Apr 19 2019

The Garden of Historical Delight: Profile of Firoz Mahmud

by Mustafa Zaman

Portrait of FIROZ MAHMUD. Courtesy the artist.

In the opening chapter of A Defense of the Real (2007), a book about the life and work of art historian Carl Einstein, author David Quigley contextualizes Einstein’s revolutionary ideas, stating that in the 20th century, amid war and industrialization, an urgency to rethink societal structures emerged. Today, the need to constantly interrogate the rhetoric that has developed out of the “alliance between science, heavy industry and national sovereignty,” in Quigley’s words, remains. Further, art arguably has the responsibility to combat the hegemonic powers that make such alliances possible. Intertwining aesthetic concerns with socio-historical issues, Firoz Mahmud has devised various means of reconsidering the events and belief systems of the past, while tackling their contemporary effects. 

Born in 1974 in Khulna, Bangladesh, Mahmud began to paint at the age of six. As a student at Dhaka University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees, he honed his technique as a draughtsman and painter. During his time as a resident artist at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, he began to create larger works of varying media, which he then developed as a post-graduate student of the Tokyo University of the Arts, alongside his research on the pre- and post-colonial history of Bengal, which involved trips through the Indian subcontinent, amassing photographs, notes and documents. His experiences have culminated in his layered, detailed imageries referencing traditional motifs and architecture that have been showcased in galleries and institutions across the globe. In 2018, for example, Mahmud exhibited works at the Dhaka Art Summit, the first Lahore Biennale, and the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale. At the end of the year, he also presented his solo exhibition, “Drawing Reverberation” at Ota Fine Arts Singapore.

Installation view of FIROZ MAHMUD’s Distance of the Past, 2013–14, mixed media drawings on homemade paper, 63.5 × 43.2 cm each, at “Drawing Reverberation,” Ota Fine Arts Singapore, 2018. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo. 

“Drawing Reverberation” spotlighted Mahmud’s paintings and mixed-media works, all evidencing his long-term engagement with the legacies of British imperialism in Bengal. In particular, this investigation led to the creation of the series “Distance of the Past” (2013–14), which depicts the last Nawabs (rulers) of Bengal and the Assam-based Zamindars (land owners), who played important roles in the politics of South Asia, and who represent the pre-colonial era, before the nation’s powers were ceded to the British. Hovering over these figures are seemingly unrelated symbols, such as the emblems of colonial British companies and the products that they traded. Mahmud also frequently populates his compositions with animals. In his works, owls signify bad luck and “British supremacy and cunning, which lay at the basis of the colonial power,” the artist once said in an interview with New Age. Meanwhile Bengali power is represented through tigers, and the exploitation of Bengalis through tiger skeletons. Mahmud explained the origins of these animals’ recurrence in his works: “[Khulna] 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.” 

The past is folded into Mahmud’s technical process as well. During his residency in Amsterdam, the artist invented a technique that he calls the “layapa-stencil” method. Layapa means to smear or anoint, and is often used in relation to how women traditionally applied plaster, mixed with cow dung, onto the walls and floors of their huts, insulating the structure. The “layapa-stencil” technique combines this smearing gesture with the stencils and narrative imagery used in Japanese woodblock prints. The shapes of Mahmud’s canvases, on the other hand, often deliberately asymmetrical and with irregular shapes protruding from the edges, are based on decaying historical manuscripts.

These elements—thematic and technical—coalesce in Imperial Confrontation (Battle Power of Prince) (2017). The face of Siraj-ud-Daulah (the last emperor of Bengal) is spotlighted in the middle of the composition, with an angelic glow about him. He is flanked by two soldiers on horseback, as an owl flies over the trio. The scene, which also figures in The Start of the End of the Reign of the Subcontinent: During the Time of My Forefathers (2011), recalls the Battle of Plasseywhere the British East India Company defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, marking the start of the British East India Company’s reign over the Indian subcontinent. Though densely layered, these components are never spectral and, rather, denote a fluid, non-linear conception of history. 

FIROZ MAHMUDThe Start of the End of the Reign, 2011, Oil on shaped canvas, 162.5 × 264cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo.  

Mahmud’s interest in the past, which he says stems from his father and grandfather, both of whom were historians, extends into more recent history. In the “Urgency of Proximate Drawing (NinKi:UoPD)” series (2008– ), the artist augments found photographs of celebrities who have been embroiled in controversies with geometric lines, rendered in pen, marker, correction fluid, and paint. Atop prints depicting Asashoryu Akinori, a highly successful sumo wrestler at the top of the league who resigned from the sport in 2010 following allegations that he had assaulted a man, Mahmud added prosthetic structures that stabilize Akinori as he is being thrown out of balance or lunges toward his opponent. By inserting these imaginary, supportive elements, Mahmud hopes to disrupt these figures’ fall from grace, and review the narratives that have been spun around their lives with a sense of sympathy. Mirroring the networks through which these stories and images were first circulated, the works were displayed in public spaces related to the figures, such as sumo domes, and in magazines. There are violent and ominous qualities to the artists’ amendments, however, that complicate this concept. Fellow artist Naeem Mohaiemen notes in his text, “Firoz Wants to Fight Tyson,” about Mahmud’s series of marks crisscrossing over Mike Tyson’s mouth: “Firoz says his plan is to rescue icons from detritus, but something sinister is at play in these brutalist lines . . . Maybe that drawing is meant to be a muzzle. This will hurt, a lot.”  

FIROZ MAHMUD, Migrational Craving [Exodus 1=1 bMt], 2017/18, from the “Soaked Dream” series (2008– ), diasec-mounted photograph, dimensions variable. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo.
FIROZ MAHMUD, Migrational Craving [Exodus 1=1 bMt], 2017/18, from the “Soaked Dream” series (2008– ), diasec-mounted photograph, dimensions variable. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo.

In another photo-based project, “Soaked Dream” (2008– ), Mahmud looks to the future. During a visit to Berlin, he invited nine families to put on a pair of green glasses made from plastic bottles, calling these “goggles for the future”—props used to inspire visions for a better reality to come. He then asked the participants to describe their aspirations and dreams, documenting them via still images and video. He subsequently took the project to different locales, interviewing various populations, such as Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Thailand. In the most recent photographic iteration of the project, Migrational Craving [Exodus 1=1 bMt] (2017/18), displayed at the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale, which opened in December 2018, these Rohingya families don green-painted eyewear made from camera parts, and look toward a light shining in from the edge of the frame. 

There is a concern for beauty in Mahmud’s recent works, whether it’s in inviting marginalized voices to speak about their aspirations, in creating sympathetic renderings of disgraced icons, or in his paintings of power contestations, where no murderous figures or severed heads—which appeared in his early images—mar the composition. “A concern for beauty would certainly make us better shapers of the world,” says Roger Scruton, a contemporary British philosopher. Mahmud’s practice affirms this view. As a raconteur, he is disinclined to produce shock and awe. Instead, his aim is to stir an awareness about the events of the past in order to illuminate imaginings of the future.