Installation view of “Gods and Beasts" at Bengal Art Lounge, Dhaka, 2015. Courtesy Bengal Art Lounge. 

Gods and Beasts

Ronni Ahmmed

Bengal Art Lounge

Dhaka-based Ronni Ahmmed is a multimedia artist equally comfortable working in miniature and monumental scale, whose oeuvre includes paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and performances. Since graduating from the Institute of Fine Art, University of Dhaka, with an BFA in painting in 2002, he has regularly exhibited at major venues within the country and abroad. While his subject matter may be carnivalesque, surreal and playfully absurd, Ahmmed’s art delivers hefty, provocative truths. The thematic content of his work is rooted in his decades-long study of the spiritual traditions that have shaped Bengal: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (particularly Sufism) and Christianity. He also draws from other global religions, from across time and space, including those of ancient Greece and Egypt. Like a visual alchemist, Ahmmed amalgamates the mythologies and iconographies of these different traditions, then sifts them through a modern matrix of popular culture—liberally appropriating from science fiction cinema, comic books, cartoons (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes frequent appearances in his work) and advertising. In his work, one can also see humor, social critique, incongruity and a dash of irreverence.

RONNI AHMMEDAdam & Eve, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 151 × 105 cm. Courtesy Begal Art Lounge, Dhaka. 

A Spiritual Journey

Ronni Ahmmed’s sixth solo exhibition, “Gods and Beasts,” on display at Dhaka’s Bengal Art Lounge, takes visitors on a psychedelic, modern, multi-faith and spiritual journey, from the flames of hell to the redemption of heaven—or, if one prefers, enlightenment. His interpretation of the ultimate spiritual goal is vast enough to accommodate both. Each piece was created especially for the exhibition. The majority of the works on display are large-scale acrylic paintings on canvas or paper, featuring fabulous beasts, as well as enlightened beings, prophets, deities and devils that would not be incongruous in the work of Bosch or Bruegel—albeit executed in a technicolor palette with motifs harvested from modern life. For example, Goddess Durga (all works 2015) is fashionably attired in purple cat-eye sunglasses and in Ganesha Writing Mahabharata, the god in question sports an iridescent black pedicure.

The Bengal Art Lounge is comprised of two large and one smaller exhibition rooms. Visitors to “Gods and Beasts” are welcomed at the gallery entrance by a painting of Adam and Eve. The pair are entwined against a vibrant yellow ground in a sorrowful embrace, their heads overlapping to form both a crimson apple and a snake head with a lolling green tongue. The work establishes the tone for the first room in the gallery, which is hung with works focusing on concepts of perdition and suffering. The sound of sonorous chanting sets a somber mood.

One of the most visually compelling works in the next room—the “hell room”—is Hell Needs Coal to Burn, which depicts a snarling beast of fire. It is a quadruped whose body is depicted with leaping orange tongues and red flames. The creature’s staring eye fixes our gaze. A wailing head is being swallowed by the creature’s gaping, toothy maw, while other souls scream and struggle as the beast digests them. Like many of the works in the exhibition, this one juxtaposes the absurd with the poignant, evoking a certain pathos despite its playfully childlike and vibrantly colored style.

RONNI AHMMEDHell Needs Coal to Burn, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 105 × 151 cm. Courtesy Bengal Art Lounge, Dhaka. 

The same room also offers images of martial deities from the Hindu pantheon. Lord Narasimha Killing Ashura depicts the god Vishnu as the lion-man incarnation that he assumes in order to slay the demon-king Hiranyakashipu. Ahmmed renders the climax of their battle—Narasimha disemboweling his pitiful foe, who bares his crooked yellow teeth as he wails in pain—in the sytle of the popular Indian comic book series Amar Chitra Katha. Figures are composed of bold outlines and pure blocks of color: chartreuse, fuchsia, sapphire and, of course, plenty of blood red. Narasimha’s wide staring, silver eyes command the viewer’s gaze, evoking the Hindu devotional practice of darśan (reciprocal gaze between devotee and the divine).

At the Bengal Art Lounge, visitors are funneled from the “hell room” into the gallery’s back room, or “heaven room,” which represents the culmination of the exhibition’s spiritual journey. Among the works is Ahmmed’s reinterpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Bearing the same name, the painting appropriates iconography from the arts of various Asian religions. Christ and his disciples are each encircled by flaming haloes, which are signifiers of enlightenment in East Asian Buddhist art. In the painting, the men are defined in soft tones of pink, except for Jesus who is rendered in white. They are depicted as sitting at a table perched atop a peak that soars above smaller ice-blue mountains. The configuration, in fact recalls Mt. Meru, the axis mundi of Indic religions.

Ahmmed’s studies of different spiritual traditions also manifest in his symbolic use of numbers. In the Last Supper, number seven is referenced twice as seven clouds and twenty-five flames in the foreground (two plus five equals seven). Seven is a significant number in several world religions: in the Abrahamic faiths, God is said to have created the world in seven days; and the Koran describes seven hells and seven heavens, each with seven entrances.

RONNI AHMMEDLast Supper, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 183 × 137 cm. Courtesy Bengal Art Lounge, Dhaka. 

Art as a Cross-cultural Devotional Endeavor

The work that visually dominates the “heaven room” is also the most simple. It is a luminous outline of a Buddha seated in meditative posture, executed in radiant graduations of luminous yellow. The Buddha is Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha of Tantric/ Vajrayana Buddhism, who represents the ultimate goal of the faith: enlightenment, which here is interpreted as nothingness. The artist conveys Vairocana as the embodiment of absence, through his use of minimal details and muted outlines, which is in stark contrast to the other richly detailed works in the exhibition.    

Visitors to “Gods and Beasts” should not miss Ahmmed’s 22- minute video playing in a side room of the gallery. Tears of the Blazing Brain (2014–15) supplies a cacophony of unrelated images in rapid succession: a well-known colonial photograph of the devastating Bengal famine of 1942; images of deities; and the frying of various food and children’s plastic toys. A band of unconnected, nonsensical sentences Ahmmed composed loop across the screen, their mesmerizing preposterousness evocative of Zen koans. Examples include:

conspiracy and controlling is the only festival we are allowed to enjoy with full ecstasy. Enjoy your galactic dinner with guns, computers, remote controls, news agencies, TV screens and dead roses. please float on your electric dreams . . . and eat your own time . . . die before you die…

The video is pointedly unsettling, leaving the viewer to wonder if this is Ahmmed’s rendition of mahamaya, or the great illusion that is existence.


Laughing with the “Cosmic Comic”

As religion and communalism grow ever more fraught in South Asia and throughout the world, it is refreshing to encounter art that does not shy away from thoughtfully engaging with religious and spiritual subject matter. “Gods and Beasts” reminds viewers that Bengal has historically been a crossroad of numerous faiths, which have, until recently, benefitted tremendously from each other’s coexistence. The exhibition also offers possibilities of cross-fertilization and the ways that different faiths could enrich each other today—lessons Ronni Ahmmed has internalized in his own spiritual and creative practices. Like many a Zen patriarch, Ahmmed, who has referred to himself as a “cosmic comic” in interviews, believes that truth is best distributed with a spoonful of humor. This may be the best way to weather what Hindu philosophy identifies as our present “dark age,” or the Kali Yuga.