A Look at Printmakers from Australia, Canada and Bangladesh
Across the Border
by Saba Gulraiz
If we look squarely at the world across, printmaking as an artistic medium is seen to have undergone a process of evolution. What makes print art unique is its potential to exploit new areas and to adapt to new techniques and mediums. Today print art is in the intervening zone of the traditional and modern, and has come to collaborate its basic techniques with experimental trends that include photography and digital technologies. It has even entered into the three dimensional space of installation. This flexibility and technical diversity has broadened the concept of print in the 21st century.
The creative process, synced between the internal spirit of the artist and the physical act or production, ultimately gives a work of art its individual identity. A print shares its role in representing and reflecting artistic sensibilities that are steeped in particular socio-cultural and geographical contexts. In this sense a print is also an imprint of contemporary culture. So to dwell upon contemporary visual thought in the global perspective is to cover a large field indeed. I wish to give an insight into these dimensions of printmaking through the exploration of the works of some dedicated printmakers living and working in different parts of the world. My encounter with their works at different times and places and my interaction with each of these individual artists encouraged and inspired me to engage myself in the vibrant printmaking scene encompassing Australia, Canada, and Bangladesh.
Dwelling in close proximity with the natural surroundings of an inner north suburb of Canberra in Australia, Dianne Fogwell is one such artist whom I met in Bhopal when she was invited as a part of jury for The International Biennial of Print. Fogwell creates a natural wonderland with both beautiful and slimy forms of nature such as frogs, flies, butterflies, fish, flowers, and leaves. Dianne's repertoire extends to printmaking, artists' book, painting and curation. She has made a significant contribution to the Canberra art community in the establishment of press and print studios like Studio One, Criterion Press, The Edition+Artist Book Studio and Lewis Editions which according to her are like a tunnel between academics, theoretical issues and commercial interest in the medium of the artist book and editioned print. These studios have a strong philosophical base. The emphasis is on artistic freedom; the chance to open new doors to creative expression and to create an intellectual yet completely practical learning environment.
Fogwell wields mastery over linocut and woodcut. She prepares her ground with stained colours and translucent metallic gold or silver ink onto which she imprints her intricately carved forms. Graphic nature imagery merges into/with native species, floating clouds, meadows, whirling leaves, and swirling mists. About her images she says, “My images come from the cinema of sleep where intuition and knowledge have no boundaries, the space where objects merge and blend.” These images of nature bear testimony of her love for the beauty of the world and the moving spirit of her art. Coloured by her own emotions, her alive and animate landscape lends a fresh appeal, like a melodious and enchanting song that affects our senses deeply.
In Canada, contemporary printmaking reconciles its fundamental methods like lithography, linocut and screen printing with innovative techniques and assimilates them with the most modern trends and ideas. “Reflect on the world so as to more fully understand and transform it.” This statement comes from Jo Ann Lanneville, a prominent printmaker of Canada, who encapsulates these predominant trends of printmaking in Canada. She feels that today a Canadian artist is keenly aware of the strength and fragility of his environment. He describes objectively and sometimes subjectively, “the behind the scene” aspect. He uses a narrative structure to illustrate the life and the condition of everything in his world. Employing a multitude of archetypes, he singles out historical, scientific, social and political references linked to his world, and the images that he produces become the theatre of his observations. In this scenario of printmaking Jo Ann occupies an important place. In her career, spanning over more than 30 years, Jo Ann has contributed greatly to the development of printmaking, as a printmaker as well as a founder of the workshop Presse Papier, and is the co-founder of the International Biennial of Contemporary Print of Trois-Riveries which is in its seventh edition this year. Over the years, due to Jo Ann's efforts, this event has achieved great heights. This year it is exhibiting 52 artists from over 20 countries which is a record high of cultural diversity for this event.
