The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Baghdad brush with black humour

“To call a man a thief is enough. If he has some self-respect, he should be ashamed,” says Maqbool Fida Husain. He doesn’t indulge in anti-war rhetoric. His words are laced with sarcasm. The anger he feels at America’s ‘preventive war’ against Iraq has been transformed into black humour and is expressed through the medium of posters that has strong links with his favourite medium —cinema. “I portray grim episodes through black humour. There are no ghastly images. That is represented all the time on TV,” he says on Thursday evening, a day before the opening of his exhibition, Thief of Baghdad, at CIMA Gallery. He calls them “chemical prints” using “digitography.” He has also painted two canvases on the same theme.

The title is a throwback to a silent Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford film he had seen as a child. Though Husain is quick to point out that in that film, the thief was “benevolent”. Here, he is “quite the opposite”. His images of a nubile princess being carried off by a mountebank have a strong graphic quality, with their fluid lines that occasionally become spiky, like barbed wire. The basic image is that of loot and pillage, the object of desire being black gold that the princess has in abundance inside her pitcher. The hero in close up wears a mask and a pencil-lined moustache. The heroine is veiled in mystery.

The curvaceous woman and firearm-toting uniformed thief occasionally give way to images of date palms and camels, of men in burnoose, the forms often simplified to the point of abstraction.

For Husain, this is not propaganda. He says the Marxists insisted that artists “must paint for people. But that is not a poetic vision. Tell me, is there any masterpiece that is a political statement'” For him, the “entire exercise was purely visual. You can’t ask a musician to sing in a battlefield till a war is stopped. That is ridiculous. One shouldn’t abuse one’s medium.”

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