His art has been exhibited in the prestigious Bengal Gallery
of Fine Arts, he has published 3 novels and several books
of short stories, has illustrated many childrens books.
In 1990 he was awarded the prize for best illustrator by the
Bangladesh National Book Center. He has published 100ds of
cartoons in his countrys newspapers, has been the guest
of honor at Bangladeshs political establishment, and
enjoys national celebrity status. But all of this came to
an abrupt end when he left his country in 1994, and came to
America, finally settling in Montreal, Canada.
Like a foreign doctor whose accreditation isnt recognized
outside his country, Syed Iqbals art has not been recognized
in his new homeland, Canada. Hauling his paintings from one
gallery to another only to meet with rejection after rejection,
Syed could have never imagined that he would find himself
begging for gallery space in the land of plenty. He finally
awoke from the nightmare he had been living for 7 years
with the exception of 3 solo exhibitions -- when the Shayne
Gallery) invited him to exhibit his work from his most recent
series, Tears of Nature, a protest against the butchering
of nature by mindless acts of civilization.
I interviewed Syed Iqbal, a man of remarkable candor, humility
and sensitivity, in the sparsely furnished office of a friend.
The trials of the past 7 years have left their mark on his
erstwhile smooth and handsome features, an artist for whom
remembrances of times gone-by have become synonymous with
MONTREAL SERAI: Why do you paint?
: I have to paint,
to express my life, my feelings, my emotions, my desire, my
hatred, my fears. I can also do this through writing, but
painting is my first choice.
MONTREAL SERAI: Your Father never approved of your
decision to become an artist. How did this affect you?
: My Father wanted
me to become a doctor or engineer, and he was uncompromising.
I was therefore obliged to leave home at the age of 20. The
early years were very difficult, marked by excess and self-abuse.
I encountered a cold and indifferent world outside of my home,
and without family support it was sometimes unbearable.
For many years I resented, even hated my Father, his attempt
to rule my life. Only at the very end, when he was dying of
cancer, did he realize he made a big mistake. By then, of
course, it was too late. I forgave him, but the ache will
never go away; he could have been with me all of these years.
I think it is a universal law that we always want to please
MONTREAL SERAI: After enjoying great success in
your home country, what was it like coming to America and
not receiving recognition for your art?
: It was a painful,
humiliating experience, which I hope is behind me now. At
first I didnt understand it, because my art has nothing
to do with Bangladesh. Its very abstract, very universal,
it could come from anywhere. But then several years passed
and strange thoughts came into my mind: I began to wonder
if my work was being rejected because of the color of my skin,
or my heavy accent. And then I began to wonder how this experience
was affecting my teenage daughter, whom I did not want to
expose to my low self-esteem.
MONTREAL SERAI: Did you begin to doubt your abilities?
: Thank God, never.
I never doubted my ability. That would have been the end of
MONTREAL SERAI: The principle of Eros plays a major
role in your art.
: And also my life.
When I was a very young boy I realized that I was different:
my friends wanted to play soccer, I wanted to paint. But it
wasnt easy being different, and since I can remember
I have been very vulnerable to deep depression. As I grew
older, I found relief and escape in the company of women.
Sometimes, just being in the presence of a beautiful woman,
who need not even be aware of me, is sufficient to alter my
mood and bring me back to life. Of course, this weakness has
been very difficult on my family; but I have never lost sight
of the fact that my wife and child are my anchors in life,
as they have come to understand my artistic temperament. My
wife has on many occasions saved me from myself. In fact I
would have probably succumbed to alcohol and drugs if I hadnt
met her when I was younger and quite out of control.
MONTREAL SERAI: As I look at the whole of your
artistic output, I notice you are gradually abandoning figurative
painting for abstract. Is this deliberate on your part?
: I have never set
out to become an abstract painter. What I have been discovering
over my career is that painting things has not brought me
any closer to them. That is why I had to stop copying them
because I realized that these things themselves are barriers
to what they really are, to what is behind them. I know this
must sound strange, but only through abstract art am I able
to capture the smell of something, or the suffering in someones
work shoes. If I decide, for example, to paint an apple, as
an artist I have to become an ant so I experience how the
surface and skin of the apple feel, and then I have to become
a microbe and penetrate the apple in order to come out dripping
of apple. Only then will I be able to capture the essence,
or smell, or gift of what an apple is. But I havent
completely abandoned figurative painting: in some of my abstracts
there are hints of recognizable things that can be symbolic.
MONTREAL SERAI: On a more personal note, does it
bother you that your daughter is losing her heritage, is becoming
: It bothers me
that one day soon my daughter will come to look at me as a
stranger someone from the old country. We sort of joke
about it now: she listens to Rap while I listen to Raga but
only one of us is amused.
Canada is a unique place that is constantly changing and
absorbing new influences. I believe my daughter is leaving
something positive of her culture here as she is being transformed
by what is already established. So far, I have no reason to
complain or regret my decision. I came to Canada to provide
her with more opportunity and to try to establish myself as
a painter. I have learned to be thankful for the smallest
pleasures and successes in life. My daughter doesnt
want to return which means she is happy here and that
makes me happy.
MONTREAL SERAI: Why did you decide to settle in
Canada instead of the United States.
: Its easier
to assimilate in Canada. And I believe there are more opportunities
here. The melting pot is a myth in the United States: it takes
many generations for some immigrants to feel like Americans.
In Canada, it happens much faster.
MONTREAL SERAI: I wish you all the best, Syed Iqbal.
Tennessee Williams would designate you as one of the good
guys. May your tribe increase.