As a printmaker Jo Ann has achieved a consummate mastery over the techniques of etching, aquatint, mezzotint and drypoint. Her works speak to us in their own unique visual language of signs. They invite us to undo the web of complex realities which we in our life struggle to decode, if not physically then psychologically. In her 'subjective pictograms,' she seems to translate her fundamental feelings and emotions. She mainly employs the combined technique of etching, dry-point and mezzotint which suits to the nature of her work. The use of black-and-white maintains austerity of her themes which deal with the complexities of a psychological world-its anxieties, frustrations, delusions, weaknesses. She is preoccupied with her own internal world but this self-discovery also enables her to better observe and sympathize with her fellow beings.
Guy Langevin is another significant artist from Canada who has made a distinct mark printmaking. Being the president of the Quebec Printmakers' Association and one of the founders of the Biennale Internationale d'Estampe Comtemporaine de Trois-Riveries, Guy holds an important position in the printmaking scene of Canada. His most significant contribution in the development of printmaking is helping found the collective printmaking workshop called Atelier Presse Papier. The workshop has now become the most important venue for nurturing a healthy environment and fostering new possibilities for the art of printmaking in this region.
Through his quality of drawing and technical skills especially, lithography and mezzotint, Guy has carved out a special place in printmaking in Canada. What attracts him the most to mezzotint is its quality of light and the possibilities that the technique offers him to render a mysterious atmosphere. However, for him the process of “doing the image and thinking the image” is equally important. Mezzotint offers him light as the first component of his work. He subtly manipulates the gradation of light and shade to create a play between 'fugitiveness' of light and the 'persistence' of vision. Guy believes that both memory and forgetfulness are sides of the same medal, as life and death. Light needs shadow to be really appreciated and remembrances need to be the magnified. His burry images are the reflections of anguish in isolation, and the pain of the difficulty of living.
If we look at the scene of printmaking in Bangladesh, we will find that it has a distinct history that took its roots from undivided India and saw its revival with the liberation war of 1971 and the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation. New perspectives and the aspirations of a nascent nation infused a renewed energy in the county's artistic expressions. The stalwarts like Zainul Abedin and Safiuddin Ahmed had a pioneering role in establishing printmaking as a recognized medium. It gained impetus especially, after the opening of Dhaka Art College, now Institute of Fine Arts under Dhaka University, in 1948. Later, artists like Habibur Rahman, Mohammed Kibria and Monirul Islam emerged as a driving force in forging a strong environment in favour of printmaking in Bangladesh. Today, these artists, along with others like Rokeya Sultana, Golam Farooque Bebul, Azizul Haque, Laila Sharmeen and Anisuzzaman Anis, have crossed the border to represent the printmaking scene of Bangladesh internationally.
Monirul Islam is seen as the most venerated artist in both the Spanish and the Bangladeshi art communities. Apart from being acclaimed as a painter, he is a distinguished printmaker known for his exceptional command over his craft, particularly etching. As a young artist he was preoccupied with painting landscapes in watercolour. After completing graduation in fine arts, he went to Spain on a scholarship and since then he is living and working there from over four decades. Although he has long been shifted to an entirely different cultural milieu, he is fundamentally a man who belongs to his eastern roots which are still a ceaseless source of his creativity. But this sense of belongingness does not make him oblivious of the immediate environment he is living in. He is equally aware of the nuances of the western world. He has successfully achieved a synthesis of western and eastern sensibilities. He etches out his unique vision of the world that combines poetry of abstraction with the prose of figuration in a harmonious whole. His visual vocabulary extends to geometry, to not only enhance his composition but to reinforce his faith in the spirit of abstraction. His works are interlaced with both the natural and cultural richness of his homeland, Bangladesh. One can be amazed by his tonal and textural variations. His use of contrasting bright and warm colours is quite captivating.
Although Dianne Fogwell, Jo Ann Lanneville, Guy Langevin and Monirul Islam come from basically heterogeneous cultures, their art is an unforced movement that flows naturally, combining their individual creative spirit with the fundamental universal ether. They are not only contributing to their own national developments of printmaking but they have also managed to erase frontiers while preserving their own culture.