Firoz Mahmud: Delineating Colonialism of Bengal Presidency

Firoz Mahmud, Traitor of Faith [Plot #2 Shiraj & Mir], 2010, Oil on shaped canvas, 230 x 300 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
Firoz Mahmud, Horse Fighter, 2017, Oil on shaped canvas, Left: 139 x 108 cm, Right: 138.5 x 108 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
Firoz Mahmud, Majestic Cut (Red), 2008, Oil on shaped canvas, 167 x 130 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
Firoz Mahmud, Curving Itihash 1, 2017, Wood, 122 x 84 x 3.7 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
Firoz Mahmud, Curving Itihash 2, 2017, Wood, 118 x 88.4 x 3.5 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
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KUKJE GALLERY | ART BASEL HONG KONG 2019

Firoz Mahmud’s most recent body of works echoes Edward Wadie Said’s eminent text on Orientalism and simaltaneously challenges and re-introduces themes of representation pertinent to post Colonial Bangladesh.

TEXT: Selima Quader Chowdhury
IMAGES: Ota Fine Arts

 

Historical narratives have existed in art since humans first learned to express themselves. Visual representations of the past serve as historical documents that enable us to understand and interact with history. Firoz Mahmud, a New York-based Bangladeshi artist, has endeavored to create a rendezvous with history through his recent current solo exhibition Drawing Reverberation in Dhaka and Singapore, a series of paintings depicting the history, heritage and legacies of Bengal, focusing in particular on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the British Empire and its colonial representative, the British East India Company, had taken over political and administrative power on the Indian Subcontinent. His work sometimes converges history with contemporary culture. This paper explores Firoz’s work by asking whether he adhered to the stereotypical image of the colonizer and the colonized or attempted to visually undermine the imperial power of the British?

Artist Firoz Mahmud`s recent paintings depicts the East India Company, a company set up in Great Britain in the seventeenth century, transplanted in India to exploit its riches and to establish a monopoly on trade between England and India, mostly based in Bengal, the region Firoz focuses on in his paintings and draws upon the regional legacies.

However, Firoz showed how the British East India Company transformed itself from a trading company to a governing power, ruling parts of Indian Subcontinent following the British victory over the ruler of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daullah, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.  The East India Company’s oppressive regime lasted a century until the Indians raised their collective voice in armed rebellion during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which gave birth to Indian nationalism and ended the Company’s rule in 1858. The British Crown replaced the East India Company as the governing authority of India, and Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877. In his paintings, Firoz also narrated how queen Victoria dominated the local Nawabs, people and trading.

The dominance of British colonial rule in India is vividly reflected in the paintings by European artists who accompanied British traders and rulers to India in the eighteenth century. The paintings these artists produced enhanced the British imperial image by portraying the British (and Western lifestyle in general) as superior through their regal posture, while the Indians (and other eastern races) were shown as submissive and inferior.[1]The east/west dichotomy which prevailed in paintings commissioned by the East India Company began with the British colonization of the East in the eighteenth century, and helped divide the world intellectually and culturally between Western Europe and the Orient. According to Palestinian literary theorist Edward Wadie Said, the west was responsible for creating the cultural concept of the east by producing an image of the east as its opposite. Where the west was enlightened, civilized and rational, the east was barbaric, primitive and uncivilized. In his book Orientalism, Said argued that the peoples and cultures of eastern countries had been deliberately misrepresented by western powers in order to shore up their own regimes. [2]

Firoz Mahmud’s Drawing Reverberation reflects this east/west binary through repetitive images of Robert Clive, a senior British officer in the East India Company, who was Commander in Chief of British India, and Khwaja Salimullah (fourth Nawab of Dhaka),Siraj-ud-Daulah (the last independent Nawab of Bengal) and Indian soldiers. These pictures embody the contradictory portrayal of east and west in the company paintings. In Firoz`s Layapa Stencil painting `Traitor of Faith-b,ur-12`,  Mir Jafar Surrendering to Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, Clive stands in an upright and authoritative manner while Mir Jafar, one of the defeated Nawabs, bows before him. The visual segregation of the colonizer and colonized is also evident in this Layapa Stencil painting (fig1A), in which local Indians are seen sitting or kneeling on the ground while East India Company men stand regally, flaunting their clothes, as if to emphasize the superiority of the British.

