Husain Junior brings an element of surprise, originality to his art

Husain Junior brings an element of surprise, originality to his art

By M. SAAD | | 16 April, 2016
Owais Husain at work in his studio in Dubai.
Dubai-based artist and M.F. Husain’s youngest son, Owais Husain talks to M. Saad about his attempts to break free of artistic conventions and operating outside the limits of his comfort zone.

What changes have you witnessed in the contemporary arts over the last few years?

A. In the early ’90s, when we began, there were regional schools in India that delineated our curation of image-making. With the introduction of free-market economics in the country post-2000, the way of life sent everyone reeling as did the landscape of art nationwide. The walls that once framed the regional libraries of iconography began collapsing rapidly and sooner than you could pronounce “subliminally intrinsic”, these libraries fused into a singular place of

Today, artists across boundaries partake of a homogenised lexicon of visual vocabulary.

Much like the “Internet of Things”, the integration of everything and how we work today has contributed significantly to the mechanism of art and the artist’s practice. Your geographic location is now insignificant in relation to the platforms and formats on offer to position your art.

Thirdly, it is fascinating to observe the levels at which “opportunity” may be absorbed even within the process of art-making today.

Q. How important, according to you, is freedom of expression for an artist?

A. As a child growing up in Mumbai, I was always intrigued by the behrupiyas (traditional street performers who took on different roles and forms, tricking passers-by at weddings and ceremonies). Their freedom to effortlessly use an art form and translate it into the public domain is unlike any other public art which has existed in traditional culture that were conceptualised only as obligations to a belief or dogma.

Humans are not born with free will. It is only bestowed upon them through a larger mechanism that functions within parameters of fear. The artist is no different than a soldier of truth.

Q. What are the issues that you feel passionately about?

A. My consistent and personal preoccupation, with feelings of displacement, migration and the ghost-like idea of “origin”, has translated into many forms at multiple stations of my creative process. Whether it is restlessness in attitude or the need to contextualise fundamental issues of light, form and colour — the truth that constitutes my core begins to speak inevitably through my practice, more often because I consciously allow it.

Art does have a role to play among subliminal messages that exist on the airwaves just as much as other forms of communication (i.e. the advertisement industry, etc). Modest transgressions in this direction have existed in my formerly narrative paintings and video works, which in recent years are plotted in the forms my multidisciplinary installations like Heart of Silence, For Every Horizon You Leave Behind, House of Cards.

“While my work began as representational and heavy on allegory, I always felt like a conceptual artist trapped in the body of a figurative painter.”

Artworks of Owais Husain, (Left) Heart of Silence installation  and (Right) There is No Present V, 2015.Q. How would you describe your journey as an artist?

A. I have an unrealistically clear and almost cinematic memory of my first oil painting at the age of three. Sitting on the balcony of my mother’s home in Mumbai with my father and his art dealer Kali Pundole as curious witnesses. It was a painting in black paint, of a girl whose tears of linseed oil were dripping into her breast while her balloons drifted high among crows. So even as I explored theatre and later on film, all I knew was to paint.

While my work began as representational and heavy on allegory, I always felt like a conceptual artist trapped in the body of a figurative painter. At many indicative instances, I believed that the “truth” I was seeking lay in a sense of the intangible or perhaps the abstract or in the absence of formalistic language. Poetry, film and music have made me feel closer to that path.

One of the advantages of making films was that it offered me a tremendous opportunity to explore site-specific installations.

Q. Is it difficult to juggle with so many different mediums — film making, poetry, painting, installation etc.?

A. Language, to me, remains consistent irrespective of the medium. When you spend a considerable period of time with these mediums you begin to look at them simply as tools. Much like a music conductor, there is a zone of fluidity that you explore in each one and orchestrate.

Every medium is a law unto its own that you need to respect. Soon enough you indulge in being led by these fundaments while exploring your narrative.

Q. Do you have a creative process? If yes, could you give us its outline?

A. The two main habits that have come to outline in my behavior of art-making inlude a discomfort in “comfort zones” and the element of surprise.

