Why artist MF Husain's son ran away from home

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Why artist MF Husains son ran away from home

Dubai-based artist Owais Husain, son of MF Husain, talks about finding inspiration in the patterns of his mother's saree and fleeing home with a borrowed torch

By Purva Grover

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Published: Thu 23 Mar 2017, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Mar 2017, 8:47 PM

You ran away from home as an 11-year-old to be a hermit painter.
I was in boarding school when I read of Rabindranath Tagore and his utopian idea to create a rich ecosystem for the arts in Shantiniketan (Kolkata). At that age, it seemed idealistic to pursue my then 'only' known form of expression - to paint. However, as I was also growing intolerant to the mechanisms of 'establishment,' I made plans to live and work outside the walls of the art school; to make my way to Delhi and from thereon, to Shantiniketan. Borrowing my friend Apoorva Lakhia's torch (with failing batteries), I ran through the Himalayan forest at 4am. They say it's darkest before dawn. Not much of a moon behind mid-April clouds, I walked before all fears, with my plain determination to begin life as an artist. I hitched rides with several trucks and reached Delhi only to confront the thought that if I could run then, I would never stop running. Two days later, I returned to complete school.
Even after having exhibited in Kolkata several times, I am yet to visit Shantiniketan.
Would you say that you have found what you were looking for as a child?
On the contrary, my quest has only intensified in complexity with evolving circumstances. As humans we are lost in the vocabulary of noise when all we seek is simplicity. However, I knew then as much as I know now of my need for a visual expression. This exercise has only grown.
Your artworks are fuelled by memories - is it more of reliving the times gone by or preserving the past for generations to come?
There are two facets to this exercise of outlining memory - that which is personal and that, which speaks of the politics of a curated history. Losing my mother early set me on a search for stations in time that offered connection to moments when she was still alive. Almost like ravaging discarded maps of historiographers to place my pin drops of loss. It's like a chronology of absence. Later on, through the agency of my practice, I began visually charting the fate of history in the age of momentary recall. And so dealing with ideas of memory, identity, and displaced relevance becomes more of an artistic enterprise. However, through these deliberations I also aspire to offer a tenuous bridge, or channel that transcends timelines and generations.
Your earliest childhood 'art' memory.
Early memories only get defined as art or as its consequent influence with growing awareness and passage of time. There are few such memories that remain consistent in their reference within my subconscious.
The first being the seemingly graphic patterns that moved through the folds of my mother's saree. Always fine in their linearity, afloat on soft chiffon or white cotton, an object of my fixed gaze.
The second oddly graphic memory is of working on my first oil painting at the age of three. The sun was setting and warm light from the room spilled through the grills onto the balcony. It was a canvas no more than 24x12inch, resting on my knees as I painted with bold strokes of black enamel paint. My father and his art dealer friend Kali Pundole watched curiously, their silhouettes looming over my back. It was to be a painting of a cheerful girl with strung balloons afloat in a sky full of birds - when the tragic linseed oil drips began looking like tears and fell hopelessly into her dress.
How (and why) did you become an artist?
It is unclear whether there was a specific moment when such a pronounced decision took place. What was a given for me all along was that I was naturally inclined to express myself visually. Of the possible stations in my timeline that could have formed my trajectory in this direction, there was that painting at three; discovering Rabindranath Tagore's renaissance idea of a utopian art biome; on long train journeys to south India during school holidays, reading about film maker Ritwik Ghatak, and the letters of Van Gogh; animated afternoons spent with the passionately dedicated art collector Chester Herwitz; and perhaps within frequent moments of submission to my track that lay on the side of what was considered "normal".
Your medium of expression.
I have always felt the need to decipher the world via a vocabulary of painting, ie seeking a relationship between the real as well as the intangible issues through a language of line, colour, and form. Whilst the plastic arts have been my visual language of choice, I began to feel more at ease with the marriage of multiple mediums - as in my installation works.
This became particularly clear to me whilst working with a film, where each complex layer of cinema requires a holistic approach, armed with an understanding of multiple disciplines (i.e. poetry, music, production design, and photography sculpted with light) that need to be appropriated or changed frequently. You become a linguist of sorts. This entire process of creating such spaces consumes my senses and pushes me to explore the medium of installation even further. The singular element that is consistent every time is the need to submit myself to the constitution of each medium, before aspiring to deconstruct it from within.
What is the best medium to communicate with the current generation with a depleting attention span?
Each experience of a work of art is unique to its own circumstance. Rapid movement in film could also require a meditative patience from its audience or the need to move briskly through a three-dimensional space, which is perhaps about silence. The flicker of the moving image is a fundamental draw of human senses. There is an immediacy of imagery and storytelling, such as in my relatively recent body of work - with trunks fitted out with silent videos.
Having spent time in Dubai, would you say that the people have become art literate and receptive to arts?
Of course, there has been a rapid growth of awareness for the plastic arts in the Dubai, more so over the last decade. An ecosystem of steady growth in patronage inevitably offers rich artistic opportunities. Art programs in this city, such as the bold public art initiatives at Vida Hotel Downtown are fertile platforms for art that also (and importantly) embrace prolific experimentation. Dubai has a rigorously transient expat population. Whilst many leave, there are as many that relocate here. So the idea of awareness, in my opinion, is bound to take diverse shapes and rather quickly.
Being an artist is a lonely (and creative) job - how has the journey been for you so far?
On the contrary I seldom, if at all, thrive in isolation. Human contact is invaluable and the sense of context it offers me is an important fabric to my narrative of expression. Even if you are physically, you are never actually alone in the space of the art practice. You are constantly in opposition with the self, immersed, in self-critique.
Any message for the young artists?
Is this the only option to explore your expression and how deep can you afford to bleed for it?
Empires of Memory
Husain explores the themes of identity, displacement, and memory through mixed media using both video and stacked steel trunks. His exhibition explores the evolution of memory through history; how one can be used to shape, manipulate, or distort the other and how this dynamic is influenced by the hierarchies of culture through generations.
"The trunks are a part of an evolving storyline in my recent works. The trunks fall into a form of architecture, imposing space and outlining the agency of the building. It also attempts to incorporate elements of time, through projected moving images and distorted reflections of the passersby. The trunks also carry the idea of memory storehouses as well as vehicles of mobility, passage, transfer and migration, on a varying scale. Their chrome veneer and mirrored interiors reflect the location and the viewer's voyeuristic presence into this timeline."
The seven-channel video that sits in the open mouth of each vertically stacked trunk is silent and focuses on stationary images in stretched time-spans, like breathing still lives. "This work alludes to a limited bandwidth for retaining relevance of a curated history. There is only so much that you can relate with at a given period of time. Your individual universe runs out of space for history. Empires of Memory is a meditation on this curated history in the age of forgetting."
On display at Vida Downtown Dubai until April 15
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