In 2010, when MF Husain was conferred Qatar nationality, the artist acknowledged it through a sketch that featured his trademark horse alongside words that expressed how he was “honoured”. Seven years after the modernist’s demise in 2011, the country is now celebrating his art through an exhibition that features his works spanning six decades. Taking place at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, curator Ranjit Hoskote describes the show titled “MF Husain: Horses Of The Sun” as “an introspective rather than a retrospective”.
“The question before me was how to organise both the material and the kaleidoscopic life of the artist into something that would be legible to the diverse audience in Doha … The main thematic fulcrum for me was Husain’s understanding of himself as someone who was profoundly rooted in India but also was a global nomad. He travelled everywhere freely, and yet at the end he became an exile, having to leave his homeland against his will. It was a very tragic turn of events,” says Mumbai-based Hoskote.
In curating the collection that features over 90 works, Hoskote reflects on “home” and “belonging” — propelling viewers to examine Husain’s numerous abodes and sentiments, through exhibits largely categorised into Bait, Manzil and Dar. “These modes map the three lifelong and contending definitions of home that I identify in his art. Bait is home as a place of intimacy, ancestral memory and childhood. In Manzil, he is on a journey towards a larger framework of belonging and knowledge. Dar is the gateway, expanded sense of home where I present his engagements with different media,” says Hoskote. Through transitional zones, he presents the various engagements of the artist — including his interest in literature. The floating wall text quotes from poets Allama Iqbal and Makhdoom Mohiuddin, among others. “Husain was not confined to a single art. He wrote in four languages. He was a poet himself and a reader of poetry. He also wrote his memoirs,” says Hoskote.
While chronologically the display begins with his 1950 oil painting Dolls’ Wedding and ends with his 2011 work Husain and His Horse, rendered in expressionistic strokes using metallic paint (painted less than a month before he passed away), the numerous works in between give a glimpse into Husain’s varied engagements, both with medium and subject. If Bait has him revisit his early years in Pandharpur, Indore and Sidhpur, it also features a series dedicated to Yemen, from where his forefathers migrated to India. In a triptych, Husain celebrates the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and another series of lithographs is dedicated to the world religions, including Humanism. In Manzil we see Last Supper in Red Desert, where the Indian modernist revisits Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic work, introducing Arabic references. There is also a lithographic series where he paints Hanuman and a suite of paintings celebrating the achievements of mystics, philosophers and scientists, among others.
Among the central pieces of Dar is the 1967 film Through the Eyes of a Painter, where the artist combined painting and cinema. There are experiments with textiles and printmaking. There is also a section of archival material that includes photographs of the building of the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad. “Husain worked constantly in cycles, shuttling between the ephemeral and the more achieved, between public or provisional material and work that formally belonged inside a gallery. He blurred these distinctions. We don’t give him enough credit for that. We just see him as a maker of paintings and forget that there were other incredible dimensions to his work,” says Hoskote.
It is perhaps a wall text that best summarises his journey for the uninitiated. Hoskote writes, “His life story reads like that of the hero in a typical Hindi movie of the 1940s and 1950s: the shoe-shine boy or awkward villager who becomes a successful man of the world. Acclaimed by the early 1960s as India’s most recognisable ‘national painter’, Husain constantly renewed his artistic vision and remained open to collaboration.”
The exhibition at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar in on till July 31