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Abul Hisham: Intertwining Socio-cultural Spaces with Personal Narratives

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

Abul Hisham is a young and talented artist based in Thrissur, Kerala, who has done four solo shows and participated in several group shows both in India and abroad. After completing his BFA and masters in fine arts, he was awarded the prestigious Inlaks Fine Arts Award in 2013. He was recently selected for the art residency programme at Rijksakademie van Beeldente Kunsten (2021), Amsterdam, the Netherlands; earlier he was awarded residencies at Skowhegan Artist Residency, Maine, USA in 2019, and at “What About Art” (WAA), Mumbai, in collaboration with Inlaks India Foundation and Harmony Art Residency, Mumbai, by Reliance India Foundation, 2015. His body of work explores the notions of desire, death and memory, and how they intertwine with the social and cultural spaces and his own personal narratives.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

AH: The earliest works I saw were those done by my parents. My father, Mr KS Hamza is a businessman running an art material shop in my town. He used to do lots of drawings, especially in oil pastel and graphite. My mother, Mrs Shyma Hamza was more interested in design, embroidery, and so on. I remember my father doing a portrait of my grandfather in pencil. After returning from the shop at night, he would devote time daily to drawing and painting. Sometimes he would work in the shop when he got free time, away from customers. We kids would hang around him and watch the way he worked. Copying cartoons and landscapes were my main interest at that time.

The earliest art education for me was from Kerala Kala Bhavan, a beautiful art school in my town run by an artist/ teacher, Antony Devassya, who had completed his studies from Fine Arts College, Thrissur, and Haldankar’s Fine Arts Institute, Mumbai in the early 1950s. I learned the basics of art from him. From my childhood onward, I would go to my father’s shop to help, where I would meet many interesting and talented artists. The shop became be a hub for discussions and debates on art and culture. It also gave me an opportunity to view many art catalogues and artworks.

So, for me, art and artists were not anything new. I remember my father gifting me a set of books on great artists when I was in the fourth standard. I have these books even now. But at that time I did not dream of becoming an artist. After my higher secondary course, I decided to join a fine arts course with the hope of becoming an animator, with the thought that doing a degree course in fine arts would help me. Initially, I joined the applied arts course but after some time I felt that painting was the option that I should take. The primary reason was the extensive amount of freedom one gets in painting and I was very relieved when I was transferred from applied arts to the painting department. This is where my art journey started.

In the earlier years I was confronted with constant doubts, confusion, arguments about different works, experiments, failures, finding subjects to work on, and so on. Luckily, I was surrounded by many brilliant minds; including those by my teachers like K.K. Sasi, Manoj Kannan, Kavitha Balakrishnan and my seniors and artist friends who are actively working now in the field of contemporary art. I also spent a lot of time studying the works of masters and contemporary artists. Discussions about art took place round the clock. I still remember walking with KK Sasi Sir post my college timings, discussing about art, life and language from whom I got deep insights into art. I think these were the things that laid my art foundation. Our college was surrounded by many cultural hubs and spaces, including the Kerala Sahitya Academy, Lalit Kala Akademi and where one could see regional theatre. We thus got a great opportunity to access many cultural events like theatre and film festivals to enrich our practice. Weekend visits to Kochi art galleries was another activity we regularly did where we got to see the works of many contemporary artists.

My first major achievement was receiving the Lalit Kala Akademi award when I was in my third year BFA which was followed by a group exhibition .In my final year I received an art scholarship and was invited to a couple of national camps; this appreciation for me even while I was a student really motivated me. Immediately after my final year in 2010 I got an offer from the Directors of KASHI Art Gallery, Anoop Scaria and Dorie Younger, to do a solo show at the gallery, which is one of the leading galleries in south India. This was beyond my dreams and boosted my confidence both in my work and myself. Thereafter, I shifted to Hyderabad for my post-graduation at the SN School of Fine Arts, Hyderabad, where I got an opportunity to study under the guidance of excellent teachers such as Prof Alex Mathew, Rakhi Peswani, Shyam Sunder, Tanmoy Sandra, LNV Sreenivas, Keerthana Thankavelu, and so on. In my final year I connected with Usha Mirchandani and Ranjana Stienruecke, the Directors of Galerie Mirchandani Stienruecke in Mumbai, which is one of the leading galleries in India and which was another stepping stone in my career.

The turning point was in 2013 when I received the prestigious Inlaks Fine Arts award, which were followed with a couple of solo shows, many group shows and some national and international residencies. I believe that artists will constantly face struggles and challenges that may come in various forms as long as they are working. Moments of dissatisfaction, anger, despair and joy will be there continuously.