I am uncomfortable with complacency of any nature. There has always been a need to evolve in my narrative which perhaps fuels my restlessness.

Earlier, I would read far more than I do these days. I tend to be moved with other mediums like architecture, film and music.

A few years ago, while working on my feature film, I broke my wrist while painting a mural. There was plenty of time then to write poetry (which was also an essential part of the film). It was soon after that I realised that poetry, just as other mediums, like photography, music and film, ceased to be just ingredients to my explorations in painting. It had grown into a voice of its own and demanded to be placed with equal importance as my paintings. Recently, in the past few years, most of my multiple media art projects have germinated in the poetry I have written.

I often navigate a landscape in my mind dotted with poetry that is sculpted and constructed — it’s almost physical in nature.

What you also get with all this is an air of inclusiveness along with a tremendous overlapping of visual contexts escalating a universal narrative, which I believe, is the destiny of contemporary art in every age.

Q. Is it true that you ran away from home when you were 11 years old to become a “hermit painter”? Also, tell us more about your childhood.

A. At the age of nine, I was  part of a theatre workshop where I read works by Bertolt Brecht. I was greatly influenced then by the power of theatre, where a lone actor who could transform a dark room with strangers into another world. It was only a few years later at a boarding school that I read about Rabindranath Tagore, a renaissance man and India’s first Nobel laureate, and his utopian school of art in Santiniketan. This spurred my ambition to break free from establishment and seek a romantic notion of dedicating my life to making art. However, I did not wish to be part of the art school.  Instead, I intended to live and work in the proximity of the Santiniketan campus, with a plan to sell bread and eggs for a living! So, in the middle of the night, I made my way through the mountains (in the foothills of the Himalayas) walking extensively, a failing torchlight in hand, through a dark forest and then hitchhiking to reach only New Delhi where family pressure forced me back to complete school.

Even after having exhibited in Kolkata on several occasions, I’m yet to visit the nearby Santiniketan.

Q. Your recent artworks in a way attempt to address issues of displaced cultures and themes of migration. Can you elaborate on this theme?

A. The bare form of the house has taken its course to arrive in my visual vocabulary, through deliberations, with architectural concerns in painting and questions of space. In retrospect, the form appeared as though it was always there, effortless in its logic.

In the Heart of Silence show in Dubai, which began with the intention of a light installation, the suspended, inverted, luminous paper houses resonated their predicament in their reflection over dark water bodies below. In a room of mirrors, you as a viewer became a collaborator in this migration, this splitting of the self into multiples (among a landscape of illuminated, inverted houses suspended in air) and the consequent displacement reflected in the mirrors all around. And yet, you are no more than a spectator, mute to the majesty of the drama that gives the illusion of being momentary.

Ownership or displacement of culture among fast changing ideas of homeland is what underlines my For Every Horizon You Leave Behind installation in New Delhi.

The upturned oversized house stands at an angle, black like a shadow (presence of absences) which has metallic lines that travel all over it like voices without memory. Within it, is an upright room clad completely in mirrors, reflecting your silhouette broken by the light that cheats its way in.

Q. Tell us about the relationship you share with your teacher Prabhakar Kolte.

A. In the abyss of my art school years, where I was challenging my boundaries in expression and multiple art mediums (the role of every art student), Kolte was my beacon of hope. He was one of the two most influential artists of the Bombay school of painting and his silent presence on the campus was far-sighted as well as secular. This secularism was his carefully plotted path that I was fortunate to have wandered on, indulging in essential constructive criticism as well as fuelling a prolific appetite in experimentation.

Q. What is your documentary Letters to My Son about My Father all about?

A. This film is an exercise to share my navigation of understanding my father with my son who is all of ten now, thereby serving as a vehicle to share the narrative with a larger audience. Just as in classical Indian music, where the performing artist identifies early and is in constant dialogue with a singular viewer and through him or her, performs to the rest of the people.

Q. What other projects are you currently working on?

A. At this point of time, there are several projects in progress simultaneously, including a sight specific installation being constructed to be installed in the near future and the next location for my multiple location “House of Cards” project.

There are also two video works and a book in the works.


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