Thursday, June 9, 2011
MF Hussain, 1915 - 2011
Maqbool Fida Hussain, India's most celebrated contemporary artist, died in London today at the age of 95. He was an Indian Muslim who painted Hindu subject matter. He lived in self-imposed exile in Qatar since 2006 after receiving numerous death threats from far right Hindu nationalists, threats to blind and behead him. They threatened him over his work, first for being a Muslim which made him immediately suspect in his intentions toward that subject matter. And second, because Hussain sought to bring traditional Hindu subject matter into a more modern and personal idiom.
Hussain found himself caught up in India's violent sectarian conflicts, made even more intense by the perceived threat of the West's reductivist secularism and the nihilism of global capitalism.
Hussain rejected both the hardening constraints of threatened national and religious identity, and the nihilism of international market culture. He wanted to find a new way forward beyond the wholesale rejection of modernity by religious fundamentalism, and modernism's wholesale rejection of any religious or traditional identity. He wanted to do so by embracing the tradition of his ancient enemies on the Subcontinent, not to parody it, but to understand it and to personalize it.
It is precisely that personalizing and modernizing of tradition, especially by a Muslim, that so offended the Hindu fundamentalists who held large ferociously violent rallies condemning his work.
In 2006, Hussain was forced to withdraw and publicly apologize for this painting of Bharata Mata, Mother India.
Hindu nationalists objected to the painting's nudity (they said). I wonder. They don't seem to be too bothered by the not only nude, but sexually explicit sculptures on the temples at Khajuraho. I think what they really objected to was a traditional national emblem reinterpreted by a Muslim, even an Indian Muslim, and re-created in terms of an individual imagination. The very idea of one artist, an outsider and a traditional enemy, having a very particular take on a familiar national image apparently threatens them very deeply.
In the age of the hedge-fund manager and the suicide bomber, Hussain lived out the terrible and painful paradoxes of an ever more cosmopolitan world.
We in the English speaking world are a little puzzled by these passions stirred over works of art. We generally privilege the word over the image as a bearer of meaning, a legacy of Protestantism. And yet so much of the rest of the world thinks and communicates meaning not only with texts, but with images full of religious and national meaning, of profound consequence to people's sense of identity in an increasingly uprooted world.
Posted by Counterlight at Thursday, June 09, 2011