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

AH: I’m presently working on my paintings and simultaneously busy with my sculptural installations, which is another kind of practice I pursue. Unlike paintings on paper, sculptural installations are a slow process for me and take time.

Through installations I’m trying to investigate a space that is different from my painting. Here, my intention is to explore the ideas of personal mythology, religious belief systems and memory. Sometimes, the output comes out more akin to a ritual space, where the spectator becomes a part of the work.

Dark Matter 1 – Absence and presence of the self and the other (Mixed media installation), 2017

Concrete blocks, prayer mat, lamp, incense burner and charcoal on wall,

90 inches x 60 inches x 30 inches

Working on Dark Matter

Most of the time it is the idea that approaches me rather than my searching for it. My motivation always emanates from the socio-political and cultural spaces and personal narratives. My paintings are sequences – an excerpt of an absurd endeavour, an emotional dilemma, a scene in an act, dialogue between people, and so on. They often have elements of dark humour with the characters in these sequences pointing towards the spectator and asking questions or or giving them a leeway. I enjoy the process of designing sequences. It's a space of complete freedom. The things that are otherwise debarred are permitted in this space. Sometimes the work is a culmination of various strong emotional collisions at that point of that time. I enjoy the process of allowing the viewers to decipher many metaphors and symbols for themselves – be they mythological, religious, political, media driven or personal.

Gulshan Man – Late Arrival, Soft pastel on paper, 76 inches x 48 inches, 2018

Hidden Obstacles (19th Trap), Soft pastel on paper, 72 inches x 60 inches

Recitation 1, Soft pastel and powder pigment on paper, 60 inches x 48 inches, 2019

Bad Harvest, Soft pastel and art marker on paper, 96 inches x 60 inches, 2018

Black stone breakers and a letter to Gustav, Soft pastel, gouache, acrylic, silk and tea wash on paper,

60 inches x 42 inches

Community fishing event, Soft pastel on paper, 60 inches x 60 inches, 2020

Trespassers, Soft pastel and pigment on paper, 72 inches x 60 inches

A smaller splash, Soft pastel on paper, 60 inches x 48 inches, 2019

Scribe 1 (Look closely), Pigment and water colour on paper pasted on canvas, 14 inches x 18 inches

Complaining man II, Soft pastel and Bindis on paper, 84 inches x 60 inches, 2018

My inspiration comes from many resources such as art history, cinema, children comic books, south Indian calendar paintings, mythology, rituals, etc. I remember in childhood the earliest introductions to art for me were Western art masters, Ravi Varma paintings and South Indian calendar paintings and landscapes, which I would see in my father’s shop. They continue to inspire me.

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

AH: No, trends in the art world has never become a part of my practice. For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to explore very few mediums like pastel, paper, powder pigment, etc. , which creates challenges and at the same time offers possibilities. Apart from this, I am interested in text-based works and installations. I believe if the work demands certain mediums to communicate with, an artist should follow that rather than following trends.

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

AH: Yes, for me it is both.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

AH: For the last two years I’ve been working in my hometown, Thrissur, where I have a studio. Before that I was in Hyderabad. After my post-graduation in 2012 from S.N School of Fine Arts, University of Hyderabad, I stayed back in Hyderabad for a few years before shifting to Kerala in 2018. My works are created mostly in my studio, where I go to around 9.30-10 every morning. The day in my studio begins with music, a cup of tea and sketching, collecting images from the previous day’s newspaper, writing notes ,etc.

At a time I will work on one single painting. Sometimes, it takes a month or more to finish a work. Once I develop the idea for a painting I will do many sketches before the large drawing. There will be so many changes while working on the main drawing to coloring and that is very fascinating. In my earlier works I used to finish with one layer but in my recent works I go for more than three layers of colour to get the desired result. I don’t plan for a series unless the work demands it. I noticed in 2016 that I started a series of aqua paintings and it stopped after a couple of works because I was not happy with the output and felt like giving it more time. Until recently in 2018 it again appears in my work and I allow it to come. Possibly, the series will happen in this manner.

I spend the entire day in my studio and go on until 8.30 to 9 pm in the night. It is not necessary to work the whole day, but being in the studio and with work is very important for me. When I am not in the mood for work, watching films and readings will do. Often, I will go for a walk in to the town and the market. That is quite refreshing. Taking photographs, collecting old books and materials for work will happen at this time.

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

AH: We are still in the phase of fighting the pandemic. We need to wait a couple of years to see the change. But lots of online conversations, webinars, presentations and discussion have been now and we are able to access and listen from our own space. This is quite exciting. Let us hope for the best.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected

in your art?

AH: Yes, travelling to historical heritages, cinema and music (especially Mali Blues).

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Abul Hisham and Galerie Mirchandani Stienruecke.)


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