 

Firoz Mahmud, Traitor of Faith [Plot #2 Shiraj & Mir], 2010, Oil on shaped canvas, 230 x 300 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo

However, Firoz Mahmud’s work maintains a balance in its representation of the east and west. Traitor of Faith [Plot #2 Shiraj & Mir],  is based on a conspiracy against Bengal Nawab (native governor of Mogul empire) Siraj ud-Daulah (right on horse) by a traitor commander Mir Jafar (left), who was under ruler Nawab Nizam of Bengal′s army. He is brandishing his sword and plotting to become the next acting Nawab of Bengal in favor of British East India Company, who traded and colonized for two centuries in Bengal region and eventually all over in South Asia.

The traitor Mir Jafar, with three chameleon impressionistic figures overlapped, is holding sword towards ruler Siraj ud-Daulah, to support British East India Company’s soldiers at Battle of Plassey to become the next ruler of Bengal.  Dirk sky and owls are flying with rectangular shape over Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah, implying British intellects are plotting on him or colonial governors are present and warning omen for the locals.

The Battle of Plassey was turning point of modern Indian history. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan were parts of a united entity – as India during that time. The Battle of Plassey held in 1757, was a decisive British East India Company’s victory over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, establishing Company rule in South Asia, which expanded over much of the Indies for the next hundred years. The battle took place a Palashi, Bengal, on the river banks of the Bhagirathi River, in West Bengal, near Murshidabad, then capital of undivided Bengal. The belligerents were Siraj-ud-daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and the British East India Company. Flying owls are seen here as symbol of omens, a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future of the Nawab of Bengal and subcontinental rule.

The painting Imperial Confrontation (Battle power of prince), (2017) is about two combatants on two horses confronting the Anglican power of Nowab Siraj-ud-Daulah (last emperor of Bengal). The circular owls rotating around imply the presence of British intellect in Bengal. This is a segment image from Battle of Plassey. The British East India Company won against Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Emperor (Nawab) of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and a small French force. The painting depicts the interplay of militarism and prejudice related to the state of war in South Asia’s Bengal region. The battle was the end of Bengal Nawab’s reign marked the start of British East India Company’s rule over Bengal and later almost all of South Asia.

 

Firoz Mahmud, Horse Fighter, 2017, Oil on shaped canvas, Left: 139 x 108 cm, Right: 138.5 x 108 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo

 

In some of Firoz’s work, Indian soldiers appear more prominently than the Nawabs or the British officers. In Majestic Cut [Red & Green] show Nawabs’ riding  horses, holding a sword in one hand and the horse’s reins in the other. The soldier exudes a gallantry aura and is seen encountering the British without a tinge of fear or a hint of inferiority. Their strength, position and eyes have been treated as a powerful symbol.

Imperial Confrontation (Battle power of prince), 2017 shows the Prince battling the traitor with a sword and his power comes with rays of light shining from his almost invisible portrait in the center, representing his passion to destroy British imperial rule in the region. Such an audacious and rebellious portrayal of Indian soldiers underlines the seriousness of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which represented “the biggest threat to the Britain’s colonial power during its rule of the Indian subcontinent.”[3]

  

Firoz Mahmud, Majestic Cut (Red), 2008, Oil on shaped canvas, 167 x 130 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo

 

Firoz also offers a powerful rendition of Indian women in British India, demonstrating their vital role in the Indian independence movement fought against the colonial British Raj in 1947, as well as their persistent and tenacious struggle for gender equality against the constraints imposed by the patriarchy and British imperialism. Women’s subordination was perpetuated by the British to legitimize their rule and to show that India was not fit for independence.[4] There was a growth of women’s organizations in the early twentieth century which emerged with the agenda of gaining national independence from Britain, and women’s independence from men. Women played a vital role during the Indian Independence Movement; many women participated, and eventually led protests after the arrest of the male leaders.[5] Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian Independence said “To call woman a weaker sex is a libel; it is men’s injustice to women. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior.”[6]

Firoz depicts a female figure with wings like a pori, or fairy woman with infinitely long hair which is strangling a white man like a venomous serpent, demonstrating the potential of the threat Indian women posed to British imperial power. This image contrasts with the depiction of women in colonial India by English landscape artist William Danielle.

 

Firoz Mahmud, Curving Itihash 1, 2017, Wood, 122 x 84 x 3.7 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo
Firoz Mahmud, Curving Itihash 2, 2017, Wood, 118 x 88.4 x 3.5 cm © Firoz Mahmud, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo

 

In Firoz`s mixed media paper-works and wood carvings, he portrayed women with goodwill.  In his similarly narrative wood carving work Carving Itihas, the Nawabs, pori or fairy appears docile and fragile with her downcast gaze, but her nice romantic feature have been emphasized in a positive way. Such depiction of women adheres to the representation of Eastern female in colonial discourse, as a figure who is romanticized for the pleasure of white men, as “the colonies were marketed by colonial elites as a place where colonizing men could indulge their sexual and beautiful fantasies.”[7] In Firoz’s work, the woman’s mass of wavy hair predominates the scene, making her body appear inconspicuous in order to repel British colonial male’s voyeurism.

