Shahid Kabir: A Stranger from Spain

I recently found and acquired a set of eight exquisitely embossed aquatint etchings by artist Shahid Kabir made in Spain in the mid 1980's, which intrigued me to research them further and discuss the subject, technique and inspiration behind them with the artist himself and his long-time art dealer and friend Peter De Munnich of Profile Art Gallery located at Niagara on the Lake in Ontario, Canada.

Not much is written or known of Shahid Kabir’s time in Spain. After attaining early fame in Bangladesh for his series on the mystic Lalon Shah in 1980 and being deprived of a well-deserved Japanese scholarship for a master’s degree in art (that was snatched away from him through dirty politics and manipulation by a fellow artist), Kabir left for Spain in despair.

No surprise that Kabir chose Spain as a fertile ground for further learning and honing his artistic talents. Spain has a long and rich history of producing some of the greatest Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary artists of the World, from Goya, El Grico, Velazquez, Murillo, Sorolla to.….Picasso, Dali, Miro, Tapies and Barcelo. From day one, Kabir immersed himself fully into the Spanish culture and way of life, observing and experiencing the art World of the 1980s, which was a place of artistic diversity and aesthetic contention. Neo-expressionists searched for a separate identity from abstract painters, installation and performance artists. He received initial guidance and support from Monir, a fellow senior artist from Bangladesh who had arrived in Madrid in 1969 and settled down. He had created a strong following which to this day remains strong.

Kabir adopted Spain as his new home and initially struggled to find his footing but never looked back. He integrated at a fast pace with the locals, be they street workers, gypsies or artists; learned to speak fluent Spanish; cook gourmet Spanish food and most of all make Sangria which is one of the most popular drinks in Spanish cuisine. Within a short span of time he established himself as one of the leading print makers and artists of Madrid. I have tried to capture this prolific and creative period during which Kabir produced some extremely complex and powerful multi-dimensional works. His artistic expressions were ingrained in surrealistic and abstract impressionism.

In 1980, the same year he arrived in Madrid, Kabir joined the Galleria Estampa as an assistant print maker. He learned the laborious and pains taking process of creating embossed Aquatint Etchings on paper. Meticulous as he was in his painting, he quickly gained the trust of the Director of the print studio, who assigned him to print limited edition of portfolios for well known Spanish and French artists. He also experimented and produced miniature size prints of his own with varying subjects from still life to self portraits. Wine and I (1980) and Still Life (1980) are great examples of his early etchings where attention to detail and treatment of space to create a third dimension are clearly present that speak for themselves and to the creative genius of this master.

Soon after mastering the art of Embossing Aquatint Etchings, Kabir started creating his own works and by 1985 he was producing large size multi-colour prints. Humans; friends and neighbours, living spaces, objects and experiences merge and serve as points of reference for the artist. For example, in Mi Reino (My Kingdom, 1985) series, Kabir draws and paints what he sees around him – Seniora Maria his friend and neighbour who Biba called Grandma, a couple kissing in the neighbouring house as seen from the window of his house, and his surroundings, his kitchen, dinning and living room.

The same year, Kabir produced a series of etchings titled Musica y Vida (Music & Life, 1985) which was a tribute to life and music and the instruments producing the sound, be it a Saxophone, Trumpet, Guitar or a Cello. He brilliantly composes the etchings as if creating a melody, with geometric figures, objects of love and desire and nature. The mood is set with the time of the day, the sun setting or the half-moon and through use of sombre colours. Time and motion is captured through depiction of different scenes and daily chores of cooking, washing and drying clothes, birds flying and use of traffic lights etc. Kabir’s deep love and appreciation for music, be it Bengali Baul (Sufi) music or songs of Lalon Shah, the mystic poet and philosopher from the 18th century Lalon Shah strike a chord right down to his soul. And then in Spain, he was introduced to the traditional Spanish Flamenco music and dance which has its roots going back to South Asia. Though somewhat mysterious, it is believed that it was brought to Spain by the Roma peoples (or Gypsies known as Banjaras) migration from Rajasthan (in northwest India) to Spain between the 9th and 14th centuries. These migrants brought with them musical instruments, such as tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets, and an extensive repertoire of songs and dances. Kabir is also extremely fond of Reggae music and the Blues, and in particular loves the sounds of the electric Guitar and the Saxophone.

Similarly, his Circo (Circus, 1987) series is a vivid depiction of his experience of enjoying a circus himself since childhood and also later on with his daughter Biba in Madrid who was 11 years old at the time. Kabir says “real life is like a circus – it has laughter, tears, fun and pain”. In this etching, Kabir playfully bringing out the entertainers and performers, whether they are animals or human beings, showing their mastery in acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, taming or clowning.

In 2018, Takir Hossain wrote in the Daily Observer (Bangladesh’s Daily Newspaper) on Shahid Kabir as the painter of humans and humanity. He wrote “As a bohemian, Kabir restlessly walks from street to street, and has portrayed prostitutes and street women, the starving people, dying mothers with their children. His works are technically outstanding and he has made great efforts toward demonstrating the Spanish landscape, nature and more. It can be easily said that the prints are visual narratives and that the artist felt it from the bottom of his soul. He took interest in printmaking as the medium could easily reach out to the common people. Kabir is more than an artist. He is a witness to the human drama but a witness with a skill that interpreted his intimate observing into art.”

When I contacted Peter De Munnich, he recollected that he had quite a few etchings by Kabir and his fellow printers from Madrid and back in those days they were in high demand and a number of them passed through his hands. He also stated that “the print studio Galleria Estampa in Madrid was fairly unique in producing a large number of Etching, Aquatint and Carborundum editions throughout the 1980's & 1990's.  It is through this studio that I first got to meet Kabir and made a trip to Madrid to visit him in the early 1990's. The prints produced at the studio were all of very fine quality and I really enjoyed working with them.  It's sad that the market for hand-pulled prints has been so diminished over in the last 20 years as digital printing took over the market to a large degree. The etchings suites you have are wonderful examples of the studio's best work and of Kabir's unique personality.”

Kabir’s prints of the 1990s continued to show great finesse and celebrate a Bohemian lifestyle and a free spirit. During this period, Kabir was prolific and in much demand as he exhibited his works widely across Europe and North America. Nature played a significant role in his evocative Feuilles n Fleurs (Leaves and Flowers, 1997) series. These beautiful flowers Kabir would see every morning from window while having his tea. Yet again, Kabir is influenced by his surroundings. He paints what he sees and feels around him. He is as authentic as one can be as an artist and a human being.

Kabir still enjoys print making and sharing with students the complex techniques he mastered in Spain. From time to time he conducts print making classes and gives demos to students at the Cosmos Print Making Studio and the Department of Fine Arts of Dhaka University. In 2018, Kabir was invited by the renowned Indian artist and professor Jogen Chowdhury to conduct a workshop with his faculty and students on “Sugar Lift” print making technique. It is a complex way of creating painterly marks on an etching plate using a sugar solution and a paint brush. This was a singular honour and a recognition from one great artist and print maker to another. As they say “it takes a diamond to recognize another diamond”.

 

Ali Adil Khan is the founder and director of SAGA Foundation and South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) in Toronto, Canada. He is an art critic, writer, curator and collector.

 

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July 27, 2020 July 27, 2020

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