(I wrote this article in 2003. Three years later, Arakkal won the Lorenzo de Medici gold medal at the same biennale for his panting, 'Bacon's Man with the Child and Priest.' )
IT’S NOT every day that an Indian artist wins a major international award in Europe. That’s why collectors and laymen alike took note when Kerala-born, Bangalore-based Yusuf Arakkal was awarded the silver medal for new media and installation in December 2003 for his triptych, ‘War, Guernica re-occurs,’ at the recent fourth Biennale Internazionale Dell’Arte Contemporanea at Florence.
|'War, Guernica re-occurs'|
What does recognition for the work, comprising three 8 x 3.5 ft. panels, mean to the 58-year-old Arakkal, formerly a Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) employee, known today for his large figurative canvases and his candour about contemporary issues? How does it connect to his recent series of oils, titled ‘My Book of References,’ which incorporates images from global contemporary masters into his canvases?
At his sprawling, multi-canvas studio in Brookefield, overlooking a spray of bougainvillea, Arakkal paints rapidly, often to the strains of Hariprasad Chaurasia or Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh or Ali Akbar Khan. Here are excerpts from an interview:
|With the silver medal at Florence|
What does this award mean to you?
I think an award is an award, just another milestone. This major European award is a recognition of the Indian art scene… When I received the National Award in 1983, I wrote behind the certificate: ‘Success is a disease. Prevent it getting into your head.’
Why did you choose this triptych for Florence?
Do you remember the ‘Gujarnica’ I painted after the Gujarat carnage? (Intensely) That was an immediate reaction, more emotional than rational. I even went to Gujarat, but my Baroda friends put me on the next flight out. They were afraid I’d say something that would land me in trouble. That’s when sarod maestro Rajeev Taranath suggested that I should paint a canvas.
I received the invitation from Florence about a year ago. Initially, I thought of a series of small canvases for the 10 x 12 ft. space allotted to international invitees. I wanted to protest against war and terrorism. I went back to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, the ultimate in protest against violence. I studied his process. I’d seen the original at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. So, I took dark images from Biafra, the Iran-Iraq war, My Lai at Vietnam, manipulated them by computer, screenprinted them in oil onto canvas. Then, I began to create the triptych over almost three months, using a proper academic approach.
What did the process involve?
While working on the tryptich, I acquired a new Epsom archival printer, with which I created graphics from these images, which helped me with my canvas. A separate series that I called ‘Conflict’s Children’ emerged, exhibited along with this work in Bangalore before it went to Florence.
What makes the Florence Biennale special?
This biennale, which is only eight years old, hopes to give importance to every kind of art currently being practiced. Maybe they hope to rival the Venice Biennale. There were academic, super-realistic canvases, ultra-modern installations, amazing sculptures, work in five different categories… The first prize for new media went to an American woman of Chinese origin, who brilliantly used curtain lace with calligraphy.
Why is India an area of neglect in global contemporary art?
We’ve been projected as a nation with traditional or Tantric art. We don’t talk about our contemporary work or try to get publicity, which the government or its organizations should have done. Basically, nobody knows about our work, though the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans were represented at Florence. (Plaintively) In my acceptance speech, I asked the committee to look into south Asian art more.
The art world believes its boundaries end in Europe and America! You know, contemporary art is big business within a closed circle. Just as it’s a closed Mumbai-Delhi-Kolkata circuit in India.
Does that leave south Indian art outside the main frame?
I think artists in the south are very individualistic. In 1980, I worked at the Garhi printmaking studios for a year. I could have established myself within two years in Delhi; instead, it took me 30 years here. But I was afraid of losing my originality, getting into the rat race. In the north, artists tend to follow trends from New York and Paris.
When I take inspiration from another source, I openly acknowledge it…
‘My Book of References’ stirred up a debate about inspiration and imitation. Did you walk into this potential minefield consciously?
The first series traveled around India, while the second went to London. It was like going back to school…In Berlin in 1990, I did a series of about drawings based on Kathe Kollwitz’ works at her museum. Once back, more paintings resulted.
I wanted to do a series of oils, based on the world masters. From then on, I looked at originals with a critical view to how I could adapt them. At first, I copied key images directly onto my canvases, which worked to an extent.
When I was showing David Hockney the work I did based on his elephant, he asked: ‘How did you foreshorten my elephant?’ That’s because my son Shibu showed me how to work on Photoshop. I could visually manipulate images, disfigure or transform them, before transferring them onto canvas. This second series worked better. ‘Gujarnica,’ and the painting for Florence resulted from those experiences with computers and paint.
All art is a process of continuation. Take Picasso, the greatest thief of the 20th century. He replicated Ingres’ drawing, but he made it his own. Even if he did a copy, it became a Picasso. I’m only following the same path, historically speaking.
Now that contemporary art is no longer confined to traditional painting or sculpture, how comfortable are you with its redefinitions?
I started with a certain philosophy. I can’t overnight change that because, then, I cease to be. It’s a limitation imposed on me. I’ve got to stay within my domain, not transgress into others’ domain… But I do study new media work and installations, see how it works and accept it. If there’s something to respect, I respect it.
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2003)