Firoz Mahmud’s Drawing Reverberation seems to challenge Western texts’ creation of stereotypical images of the East as irrational, backward, inferior, depraved and aberrant. Where the west was stereotyped in Western literature and art as rational, superior and virtuous. Firoz has used historical figures from the colonial British East India Company and the British Raj era and juxtaposed them against Nawabs and soldiers of India. The juxtaposition of west and east creates a visual equivalence demonstrated by posture, gesticulation and color. In some of the images the Indian soldier is portrayed authoritatively in relation to the colonizer, threatening the image of western imperialism. Oriental women were represented as oppressed, submissive, voiceless and seductive, but Firoz has depicted a desexualized body of Indian women strangling the colonizer with her hair. Firoz Mahmud’s Reverberation echoes Edward Said’s groundbreaking text Orientalism, in which he criticized Western texts for constructing the stereotypical images of the Orient as exotic and inferior. Firoz’s work represents Said’s words in artistic form.

 

 

[1]“The Changing world of Visual Arts” http://www.studiestoday.com/sites/default/files/NCERT%20Class%208%20History%20The%20Changing%20World%20of%20Visual%20Arts.pdf

[2] Ranjan (2015).

[3]

“Decisive events of the Indian Mutiny | National Army Museum”<https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/decisive-events-indian-mutiny>

[4]Liddle and Joshi (1985)

[5] Ibid, p 76

[6] Ibid, p 77

[7]Engmann, 2012, pp. 46-57(54)

 

 

Bibliography / Reference

Ranjan, Priyanash. (2015) “Edward Said’s Orientalism: A Post-Colonial Culture Study” Journal of Humanities and Social Science,Vol.20 Issue 9,Ver II(Sept. 2015), pp 85-88

Liddle,Joanna and Rama Joshi. (1985) “Gender and Imperialism in British India”Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 20, No. 43 (Oct. 26, 1985), pp. WS72-WS78

Engmann, Rachel AmaAssa.“Under Imperial Eyes.Black Bodies, Buttocks, and Breasts: British Colonial Photography and Asante Fetish Girls” African Arts, Vol. 45 No.2 (Summer 2012), pp. 46-57

 

 

Firoz Mahmud - Drawing Reverberation
Ota Fine Arts
Friday, 16 November 2018 – Saturday, 5 January 2019

 

 

About the Artist:

Firoz Mahmud was born and brought up in Khulna when he started painting at the age of six. He left Khulna for Dhaka where he studied drawing and painting at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University. He was selected for a full fellowship from Dutch Ministry to attend at the Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, Netherlands where he met artists, curators, theorists and scientists from all over the world. He started to practice contemporary art at Rijksakademie being inspired from his advisors including Luc Tymans, Aernout Mik, Lisa Milroy, Nalini Malani, Hou Hanru, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Bernard Frize among others. He moved to Japan on a government scholarship where he did research at Tama Art University and achieved PhD on fine art and thesis from Tokyo University of the Arts, (Tokyo Geidai).

He attended as an artist-in-residence at International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) receiving grant from Asian Cultural Council in New York and also received grants from Queens Council on the Arts (QCA) in New York, Art Project Ideas Prize from Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art, Arts Networks Asia Singapore, Royal Over-seas League, London, Dutch Ministry Rijksakademie Fellowship, Monbugakakusho, Elezabeth Greenshield Grant in Canada, Dilnasheen Khanom Gold Medal Dhaka University.

 

 


 

Selima Quader Chowdhury is a Lecturer at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). She graduated with a BA in History from Richmond American International University in London, holds Masters in Art History from Kingston University, London (2006) and 2nd Masters from SOAS, University of London. She taught History of Art at Shanto Mariam University of Creative Technology in Bangladesh, worked at Bonham auction house in London and now has been teaching Art History at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). Her Book ‘Martyr’s mother in Amar Ekushey: An exhibition of sympathy or courage’   published by the Bangladesh National Museum.

Her articles on art published in several magazines including the Daily Star and the New Nation Weekend Magazine centralizing- ‘Was artist Sultan a feminist?’ and Reflection of European Colonialism in the representation of veiled women by women artists of Bangladesh.

 

 

 
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