Mr. Robert Simpson is a retired Foreign Service Officer who worked at the U.S. Consulate in Dacca (Dhaka) in the 1970s. He was assigned there from February 1970 to August 1971 with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) where he was in charge of planning and budgeting the U.S. economic assistance program for East Pakistan.
Initially, Abedin was profoundly influenced by nature’s magnificence and he spent his early years depicting the romantic valleys of the Brahmaputra River, for which he eventually won the Governor’s Gold Medal of the Academy of Fine Arts in the All India Art Exhibition, in 1938. However, the most dramatic shift in his subject matter came after he graduated from the Calcutta Government School of Arts. In 1943, when Abedin was 29 years of age, the Bangladesh he knew transformed and mutated before his eyes, scarring him with scenes of harrowing human exploitation and degradation – a famine had broken out in his homeland. When he returned to Mymensingh, he was met with the horrific realities of the famine, he witnessed starving men, women and children, struggling to find much needed food for survival. Abedin wasted no time transferring these nightmarish scenes into compositions, using the affordable medium of black ink and wrapping paper. The artistic prowess with which he documented these scenes, earned him much acclaim as a pioneer of artistic social commentary.
Zainul Abedin’s Famine Sketches demonstrated his passionate and unwavering commitment to helping the people of Bangladesh. He persevered in sincerely and assuredly depicting the damned as well as the beautiful, with uncompromising realism. The period following the famine was one of the most tumultuous the artist had ever witnessed - World War II was raging, then came Partition and with it the Mass Movement of 1969. The year 1970 brought further devastation to the people and landscape Abedin knew so well when a cyclone ripped through Bangladesh killing over 300,000 people, and before the country could recover from this disaster, the War of Liberation broke out. This current work, painted in that seminal year, has the artistic maturity gained from decades of practice but is also rendered with all the feeling and emotion of his early works. A group of fishermen, partly abstracted, partly obscured confront the viewer with their daily catch. In a simple yet complex configuration, Abedin is drawing attention to all the issues of the time.
The owners recall that this painting was included in an exhibition in Dacca during March or April, 1970 and was also presented on the cover of the catalog for the show. To acquire a birthday present for his wife, Mr. Simpson contacted the artist through a close friend, Dr. Noazesh Ahmed who was Secretary of the National Tea Board and went on to become a notable photographer of Bengal. ‘As I recall, I paid $100, a large sum for us at the time. To complete the purchase, probably just before Nancy's birthday on May 3rd, Noazesh and I went to the artist's home. We were graciously received by the artist on a long second floor balcony. The artist had unrolled for us a scroll of his famous sketches of the Bengal famine in 1940. This work has traveled with us in all our postings and has remained dear to our heart as it is reminiscent of the soul of a country we love dearly and a master artist who embodies it.’ (Correspondence with Mr. Robert Simpson, January 2019)
Despite the political and natural tragedies life threw into Abedin's path, he continued to produce works that spoke about his love for his country and his people. The body of work he left behind is testament to the wide range of subject matters he was determined to immortalize. From the dark scenes of the famine to the lustrous depictions of Bangladesh’s rivers, women collecting water, farmers and fishermen regularly pervaded his canvases, refusing to be overlooked or ignored. Abedin favored Bengal modernism over the neo-classicism of the Tagores or the folk revivalism of Jamini Roy. Instead he fashioned his own panache using highly abstracted and stylized figures, simplifying his arrangements and utilizing primary colors. Abedin tragically died of lung cancer in 1976 at the age of 62 and was buried in Dacca. During his lifetime, his work was exhibited at Alhambra, Lahore; Damaru Galleries, Tokyo; Islamiah College, Calcutta; Burlington House, London; as well as a world tour sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation to USA, Canada, Mexico and Europe, culminating in 52 of his works being exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. in April 1957. He attended the Slade School of Arts in London and presented his works in the Berkeley Galleries. In 1948 he founded the Government Institute of Arts in Dacca which went on to become the Bangladesh College of Arts and Crafts at the University of Dacca. ‘Always a peoples’ artist and a peoples’ man’, ‘the role of Zainul Abedin in the development of fine arts in Bangladesh is best expressed by the title Shilpacharya – Great Master of the Arts.’ (N. Islam et. al, Great Masters of Bangladesh: Zainul Abedin, Bengal Foundation, Dhaka, 2012, p. 55)
We would like to express our thanks to the Estate of the artist for sharing images of drawings relating to this painting.
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