Friday, April 16, 2010
The spiritual symbolism and teaching aids of Abdullah Dougan are discussed in this book review by Keith Hill
The Paintings of Abdullah Dougan
Editors: Maree Green, John Searle, Kitty Godwin, Pat Field
Designer: Jill Godwin
378 pp, hardcover, 23.5 cm x 24 cm, 168 colour illustrations
Gnostic Press, Auckland, 2009
Abdullah Dougan was an Auckland spiritual teacher who was self-educated, proudly working class, and definitely an iconoclast. Yet beneath his rough-hewn exterior was an approach to spirituality on both the theoretical and practical levels that was, for those who explored its implications, insightful, pragmatic and, in its depth and scope, revelatory.
Dougan presented his teachings in three forms: writing, music and the visual arts. These consist of a series of books, headed by the three volume The Quest, musical compositions collected as Solar Suite, and over 200 paintings and screen prints. The majority of the paintings are collected in this volume, which presents work from the period 1970 to 1979, and a handful from 1987.
In recent decades, spiritually oriented art has been viewed sceptically by the academic and commercial art world, due to a secular discomfort with the concept of spirituality, and to the way sentimentality seems so easily to creep into spiritually and religiously inspired work. However, what is surprising with Dougan’s work is not just the large number of intriguing images on display, but the surprising number that are striking, even stunning. Works such as Ecstasy (1975 – it also provides the book’s cover), Negative Anticipation (1975), North: Midday (1974), and The Koran (1974) are powerful in any context.
As is clear from those titles, these are abstract paintings that are inspired by abstract concepts, historical figures, or emotional or spiritual states. Abdullah Dougan’s overall intent, as he is quoted in the introduction, was “to use paintings to teach his own ideas as well as other people’s, and to show objectively man and his place in the universe.”
This didactic intent is well served by the way the editors have structured the book, dividing the paintings (and a small number of screenprints) into thematic groups, such as The States of Man, The Virtues, The Vices, Taoist Teaching, Negative Attitudes, and Positive States. A brief statement accompanies each painting, indicating its conceptual context. A weakness of didactic art is that it can easily become simplistic or reductive, being satisfied to merely illustrate an idea. On the whole, Dougan’s paintings avoid this trap. He does so by adopting two strategies.
The first is he uses colours to represent different concepts. Black represents the negative aspect of the Absolute, blue represents mankind, purple is humanity’s passions and negative emotions, green represents the Earth, orange is the Sun, red is the centre of the Galaxy, and white is God conceived of as the Absolute, which embraces everything that exists in the cosmos. These colours are intended to represent humanity in a cosmic context.
The second strategy is through the use of shapes. The spiral is the basic shape that appears repeatedly. But the spiral also includes the circle and the arc. And the number of spirals – primarily one, three or seven – offers further significance.
Applying these strategies to a painting such as Greed (1975), the background consists of shades of green, which represents the Earth, and indicates that humanity’s desires are Earth-bound. In the centre of the painting are seven interlinked hooks, purple in colour, which stretch from the top to the bottom of the frame. Purple symbolises mankind’s passions, and seven is significant because it refers to the Law of Seven, a concept drawn from the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff, one of Dougan’s principle spiritual influences. Gurdjieff considered that the Law of Seven manifests in endlessly repeating cycles of birth, growth and decay, as embodied in the seasons. In this painting, the cycle is of desiring, getting, and desiring again. Adding further meaning to the painting is that the purple hooks have touches of black and white in them, representing the positive and negative aspects of the Absolute, suggesting that greed has both positive and negative spiritual outcomes.
Another intriguing aspect is the way that the colour and shape strategies are used consistently throughout. This results in one painting illuminating another. The same colours used in Greed are repeated in Death to the Ego (1975). But this time the seven purple hooks are reiterated as seven spiral arms, while the green of Earth, the blue of humanity, and the black of the negative aspect of the Absolute are presented in different relations to one another. All this implicitly suggests how greed, a primarily negative state, may be transmuted into a positive spiritual state.
A principle objective behind Dougan’s paintings is to consider humanity in a cosmic context. An idea he shared with Gurdjieffian and Sufi thought (the Sufis were another of Dougan’s spiritual influences) is that the cosmos, and everything in it, originates from the Absolute. After forces emanate from the Absolute they are deflected down into lower levels of the cosmos. In the process their power also diminishes, until they either dissipate completely in the negative aspect of the Absolute, or they reach a nadir, gather their powers, and begin the journey back up through the levels of reality towards the Absolute.
In Dougan’s cosmic outlook, Ahura Mazda, historically known as the God of Zoroastrianism, is conceived of as being the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. In Dougan’s scheme, red is the colour of Ahura Mazda. In the painting Ahura Mazda (1975), the only colours are red, white and black, indicating that the centre of the Galaxy deflects the Absolute down towards the negative Absolute. The number three is repeated in this painting, a reference to the Law of Three, another of Gurdjieff’s ideas. The Law of Three refers to the activity of creation, which is considered to require three forces working in unison. Thus impregnation requires male, female, and the act that brings them together. The Law of Three can also be thought of as involving positive, negative and neutralising forces. In the painting of Ahura Mazda, then, the positive and negative aspects of the Absolute are reconciled in Ahura Mazda, which functions as the creative and transformative force that deflects the power of the Absolute into the Milky Way Galaxy.
What is interesting about all this is that red is also at the centre of the painting War (1975), and that it permeates Hate (1970) and Violence (1971). This implies that the violence in our existence comes to us from the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. This is certainly true in a cosmic sense, because suns and planets originate from supernova explosions. But the suggestion that the centre of the Galaxy is also the origin of the violence that exists in us physically and psychologically is an observation of another order.
As might be expected from a self-taught painter, the work presented here is uneven. In the very earliest work, the painting is sloppy, suggesting the idea was more important than the execution. Also in the early work, the use of house paint shows an admirable number-8 wire mentality, but the smeared effect, resulting from the lack of control of the brush, is to the paintings’ detriment. But by the mid-1970s, when Dougan had his materials under control and his ideas were flowing, he produced a series of powerfully suggestive works.
Dougan’s work was exhibited in public only once during his lifetime. It attracted little critical notice, but it did sufficiently impact on Colin McCahon that he visited Dougan, intrigued by his approach. Perhaps this book will engage a wider audience, and draw to Abdullah Dougan’s paintings the level of attention they undoubtedly warrant.
Keith Hill is a writer on spirituality, a film-maker, novelist and film editor. He attended Abdullah Dougan’s group meetings from 1975 to 1987.
Images in descending order are Ecstacy; Violence; North (Midday); Lord Hazrat; Greed; Death to the Ego; Ahura Mazda