The conversation about the contemporary art scene in Dhaka opens pathways to diverse opinions. With the elongated brushstrokes of modernism and comforting confusion of abstract art which has long dominated the white glory of galleries – we have also seen the emergence and celebration of performance art over the past two decades or so; digital art and brilliant illustration works made to be more visible with the rampage of social media platforms along with art-pieces which drip a biting sense of multi-media, continually bringing new-found pieces to the canon of postmodern art.
The works of Dhaka based artist Alia Kamal, however, seem to flow in an opposing direction. Her subjects are mostly herself, her angelic-looking pets, her friends, families and loved ones. Her works are astute depictions of figuratism and realism and her paintbrush knows precision like a pro. Having said that, however, it would be a rookie mistake to classify her as a hyperrealist, because her paintings do not act as mere reflections or stark photographs of reality— instead, they are often bathed in a sense of subtle whimsy.
In other words, the portraiture is not necessarily crisp and posed but has a layer of authenticity in it, weaving miniature tales within the surface of the canvas through and through. “I like to capture the stories, the environment. Simplicity inspires me— everything from a blade of grass to the sound of laughter or the light falling on my cat’s pupil inspire me”
What adds a whole new dimension and depth to her story as an artist is Alia’s dedication to honing her skills and her deep commitment to learning.
Alia talks about how during her childhood, her artistic leanings took her to terrains of contemplation and colourful musings while sitting at the quiet art classrooms of Fareha Zeba at Scholastica, further diving into how it was always in her nature to sprinkle colours over all her school projects, be it a history homework on Julius Caesar’s great conquests or Chemistry notes listing elements.
Alia talks about how in her Uni days at Duke, she would constantly find herself to be in a state of morbidity due to her not being able to concentrate on her major which was Biomedical Engineering at that time. She later moved to New York City to study Chemistry and simultaneously relished in the deliciously blooming art scene amidst the sea of skyscrapers and hustlers. Alia also talks about her yearlong experiences at an art program in Spain while on the same strain, expressed her awe at the artistic potential of many artists from Charukola whom she met at an art workshop in Kushtia, Bangladesh. From her musings about that time, she saw masterpieces of Egon Schiele at the more modern Leopold Museumat Vienna to her enamoured delight at hibiscus wearing, feline-loving eccentric artist SM Sultan – it is clearly visible about her love for different kinds of art is all-consuming.
This is also starkly visible in her paintings which in terms of aesthetics might resemble the arcs of Rembrandt and may be impregnated with the hues of Monet’s lilies in terms of saturation, but concomitantly the aspect of the “local” heavily treads along the global one just like the nuances of political traverse alongside the traditional.
In this day and age of art and poetry dripping in complex jargons, lathered in unconceived political messages, Alia’s works seem to take a subtler route – one where the nuances of politics creep up on the skin of the viewer. A deeply ennui-filled “gaze” is a recurrent motif in a lot of her works. Sometimes this is paired with anger, exhaustion, and a sense of chill or even blatant nonchalance. This creates a phenomenally voyeuristic experience for the viewers of her art, breaking a certain invisible layer. Be it in the form of a girl clad in fuchsia, steeped in that special brand of Dhakaite urban loneliness and waiting for a bus in the sea of blue-hued men; a woman donning a crimson petticoat and blouse smoking a cigarette indifferently as if sweating off the fatigue of the day or in the longing look of a group of garment workers towards the moon – we see the chilling gaze mentioned earlier take a feminist turn.
Sharing the story behind her painting “Smile!” Alia says “My mother was a very graceful woman. She was a government worker and she would always wear these beautiful sarees and I would always be in awe with her. I also knew however that I cannot capture that sense of perfection. So in this painting, I am depicting not the perfect graceful woman with the perfect posture but the awkward girl, the ‘deer caught in headlights’”.
Alia lets us know that the idea of a piece of art being objectively aesthetic is a little ludicrous. She is not indifferent to theory or the various technicalities of her field— in fact, she is deeply rooted in her quest to perfect her craft. However, she has attained a perfect balance in her posture and paintbrush and exists simultaneously in the realm of spirited creation and quiet contemplation.
While talking about some of her favourite works and inspirations, she talks about how much she is extremely taken by Impressionism. Her favorites range from maestros like Rembrandt, Schiele and Gogh to surrealists like Leonara Carrington, avant-garde figures like Amrita Shergill to contemporaries like Colleen Barry. “I seek for painters with stories, I love to dive deep into their histories and figure out their tale, their brush”. Following this, Alia lets us know that she is currently reading up on the women in Impressionism alongside a slim biographical of Sultan with her father.
The visual tales Alia weave – mostly with loyal oil paints, occasionally with dabs of gouache and sometimes scintillated with dark strokes of charcoal pens; seem to always act as junction points. There are opposing energies that work in favour of one another in many of her works – her portraitures seem to hold the exactitude and erudition of the European classical artists yet also contain the sense of potency found in Contemporary art. This particular duality along with the quiet Instagram reels accentuated by retro fifties Bollywood tunes centering on her painting sessions and her pets goofing around, all work as elements to a truly fascinating and gifted artistic persona.