudheeran, a Student Federation of India leader who had to face the wrath of his powerful party leadership and pay a heavy price for openly defying them in the case of Mavoor agitation against environmental pollution and retrenchment of labourers, “opened my eyes to the fact that the establishment seldom stands by the hapless victim of injustice.”

At the Trivandrum College of Fine Arts, where he obtained a bachelor degree in fine arts (painting), he found his life partner, Sreeja, a year junior to him in the college. “It all started with my attempts to draw portraits of her,” smiles Hussain. He waited one year for her to pass out of the college so that they could join the Baroda University together for postgraduation.

“Trivandrum had a great tradition. During the 1970s, there was a general resurgence – social and political developments on the one hand, and an upsurge in literary activities with poets like Ayyappa Paniker, Ayyappan, and Kadammanitta leading the bandwagon on the other hand. Stalwarts like K.P.Krishnakumar, Prabhakaran, and Madhusoodanan had led the Radical Movement. When we arrived, we could review it all with a clinical detachment, afforded by the time lapse. In fact, my ongoing search for a distinct, personal idiom had begun there, when we could make a realistic assessment of the relative merits of such ideological affinities and organisational commitments,” Hussain explains.

Jyothikumar, who was then a guest-lecturer at the Trivandrum College, is another mentor who still figures high in Hussain's list of close-knit fellow-travellers. A dhoti-clad Jyothikumar inspired him "to sketch and paint, to look at art without any preconceived agenda or regimen, discard the stale, or burnt out idiom, share some precious values and understand human relations, and study Dostoevsky.We shared a lot of things and the friendship still lasts"

In Baroda, where Sreeja and Hussain specialised in Graphics and Etching, the exposure to and interface with different cultural elements, artistic styles and sensibilities were enriching. Doyens like Bhupen Kakkar, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Surendran Nair had a lot to impart to their protégés.

When Sreeja got a posting in Mangalore, the Hussains set up home there. Though some etchings, such as Castle of Crossed Destinies – the original imagery: a fish, lying on a bed and swallowing another fish – were already in the portfolio, it was a large watercolour drawing – depicting a beach scene in Mangalore – that fetched Hussain his first State award from Kerala Lalit Kala Academy in 2000.

Two group shows, Album of Paintings in 1999 and Album of Drawings in 2002, both held at Draavidia Art Gallery, were, according to Hussain, historical milestones as they brought together a number of well-established artists and some upcoming youngsters at a meeting point. “It was a unique event in the annals of Kerala art circuit. It opened up new vistas, paving the way for many such major shows in the State.” The Double-Enders show of 2005, conceptualised by Bose Krishnamachari, was another groundbreaking event.

 The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai, which showcased Hussain in their 2005 exhibit, Change of Address, displayed his recent works in their debut group show, New Voices, in New York, at the Guild Art USA Inc last July-August. Hussain won wide accolades in the show in which five other young Indian artists – Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Lokesh Khodke, Prasanta Sahu, Sathyanand Mohan, and Viraj Naik – also were featured.

A recent show at Vadehra Gallery, Delhi, titled The Shadow Lines, curated by Anshuman Das Gupta of Santiniketan, in which MF Husain, KG Subramanyam, Arpita Singh and Sudhir Patwardhan were among the participants two artists represented Kerala: NN Rimzon and Zakkir Hussain.

His five-year-old son, Fuad Hussain, who proudly shows off his sketch book, perhaps has an intuition as to how the unpainted cluster of bird images would finally shape up. He has been an enthusiastic partner in dissecting a myriad of such permutations in his father’s bulky sketch book, which meticulously chronicles the creative process that goes behind a painting. Some of his early sketches, with the accompanying notes, are already among his best-sellers in the collector’s circuit.

Sreeja, more than Zakkir Hussain, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new etching machine from Baroda. She has the expertise to take care of the intricate process of etching – making reproductions of an original work. “There is great demand for reproductions. With this technique, we can reach out to more people.” Up to 50 editions of each work can be reproduced with this machine.

An infinitely burgeoning multiplicity of coagulated imageries? Well, in Hussain’s hands, each bird motif, at times caught in a limbo of suspended animation – wingless, as the wings transmogrify into egg-shapes they are as if in an existential dilemma: to take flight or to fall to earth – assumes a special significance. Every twist and twirl is nuanced.
One of the most striking imageries in his recent works is that of the ubiquitous stretcher-trolley. Whether it is a bird or a fish, man or woman that is almost pinned down by the burden of conflated configuration overhead, each of them is laid dramatically on a hospital stretcher-trolley or left standing on a stool. “If they were to touch ground, then it would just look like a poster. I don’t want to romanticise them. The stark visual is a shocking testament to a sickening reality,” says Hussain.

Hussain, who is versatile in various mediums, usually takes up small-dimension watercolour “for the flexibility it offers to try out a different language” in between executing some excruciatingly painstaking bigger work. But at times, it could turn out as an extension of the current preoccupation rather than a merely diversionary tactic.
Irrespective of the size of the painted surface, or for that matter, the medium employed, most of the mutant imageries carry a minimalist signature, a vague trace of Sufi mysticism. Hussain is fond of quoting Jalaluddin Rumi’s Whirling Dervishes or some allegorical snippet: “He came from his mother’s womb to buy his funeral shroud from the market.”

Under unrelenting assault from the visual barrages of commercial overkill, Hussain is inclined to seek retribution by inventive inversion: Assimilate the visual idioms of the commercials into mainstream art. “It would definitely make us more contemporary,” asserts Zakkir Hussain, who cites a scene from the most radical French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film, ‘Pierrot le fou.’ In the initial car ride between Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Ferdinand and Anna Karina’s Marianne, over the radio, the two hear the message: “Garrison massacred by the Viet Cong who lost 115 men.” Marianne responds with an extended musing on the way the radio dehumanizes the North Vietnamese combatants.


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